Saturday, September 11, 2010

Kafkaesque: an ordinary morning in Newhaven

Eight days ago, a note was pushed through my door. My surname and house number were printed on it in biro. The suggestion was that a parcel awaited me because I wasn't in when the van driver called.

I couldn't guess what the parcel might contain so was keen to get it delivered. I'd not heard of the Home Delivery Network before but hoped it would be as straightforward as collecting a parcel through Royal Mail: wait 24 hours and then pick it up after queuing for a few minutes at the local depot. First, I went to the website which Firefox warned me was dodgy and that I shouldn't visit. Then the site insisted my postcode was invalid, so I couldn't access the system there. While the call centre – which I called to have the delivery rescheduled – had a record of the parcel, it had no delivery address and no tracking data. I put the phone down with the mystery unresolved.

Yesterday, having no more news, no more notes through the door, I decided to cycle to the nearest depot in Newhaven, the continental ferry port nine miles east of Brighton (Royal Mail's is within walking distance). Although it would be the furthest I'd cycled since my accident nearly three years ago and, worse, along a busy, severely undulating clifftop road, I wanted to guarantee taking possession of the parcel. By now I had guessed it was Mathias Énard's Zone and was even more keen. However, the call centre said it could be picked up only between eight and twelve midday on Saturday. So, today instead, I set off in hope and a bright orange rain jacket. Waves were crashing over the marina cobb as I passed and, as the cliffs began, a new sign offering counselling to potential suicides blocked the view over the supermarket car park below. I could tell it wasn't going to be easy.

Newhaven is an English town familiar to those born and raised outside London: low-rise, run down and apparently uninhabited. It is parasitic of the mouth of the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned and, where I crossed on the swing bridge, the thick paste of mud on the banks held in place a rusty, delapidated fishing boat covered in torn and flapping tarpaulin. The best thing about the town is the shell of the Conservative Club gutted by fire.

When I found the depot down a concrete road on an industrial estate, I became part of a small crowd of fellow parcel collectors. We queued in a narrow hall outside a window in a wall with décor from the 1970s except for the digital clock. One woman couldn't stay there because the flickering flourescent light threatened an epileptic fit. The receptionist called for our tickets and we handed them over with proof of identity. "We don't have your address", I was told, so I handed over an envelope addressed to me.

– Don't you know it?
– Yes. It's there, on the paper.
– But you don't seem to know your address.
– What?
– You had to get a piece of paper to show your address.
– Yes, you asked for proof of address, so I brought some.
– What's your postcode?

I spoke my full address and postcode without looking at the paper and the person left to descend into the bowels of the building. In the twenty or thirty minutes we waited for our parcels there was unanimous criticism of HDN's customer service. "I work long hours so how can I be at home all day waiting for a delivery?"; "Why don't they deliver on a Saturday - we could guarantee being in"; "The website says my postcode is invalid"; "You can't blame the staff but they don't have to be rude."

Miraculously, my parcel was found. Only it wasn't Mathias Énard's Zone. However, given all that went before, it seems appropriate that it was this beautiful book instead.

Folio Society


  1. I remember going through a similar rigmarole with Parcelfarce (to give them their official, hilarious, title), who had an automated telephone redelivery service, which used voice recognition. Regional accent problems aside, the most mystifying part was that it insisted on using my postcode to identify my nearest Post Office to which the parcel was to be redirected. But, like most people, I don't work near my home, and I wanted it to be redirected to the Post Office near my work, not the Post Office near my home. Impossible. In the end I had to drive to the depot, several miles away and off the motorway, to pick it up.

    Probably all you need to know about Home Delivery Network is on this page. Though I have to add that, if they were the people who delivered my copy of the above book, then I have no complaints, as they did so at 6:30pm - when I was at home but Mrs S wasn't, so she couldn't see that yet another bloody book had come into the house.

  2. Thanks John. Did you have the same warning when visiting their useless website?

    What I didn't write about here was the return journey: *by far* the worst experience I've had on a bicycle (mainly because I can't remember the obvious worse one). No accidents this time apart from the chain falling off.

    Somehow I'm glad I got the book like this because it adds sentimental value to what is also a joyous collection of stories.

  3. I love your blog... refreshing..

    Thought you might be interested in my blog. I run a collaborative blog - Literary works about growing up, family, and beginnings in general (expressed in a variety of mediums!) Submissions go to
    Let me know what you think!
    Thanks for your support...

  4. I didn't have to visit the site at the time, Steve, as I was in when they delivered the book, but I just visited it now (using IE8) and have been warned not to enter as there is a problem with the site's security certificate.

  5. Received a DO NOT ENTER warning. Obeyed it.



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