Monday, 6 October 2014

It’s Happening Again

Yes! The day has finally arrived, my friends. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks returns for a new series on Showtime in 2016. But until then, you'll have to amuse yourself with all-new episodes of Strangehaven which returns in the new British anthology Meanwhile...

According to my sources, Meanwhile…#1 has been printed and is even as I type finding its way through various distribution and shipping systems to earlybird subscribers, reviewers and, hopefully, contributors. To everyone but me apparently.
Strangehaven panel from Meanwhile...#1. Art by Gary Spencer Millidge
Official on-street publication date is 17th October 2014 which un-coincidentally falls during the Lakes International ComicFestival in Kendall which I will be attending, and at which I will be signing copies at my publisher’s table – Soaring Penguin Press, in the Comics Clock Tower.

For those of you who are unable to attend the festival, please enquire at your friendly local comic book shop, and point them towards my publisher. You could also order this momentous first issue directly from the publisher’s website yourself, or even take out a four-issue subscription.
10 Minutes by Yuko Rabbit
How about US distribution I hear you cry? Well, I hear ya, and the news is good – Diamond Distributors will be carrying the book stateside and it will be listed in the December cover dated Previews under the Soaring Penguin heading.

So here’s what you’ll get for your money –

Sixteen pages of Strangehaven in colour. I’ll repeat that; IN COLOUR. It’s the first part of the fourth volume which is due to be serialised over the next couple of years in the pages of Meanwhile…and it’s the first time you’ll have seen any Strangehaven stories in anything other than shades of grey.
The Bad Bad Place by David Hine and Mark Stafford.
This first issue also contains first episodes of two more continuing series: “The Bad Bad Place” by the dynamic duo of David Hine and Mark Stafford, neither of whom should be unfamiliar to the comics cognoscenti, and both of whom have been around for at least as long as I have, creating great comics. There’s also “10 Minutes” by Yuko Rabbit, an exquisitely drawn mangaesque fairytale.
Art from Melody Baker by Chris Geary.
An interesting late addition to the package are the three winners of this year’s British Library Comics Unmasked competition, each of them exciting new talents. There are also a wordless one-off strip by Sally Jane Thompson, “Heavy” and a sci-fi spy adventure starring, “Melody Baker” by Chris Geary. All fifty-six fantastic pages wrapped up in an all-new Millidge cover.

There are other Strangehaven-related developments to be announced in due course, but for now, see if you can pick yourself up a copy of Meanwhile…#1

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

On My Way to the Lakes

Fabulous festival poster art by Jonathan Edwards
Okay, so I can finally confirm that I will be attending the Lakes International Comic Art Festival next month (17-19th October). This will be my first comic event appearance in an official capacity in a couple of years or so, and I will be signing copies of Meanwhile...#1 at the Soaring Penguin table in the Comics Clock Tower at certain times over the weekend.

I expect there'll also be copies of the three Strangehaven trade paperbacks for sale. I may even have some original art with me, but Kendal is a long train ride from Leigh-on-Sea, so it might depend on how my shoulder's feeling the morning of travel.

I was invited by Bryan Talbot during its inaugural event last year, but it seemed like a waste with nothing to promote, but the timing couldn't be more perfect this year, with the launch of the new Meanwhile...and all of its Strangehaven goodness therein.

The Lakes has announced a really diverse and eclectic mix of guests including Jeff Smith, Scott McCloud and Joost Swarte, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it matches up to its rapidly growing reputation.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Not Long Now...

Well now, let’s see, it may have been quite some time since I've written a blog post, but in my defence, I suspect that most people reading this would rather I be doing something like drawing the next episode of Strangehaven, as opposed to blogging about the last film I saw or my problems with my air conditioning unit.

But it appears that my hand has been forced by the not totally unexpected, yet still surprising (to me at least) appearance of Meanwhile…#1 on the Soaring Penguin Press website yesterday. If this is what’s called being ‘in the loop,’ then I do hope I never fall out of it.

Just to recap, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Strangehaven is returning in all-new stories as part of a new (technically revived) ongoing British anthology book called Meanwhile… (complete with those three little dots at the end). It was originally announced for publication in May, but, for numerous reasons, almost all entirely my fault I'm sure, the first issue has been bumped to this autumn. It says October on the tiny little cover repro, and we’re supposed to be doing some fancy launch at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (17-19th October 2014) assuming it arrives back from the printer in Latveria in time.

