I've never been convinced by Tolstoy's "all happy families are alike" statement at the start of Anna Karenina. It's not a claim that can ever be proved or refuted definitively, of course, especially as the terms are never sufficiently defined. All the same, judging purely by my own small experience of family, I can't help having my doubts.
For a start, I regard myself as coming from a happy family, and yet my parents are divorced. I suspect Count Tolstoy would therefore argue that a) we aren't actually a proper family and b) we can't possibly have been happy. Yet we are - or were; sadly, my father is dead - in our own peculiar way.
Additionally, I have now created my own offshoot of the mother-ship family unit, and, while I would claim it fits fairly neatly into Tolstoy's category, I can't say it looks particularly like anyone else's version of a happy family
On the other hand, had Tolstoy rejigged his statement and started Anna Karenina with the statement, "All post offices are alike", I wouldn't be able to raise a single objection. I probably wouldn't have gone on to read the rest of Anna Karenina, mind you, but would that have mattered? At least the great man would have been articulating a genuinely unarguable, universal truth.
Sadly, Tolstoy let his readers down on this point - which was why it took me until last Tuesday afternoon to recognise it for myself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was in a post office at the moment that the revelation came to me.
Strangely enough, in superficial terms, the post office I was in was actually somewhat unusual. That is to say, it was not grimy, or cluttered with cheap plastic gadgets and second-rate cookbooks that no-one would think of buying unless they had been driven mad by standing in a queue for over half an hour. In fact, it appeared to have been fairly recently renovated. Instead of dirty linoleum floors and bare fluorescent tubes on the ceiling and dirty little marks on the wall where a decade ago some notice had been sellotaped to the effect that post office workers were no longer supplying some service the public wanted or that the Post Master General had decreed that customers couldn't send parcels between the hours of three and four thirty on Thursday afternoons, there were clean floor tiles and the walls were freshly painted. I suspect there were countless plastic-coated wire bins, filled with discounted neck cushions and fridge magnets and CDs of the collected works of Nana Mouskouri, lurking out the back, where they'd been shoved during the recent renovations, but on the day I was there the place felt curiously spacious - and almost, (but not quite - stuffiness is a prerequisite of post offices), airy.
Still the main ingredients were present. To begin with, there was the traditional post office queue. And behind the counter there was the same combination of personalities that occupy positions behind all post office counters all over the world.
At the end nearer to me - teller number 4, as the computerised queuing system called him, (no, I don't know why the numbering system started in the distance and moved upwards as it grew closer to the customers) - was the obligatory slightly prickly old guy with thick glasses and unwashed hair, the one who refuses to smile or meet your eye and, if he possibly can, continues a conversation with one of his colleagues while serving you. To either side of him, (tellers numbers 3 and 5), were the standard pair of middle-aged women, both of whom appear to spend their spare time experimenting with harsh shades of hair dye - usually in the bright orange spectrum. The scrawny version with wacky spectacles, whose main pleasure is telling customers that things are not possible, sat to his left; the overweight one, who is usually dressed in something floral that looks like it might once have covered a sofa, to his right.
Teller number 2 was missing, and teller number 1, way out on a limb on his ergonomic chair at the far end of the counter, was the perennial young guy, the one who has either a nose ring, or tattoos, or a pink mohican, the one who believes he is still autonomous and hip and is only doing post office work for a year or two, before departing in a blaze of some kind of glory, (little does he know that he will in fact eventually become teller number 4, complete with the glasses, the prickly manner, [it's the disappointment, I'm guessing] and the unwashed hair.
All of them exuded the universal post office worker air of tired, very barely concealed irritation. I suppose the job is pretty dull, and I can see that it must be annoying to have to keep getting up to go and fetch parcels from the back. Rifling through folders to find the right sort of stamp, turning your body slightly to reach the weighing machine on which you place envelopes, must also get tiresome. Nevertheless, the level of dispiritedness among post office workers seems disproportionate. It is as if expectations have been severely dashed, as if each one of these workers entered the employment of the post office with glittering visions of themselves engaged in some other kind of activity dancing in their heads,
What were they imagining, I wonder. There can be few jobs that are more straightforward, where there is less scope for self-deception about glamour in the workplace than a job in a post office. What is more they do have stamps, (not the adhesive kinds but the inky ones you thump down on documents - I saw quite a lot of that going on during my time waiting, and no-one can convince me that that part of the job isn't downright therapeutic).
I suppose though that it's the customers that get them down.
Not that we are all bad of course, but I have noticed that, if you end up waiting in there long enough, (and you usually do, not through choice), there is generally one customer who turns up and decides he cannot tolerate the way the post office is run. The most memorable I've witnessed of these characters was many years ago in a post office in Kensington Church Street. That strange creature who claims to have wifelets came among us and before very long he decided to kick up a fuss. I suppose it was predictable that he would have a sense of entitlement - although up close his unattractiveness is considerable, I guess there must be women out there who cannot see the man for the house he owns and the combination of their fawning attentions, his title and his considerable inheritance may shield him from the fact that he is ugly and charmless to the naked eye.
Anyway, on Tuesday we did not manage a Marquess, (or not one I recognised). Instead, we were served up a pantomime Frenchman, straight out of Allo Allo, (or my idea of Allo Allo, as I've never actually watched it). He was dressed in torn jeans, espadrilles, a battered straw hat and a blue artist's smock. He carried a woman's (as an Anglo, it looked to me like a female accessory, but these foreigners ...) shopping basket, which had a silk scarf tied to one of its leather handles. He sported a droopy moustache and a pair of David Hockney tortoise-shell spectacles that had lost one arm - these last I think were by way of a prop, as he spent more time gesticulating with them than wearing them, (although possibly, had he worn them, he might not have got confused about how the system at the post office worked in the first place and the resulting fracas might never have occurred).
Anyway, whether because of his tendency not to wear his spectacles or for some other reason, the Frenchman failed to spot where the queue ended. He then attempted to barge in and be served ahead of a pensioner with a hearing aid. The pensioner was standing at the part of the counter presided over by the scrawny woman with the flame-dyed hair and multi-coloured glass frames. She took the opportunity to give the spectacles waving Frenchman a tongue lashing.
Having tried and failed to fight his corner, he retreated and started trying to wrangle the other waiting customers onto his side instead. As his approach was to complain about 'These bloody Belgians', he made very limited progress. In fact, I had the impression he might end up with a fight on his hands. Sadly though, as events were accelerating to a showdown I completed my business. As I'm not a fan of boxing and I'd already wasted enough time, I left before anything kicked off.
What I did find out later though was that all post offices are also alike in inefficiency. Having gone there for one purpose - to send a letter by express trackable mail - and having been given a tracking number that I was assured would enable me to follow my envelope from Uccle to my bank in London, (and having paid the amazingly enormous amount of 35 euros for the service), when I sat down the next morning at the computer and fed the number into the computer, this is all I got in reply: