Excerpt: Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by Postcode by Mark Mason
We all have a favourite anecdote about our hometown—author Mark Mason traversed the country to discover every silly story.
The postcode project
Mark Mason has the knack of turning his love for obscure but arresting facts into proper joined-up books. Now, having already written about walking the entire London Underground route at street level, and about travelling from Land’s End to John O’Groats by local buses, he’s set himself a new challenge: to find one killer fact—or, as he admits, piece of trivia—about every one of the UK’s 124 postcodes.
It’s a project that allows for plenty of breezy but sharp travelogue about modern Britain. (When he buys a road atlas at Watford Gap services, the assistant duly asks, “Would you like a chocolate bar with that?”) He also throws in lots about the Post Office—including the tragicomic news that in 1978 a stamp was printed and ready to go, celebrating Scotland’s World Cup win that year. We learn that telephone boxes were designed to be tall enough for a man wearing a top hat—and, less charmingly, that they soon had to be made with sloping floors because people were already using them as urinals.
Despite these recurring themes, it can’t be denied that the book’s structure remains fairly random, with Mason never trying too hard to hide his real aim—to tell us more or less anything he thinks we’ll find interesting. Luckily, he’s nearly always right. Almost every page contains at least one thing that you’ll be itching to startle your friends with.
We join him here as he’s pondering what his killer fact might be about postcode NN, for Northampton…
There’s Borough Hill in Daventry, from where the BBC’s Empire Service used to be broadcast. The announcement ‘Daventry calling’ was the reason the literal pronunciation became the accepted one—before that people said ‘Daintree’. There’s Corby, which although it didn’t invent the trouser press (that was done in Windsor by someone called Corby), has a crater on Mars named after it. This is in tribute to a conversation between Apollo 11 and mission control, who relayed Neil, Buzz and Mike items of news to help them feel bonded to their home planet. ‘In Corby,’ went one story, ‘an Irishman named John Coil won the World’s Porridge Eating Championship by consuming 23 bowls in ten minutes.’
Then there’s the country’s first ever arrest following a car chase. Sergeant Hector Macleod was our man behind the wheel in 1899, when he caught a Benz driven by a wanted criminal. The heady speed of 15mph was reached, though my favourite detail is the crime for which the man was wanted: selling counterfeit circus tickets.
Much of the material I unearth comes, like Macleod, from the Victorian era. Whenever you read about this period you come away feeling that Britain crammed more into those 64 years than we’ve managed in the rest of our history put together. It’s the inventions that always get you: there were so many of the things. Take Hiram Maxim. He’s most famous as the inventor of the machine gun, but he also held patents on a mousetrap, hair curlers and an automatic fire-sprinkler that didn’t just douse the flames, it alerted the nearest fire station too. One of Maxim’s other brainwaves was a steam inhaler for bronchitis sufferers called the Pipe of Peace. Criticised for pandering to ‘quackery’, Maxim replied: ‘It will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.’
But the award for greatest concentration of inventive talent per square yard surely goes to the Nottingham pitch that played host to a game of football in January 1891. This event, which makes a strong early claim to be my NG fact, is recorded as the first ever game to use goal nets. They were the recent creation of John Alexander Brodie, a civil engineer from Liverpool. Despite being responsible for the Mersey Tunnel and the initial planning of New Delhi, Brodie said the goal net was the invention of which he remained most proud. What I really love about the story is that it’s an example of how your assumptions can be challenged. The reason nets were needed is simple: to stop people having to run miles to retrieve the ball, right? Wrong. It was because there had been frequent arguments about whether the ball had passed inside or outside the post. The reason for the ‘greatest concentration’ title, meanwhile, is that the match referee was Sam Widdowson—inventor of the shin-pad.
Feature image via Jason Bye