So yes folks, it looks like it’s really happening. You can pre-order it on the aforementioned Soaring Penguin Press website, and I am confidently predicting that it will be available from all the very best British comic retailers in the subsequent period. I have no idea what form of distribution Meanwhile… will enjoy in the US or the rest of the world at this stage, so please direct all enquiries to the publisher.
It’s sort of odd not being in charge of that sort of thing, let alone not even knowing anything about it, but without Soaring Penguin’s support, Strangehaven would still be some way off any kind of publication. So, be grateful for small mercies.

Anyway, I don’t know exactly what I'm at liberty to say about it, other than what’s on the website, but it will be a 52-page ‘golden-age’ format comic book (i.e. a bit wider than your usual comic), containing a mixture of colour and black and white strips. There’s a sixteen page episode of Strangehaven which follows on from issue 18 of the regular series (or from the end of Conspiracies if you've followed the series in collected form), as well as a new continuing series from the excellent team who brought you The Man Who Laughs, David Hine and Mark Stafford. There are also contributions from Chris Geary, Yuko Rabbit and Sally Jane Thompson. As a bonus, there are all three winning single-page strips from the 2014 British Library and Arts Thread Comics Unmasked Competition.
Oh, and that’s a Millidge cover right there.

If I get the time and permission, I might try to post a few more previews of the book, but seriously, if you haven’t heard enough to want to order it by now…dude! I mean, come on!

One more thing while I remember, any former Strangehaven subscribers who haven’t responded to my letter or email about transferring or refunding their subscription balance, really need to contact me as soon as possible. You guys have probably moved house and/or email address since I last published and forgotten all about it, so get to it, guys!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Happy Holidays


To one and all, I wish you festive fun for the holiday season, however you celebrate and whatever you believe in, but most of all I sincerely wish you peace, love, health and happiness throughout the forthcoming year. 

And remember: Enjoy comics responsibly.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Long Awaited Return of...

Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an Imaginary story! 
Strangehaven will return in May 2014.

Those of you who have been patiently (and not-so-patiently) awaiting news of the next issue of Strangehaven since they read issue #18 many moons ago may want to read that again. I’ll wait.

Strangehaven will return in May 2014.

Yes, after an unanticipated and overlong hiatus, Strangehaven will indeed return in May 2014. New episodes, written and drawn by me will appear (starting in the first issue) in a newly revived comics anthology, Meanwhile… published by Soaring Penguin Press.

That is to say, as of this point, Strangehaven will no longer be self-published as a standalone comic, but instead will be one of the attractions included a new anthology comic from a fast-growing British independent publisher.

Serious Strangehaven collectors may be recall a previous version of Meanwhile… sporting a Millidge cover and including a four-page strip way back in 2001, and indeed this is the same title from the same publisher. As I understand it, the new Meanwhile… will feature a mixture of continuing and self-contained comics in a new format bimonthly.
I anticipate there will be 13-14 pages of Strangehaven per issue, which when complete will effectively comprise the fourth volume.

So, why am I not self-publishing? It was certainly always my intention to continue and complete the series as a self-published title, but due to various professional, personal and financial reasons (the full account will have to wait for another time) it simply hasn’t been possible for me to do so.
But for the past year or so I have been actively preparing for its return and trying to find a way of delivering it to my readers. In a nutshell, I needed time to sit down and draw it (and in a freelancer’s world, time literally is money) and to do that I needed some sort of advance on royalties, and in the comics world this usually means surrendering at least some of the intellectual rights – which after already spending twelve years or so writing and drawing the series, I was not prepared to give up.

And the amount of time (i.e. money) required for me to finish the fourth volume is significant enough that any private funding (by way of private investor or Kickstarter) would be difficult to secure because of the length of time between funding and delivery.

Step forward John Anderson, Soaring Penguin publisher, with an offer that included things like advances on royalties and no claim to copyright. As John will testify, I still took a lot of convincing (temporarily at least) to abandon my self-publishing philosophy, and the contract details took a while to iron out. Ultimately, I had to choose between this opportunity to get the fourth volume of Strangehaven completed and out into my reader’s hands, or to let it remain in limbo while I continued to figure out a way of having my cake and eating it.

So, although this solution compromises my purest principles of independence, I figure that my readers would rather see new episodes however they were emerged, than to wait for some further unspecified period. And, so do I. It’s been far, far too long people.

I understand that Meanwhile… will be available in electronic format courtesy the SEQUENTIAL app, and the print version will be available in all of the finest UK and US comics stores (full distribution details still being ironed out) or direct from Soaring Penguin.

For those of you who are planning on ‘waiting for the trade’ – the intention is that the fourth volume will be serialised in the anthology in twelve parts over a period of approximately two years, and obviously, any subsequent collection won’t appear until some time after that. It’s too early to say any more at this stage.

