When putting together the presentation for the launch of my book In the Wake of the Coup, I mentioned in a slide that increased apathy, and the rise of people no longer voting in elections, had been one of the sparks that sent my thoughts whirring.
Apathy and my feelings about it required a photograph. But what image to use? Then it hit me. On my computer, amongst other old family photographs, I have one of my grandmother with her colleagues, all of whom worked in the postal service during the First World War.
My grandmother was quite a suffragette in her own way, and although she always had my grandfather’s slippers heating by the range fire when he returned home from work on a cold winter evening, and his meal on the table as soon as his hands were washed, her children were in little doubt as to the role she played within the wider family. A woman who never had much, yet always had something to spare for others, she was the saviour to whom family and friends turned when in need of help or advice. Having supported the campaign for votes for women, she never failed to use her vote, and instilled into me at a young age the value of mine.
In the UK before 1914, Post Office communications – holiday postcards, letters and parcels, the telegraph and telephone — were vital to businesses and everyday life. The Post Office was one of the largest businesses in the world. With the outbreak of war it additionally provided a link between those fighting at the fronts and their loved ones at home.
During the war married women were recruited to take the places of men away fighting, keeping vital postal services running. After the war most of these women lost their jobs. However their time in the workplace had added strength to the growing demand for equal rights for women and for the vote.
On the outbreak of the First World War my grandmother had three young children. In days before childcare or nurseries I wonder who looked after them. Two of her brothers died during the war and one died later as a result of his injuries, so it must have been a difficult time for her family, as it was for so many others.
In the UK last week the postal service my grandmother worked for all those years ago was privatised. The Royal Mail has been sold off and its shares floated on the Stock Exchange, much to the joy of some, the disappointment of others and the concern of many people who live in rural areas and the remoter parts of the country.
The apathy that sparked the idea for my book remains, indeed grows. In the UK’s first past the post voting system it is now only voters who live in a few swing constituencies whose votes decide which party forms the government.
If she were still alive, I am certain my grandmother would feel disappointed that the votes of such a small number of people determine the ruling party, policies whose consequences we all live with (such as the privatisation of the postal service), and its channelling of the way we live our lives. And I can almost see her now, rolling up her sleeves, jabbing hairpins back into her hair and wondering who she can enlist in a campaign to make the votes she worked for, the people casting them and those who feel excluded or apathetic about the political system, count again.