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This is a review of the book Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey Through the Royal Mail which was published in hardback in 2008. It's a really unusual book which shows how much imagination the author Harriet Russell has. She is also an artist which helps as the illustrations are really good too.
What is it?
Since being a child, Harriet and her family were fascinated how some of the badly addressed mail reached their house through Royal Mail - the address was Shulbrede Priory, Linchmere, Haslemere, Surrey although they received many attempts and variations on this from would-be correspondents. The family collected over 270 examples where the address was incorrectly written. An introductory and explanatory page at the front of the book reads: "Challenging the postal system (Particularly the postman who delivers to my flat)."
Harriet sent herself 130 unusually addressed letters starting in 1998, using her Glasgow address and it seems the local sorting office rose to the increasing challenge of her decorated envelopes. Of the 130 she sent, 120 arrived and 75 are featured in the book. She also used her parents' address and friends addresses too when she felt that her Glasgow address was becoming too familiar at the postal sorting office.
The book has a foreword by Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, shoots and leaves which is quite humorous and gives you a good introduction to the book before you come to the illustrated pages.
Why it appealed to me
I do a lot of posting in my life, from ebay to swapping books and other things like posting surprises to my friends. I always like to make my parcels look a bit special and often get a raised eyebrow from the post office person when sending them! I like to use wallpaper, my beloved sticky back plastic, candy striped bags and even pages from the national geographic or books that have become tatty that have lovely illustrations in them. You'd be surprised what you can get away with (although I learned that string around parcels is strictly forbidden as it tangles the sorting machines!). I just reinforce any flimsy bits with wide clear sticky tape. Hence you can imagine why I loved this book.
Some of the envelopes are quite straight forward and decorated and some are cryptic. Here are a few examples:
- A crossword with the clues spelling out the address
- A shopping list containing the key words for the address
- A piece of text with letters and words circled in red that spelt out the address
- Paint by numbers
- Black pen on a black envelope
- Mirror writing with the stamp on the left
- A street map of the area with the house circled
All in all a bit of a crazy collection but after a while the local sorting office in Glasgow began writing 'Solved by Glasgow City sorting office' so they were obviously joining in with the spirit of Harriet's project.
The key here appears to be the postcode which in most cases is clearly printed on the envelope. Without that I doubt many would have made it. I think if everyone tried this, the RM would get annoyed and probably just put all the letters in a pile marked as undeliverable. I am actually amazed that nearly all the letters she posted to herself arrived. When the postie asked her flatmate who was sending the letters, her flatmate just said Harriet was an art student so it must be something to do with it and Harriet deliberately made sure she never spoke to her postman - I guess she didn't want to give the game away!
Price and availability
The book is priced £7.07 from The Book Depository website. It is only available in hardback. You can get used and new from Amazon too but it is currently more expensive than TBD. I got my copy from the swapping website Readitswapit.
It didn't take me long to read this book but I enjoyed flicking through it and taking a second look you are bound to find something you missed the first time round. I think it is an amusing and unique idea to post letters to yourself as a test of the Royal Mail and I'm sure some senior executives were impressed at the determination of their staff to deliver these missives despite their cryptic nature. Some even made it from abroad which was even more amazing. The book will not enthral for hours but if you know someone with a similar love of posting things (!) then this book may appeal to them.