After hearing John’s plans for this new project, Meanwhile… will rock, and I hope that you’ll support this ambitious endeavour. Please consider signing up to my email newsletter by entering your e-address into the box in the right-hand column, to be informed of developments. Or you can follow this blog, or keep in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

Strangehaven is on its way back, friends. Rejoice.


Note to current Strangehaven subscribers: I have been making efforts to contact each of you regarding the outstanding issues of your subscriptions via email, social media and for those of you who I don’t any other contact for, via regular mail. It’s likely some of these contacts are out of date, so please, if you believe you have a current subscription, please contact me via my usual email address.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

T-Bubs-13: A Busman’s Holiday



This year’s Thought Bubble festival was a little different for me in that I didn't have a table, or indeed any panel or signing duties, so in effect I was there as a regular punter, albeit on a bit of a busman’s holiday. And I have to admit that it was not only stress-free but more than just as much fun, if somewhat more tiring due to all the extra walking.

With a third hall added and so much to see, it took me most of the weekend to visit all the exhibitors once – and many of those I had only the time for a cursory look. The quality and diversity of items on show was astounding, from self-publishing minicomic authors to growing British publishers of graphic novels like Blank Slate and Self Made Hero. There was a smattering of comic dealers and merchandisers, but the main emphasis as usual was on independent and alternative creators and publishers, artists and craft people.

International guests this year read like a who’s who of independent comics and included the likes of Brandon Graham, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Matt Fraction, Geof Darrow, David Aja, Fiona Staples and Sean Gordon Murphy plus the usual vast number of domestic creators, almost none of whom I saw, let alone spoke to. Although I did have a brief chat with my old pal JeffreyBrown on his triumphant return to these shores.

This year I opted to visit by train and therefore had the ideal excuse not to massively overspend as I did last year and so only collected a modest number of relatively lightweight pieces. For the many books I planned to buy at a later date I took a photo with my ageing-but-trusty 3GS as a handy reminder.

Things that I did pick up included an example of Dan Berry’s delicate wash tones in his latest comic Carry Me, I finally caved in and bought the first volume of Kate Ashwin’s Widdershins and I celebrated news of Chelsea’s 3-0 away win at West Ham by buying a copy of fellow Blues fan Sean Azzopardi’s Trees sketchbook mini. I was also unable to resist Dave West’s latest tome Robot Shorts, an overdue purchase of Kate Brown’s Fish + Chocolate, Giant Days#2 from John Allison (who promptly returned my purchase money for my Movember fund), the latest Curia Regis from the multi-talented Robin Hoelzemann, the first comic by a fresh young creator Jack Devereaux, Next Stop Space and grabbled the new Verity Fair from wily old Terry Wiley.
Dan Berry & the Suitcase
John Allison
Dave West and his Robot Shorts
While waiting in line to congratulate Cameron Stewart on his superb Sin Titulo hardcover which I coincidentally had read a few weeks ago, I witnessed a truly generous, beautiful thing that Cameron did for a young fan (which I won’t detail here because it’s the sort of knowledge that could lead to him being taken advantage of in the future). At a time when some comics professionals are coming in for a lot of brickbats, it was a heart-warming gesture by a true gentleman.

I must also say thanks to the immaculately groomed BrendenFletcher, co-writer of Assassin’s Creed : Brahman who kept me entertained while I waited for master brush wielder Becky Cloonan to return from a panel and sign my copy of her latest mini-comic Demeter.

In addition, namechecks are due to those I had long and short chats with, including an old self-publishing contemporary Marc Laming, the always elegant and charming Yishan Li, demure Daryl Cunningham, con circuit stalwart Martin Eden, psychedelic Sally Anne Hickman, the appropriately attired Sarah McIntyre, dapper Woodrow Phoenix and cartoonist extraordinaire Roger Langridge.

Such was the chaos, I barely acknowledged the ubiquitous Al Davison, Paul Rainey, Sean Phillips and Tim Perkins, had time only to punch Frazer Irving in the arm, and didn’t even get a chance to speak to David Lloyd at the Aces Weekly table. I also failed miserably to engage with Gary Northfield, Mark Buckingham, D’Israeli, Philippa Rice and sadly didn’t get to meet the extraordinary James E Snelling as intended.

A big highlight was discovering the wordless comic Butterfly Gate, the latest from the creators of Porcelain, Ben Read and Chris Wildgoose, a previously unknown self-publishing creative team who have apparently emerged into the industry fully formed. They’re both charming guys and not satisfied with those two fantastic projects, were already giving away stunning previews of their next, Briar.

