Shut that gate!

“Go and shut the gate, darling” is a request that must be heard in countless houses just after the postman has been. Postmen almost always leave the front gate of a house open, and if you like it shut, someone has to go out and shut it. There are only a few postmen — usually brisk, cheerful men — who do it themselves. 

This is not just a matter of a dog coming in and urinating on the flowers in the front garden. The postman’s indifference to the gate is a graver matter. It is a matter both of courtesy on his part, and of duty. Courtesy speaks for itself, practised or not. Duty is what needs looking into here.

The privatisation of Royal Mail is now being investigated by Parliament, and there has never been a better moment for the service to introduce some changes. One change it should now make is to require of its postmen, as part of their duty under their contract, that they should close gates behind them. It would be a simple but not a trivial change. It would require a whole new attitude from the postman towards his work. No longer would that be just the utilitarian business of shoving the letters through the door.  It would impose an enlargement of his concern from the letters to the person receiving them.

TNT, which has now started delivering mail too, enters the picture here. It has announced that it will pay its postmen by the speed with which they work. That can only make matters worse. A rapid change in its policy is needed from TNT too.

Making postmen close gates would of course be a case of enforced civility, and nowadays civil behaviour — like any other behaviour — is only thought to be “authentic”, and therefore desirable, if it comes from the heart. But the heart is not good enough. The consequences of one’s behaviour are also important. And if authentic impulses do not produce the desired result, then enforcement — in the shape of a work contract freely entered into by both parties — is not in the least reprehensible.

Moreover, a habit of doing something decently can come to embed itself in the heart. Indeed if, besides postmen, everybody in a job were strictly required by their terms of employment to act correctly in these small-seeming ways, what a great change might embed itself in the manners — and perhaps in the heart too — of the whole nation. Strait — and properly closed — is the gate that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.

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