My former how-to-draw-books collaborator James McKay was highly visible this year, giving away free copies of a book he conceived and edited with Ben Dickson, Dreams of a Low Carbon Future. A project created from the visions of hundreds of schoolchildren, PhD researchers and academics (from the University of Leeds and the Royal Academy of Engineering) and comics professionals and resulting in an amazingly coherent graphic novel. Impressive stuff.
Another University science project giveaway was the newspaper format Asteroid Belter, put together by students at Newcastle Uni and includes a two-pager by the wonderful Nigel Auchterlounie.

To my delight, awesome illustrator/cartoonist type Dean Beattie – from whom I bought a couple of prints from some while ago – has drawn and published his own comic Random Trials, which at first look seems to demonstrate that Dean has storytelling ability to go with his fantastic draughtsmanship.

I almost missed meeting up with eternal pessimist Dave Hitchcock, but bumped into him while he was killing time before his train and got to see some of his spectacular original artwork, including some marvellous unpublished material and well as hearing about his latest disaster stories.
Cinebook - bringing French to the English
It took some time to browse the impressive selection of translated French albums from Cinebook whose line keeps on growing year on year, and an affordably priced entry point into la bande dessinée for the English language reader, a publishing project that deserves to be fully supported by the entire alt/indy comics community.

Graphic novel specialists Blank Slate, Nobrow and Self MadeHero continue to make a huge impression at the event, with a continuous medley of creators like Frederick Peeters, Glyn Dillon, David Hine, Mark Stafford and the ever-lovin’ Ilya, all signing European festival style; so many lovely new books, reluctantly none of which I bought due to my self-imposed weight restrictions.

Base camp for the weekend was the shared exhibitor space of amiable Al Nolan (and his range of ‘gentle murder mysteries for kids’) and embroidery artist Bridgeen Gillespie (and her greatly admired hoops) who also were my con buddies out-of-hours. Better company for evening meals and pub drinks would be hard to find.

It was terrific to just hang and chill with Pádraig ÓMéalóid and his lovely wife Deirdre Walsh in person, and to finally got to meet the charming Amber Moore after all these years - although I only had the briefest re-acquaintance with the Reppion-Moores, John and Leah. 
The place was positively awash with journalistic types - it was great to meet the man-mountain Gary Gray, the not-as-scary-as-you-might-think Laura Sneddon, Steve Morris of the Beat and the ever-youthful Matt Badham. I also bumped into Paul Gravett, complimented him on his new Comics Art book and asked him who Brian Moore was.

I think my favourite innovation of the festival was the Tea Bubs Bar. A pop-up coffee house where you could give your weary legs a rest, relax and enjoy your refreshments, keep an eye on all of the three venues at the same time. I received a mid-tea-queue bear hug from Oscar Zarate when he finally recognised me without all that long hair.

In fact I spent so long meeting people and perusing the exhibitors’ wares that I miserably failed to attend even a single panel or other daytime event, despite my earnest intention to do so this year. Note to organisers: there is simply too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Please create some sort of time-stasis field so we get a chance to enjoy everything properly.
Party!
I did however enjoy the delights of the legendary Thought Bubble mid-convention party, once again held at the spectacularly-domed and multi-levelled Corn Exchange. Even with a vast Christmas tree on the dance floor and a DJ with an unfathomable playlist, it didn’t stop many of the attendees getting’ their freak on, while others queued for drinks and ate sausages. I also got a long overdue hug from that Swedish girl.

A new hall for exhibitors had been added this year to satisfy the demand for tables after the initial number of slots sold out in two hours. In addition to the usual New Dock Hall (the big dark one) and Royal Armouries Hall (the smaller bright one), was the barely-ready-in-time Allied London Hall which housed the unlucky exhibitors who failed to make the initial cut. Haphazardly-placed fluorescent tubes and heaters, some sort of dust hanging in the air like a fine fog and a smell of aerosol paint (used to create some rather impressive comic-themed murals) created a slightly surreal, illicit atmosphere.
Footfall seemed to be lesser than the other two well-established halls, although both those appeared somewhat busier than last year, especially on Sunday.  In fact at peak times, parts of New Dock Hall were impassable, due to heavy interest in the big-name signings.

The popular view is that more exhibitors (assuming the same number of attendees) mean less money spent at each table, making it difficult for those exhibitors to make a profit (I don’t know the numbers of attendees for his year). There are always winners and losers of course, but even the relative losers that I spoke to just seemed happy to be part of it all such was the positive vibe of the event.
It’ll be interesting to see how Thought Bubble develops from here. I have no idea whether the new space is permanent, or whether the convention will revert to its original size next year. Certainly the overwhelming impression I got was yet another year of huge success and stellar achievement for Clark, Lisa and the army of redcoats, and you can put down the minor issues with Allied London Hall as a symptom of growing pains.

With the recent establishment of the London Super Comic Con and the new Lakes Comic Art Festival in Kendal, is Thought Bubble still the best comic-related event in the UK? I suppose it depends on what it is you’re looking for exactly, but if it’s wide-ranging diversity of products, excellent organisation, a cool friendly vibe and Roller Derby girls as security that you want, then it’s no contest.

From a punter’s viewpoint, it was pretty much the perfect comics event and I will find it hard to stay away in 2014. I suspect there will be a few thousand more feeling the same way. Book early.

You can see some of my purchases from this year's Thought Bubble Festival on my experimental Tumblr blog Comicapaloozarama.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Electronic Al


This week Alan Moore celebrates his 60th birthday, and much of the comics community will be celebrating along with him.
(I’ll assume you know who he is and the part he’s played in elevating the comics art form to unprecedented heights. If you don’t know who he is, then please do yourself a favour and find out. )

That means that it’s ten years since I published the English language edition of  Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, a massive 350-page volume crammed with mostly-new birthday tributes of comics, illustrations and text pieces from 145 different creators, a collection edited by me and my Italian chum smoky man.

My own contribution was a twelve-page comic strip collage, the similarly-titled “Alan Moore: An Extraordinary Gentleman,” a potted history of the Bard of Northampton’s life to date, intended to serve as both an extended introduction to the book, and to the subject of the book.

Now, ten years on, “AlanMoore: An Extraordinary Gentleman” is finally getting published for the first time in full colour - not only that, it has been extensively updated, upgraded and corrected (with a great deal of thanks to Pádraig Ó Méalóid for that). Images have been replaced, errors have been fixed, panels have been re-sequenced and four pages’-worth of new material has been added.
Unfortunately for Moore collectors though, this new publication will be exclusively available through SEQUENTIAL’s digital platform for download in electronic form to your iPad. The good news is that Sequential are making this available free of charge.
So you can fill your digital boots via the SEQUENTIAL iPad app here.


This may also very well be my first digital comic – certainly the first digital-only one. (I was unable to ascertain whether my Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror strip “From Hell and Back” is - or has been - available in electronic form).
You may ask, why after only three years or so since my book Alan Moore: Storyteller, do I feel the need to retread this same territory again? You may also ask, why make it available only as an electronic version? The answer to both the questions is that because Russell Willis of Panel 9’s Sequential asked me to do so.
At first I resisted, having already turned down a couple of similar offers during the course of the preceding decade, but Russell won me over because he treated me like a professional and offered me money. I was looking for some new freelance work, and I was also looking to undertake more comics-related projects, so this seemed like a reasonable solution for all parties involved.


I do apologise to those who have no iPad and prefer their comics in physical form, but I can totally sympathise as I don’t own one myself either. For the foreseeable future the only way you’ll be able to own this shiny new version is in digital form.
But if you haven’t got it already, you physical book lovers can console yourself with a copy of with my own Harvey-nominated, lavish visual biography, Alan Moore:Storyteller, available from all good booksellers.

Alternately, if you already have Storyteller or merely can’t get enough of reading about the Magus, there is also a rather lovely new Alan Moore biography which has just been published, MagicWords: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore written by Lance Parkin.
Parkin was the author of the original Moore biography the AlanMoore: the Pocket Essential Guide (which was the basis for my strip biography for Portrait) so he obviously has the credentials.
It’s an exhaustive, scholarly ‘literary biography’ which took the author three years to write and examines a lot of the detail that wasn’t covered in depth in Storyteller. It’s more critical than I was able to be, Parkin clarifies grey areas and sets the record straight in a number of areas. It’s packaged in an exquisite hardcover with spot varnish, belly-band and black-edged pages.
By all accounts, it’s a companion piece rather than a rival, and any Moore fan should really own both (as well of course as George Khoury’s mammoth interview/tribute book from 2003 TheExtraordinary Works of Alan Moore.)

In the meantime, you can download and enjoy, free of charge, the 2013 version of “Alan Moore: An Extraordinary Gentleman” worldwide via the SEQUENTIAL iPad app right here.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Victory!

Reg Speller/Getty Images
So, the Royal Mail Twitter Team responded to my second reply. Here’s the gist:

I’m sorry you remain dissatisfied with my colleague’s response. The advice provided by our PO Box team is that the requested payment of £59.40, representing the difference between a PO Box collection and delivery service, has been correctly applied. Unfortunately I’m unable to cancel or reduce this amount.

I appreciate why you're unhappy with the outcome however so, If you'd like to take your complaint further, I can arrange for a member of our Escalated Customer Resolution Team to give you a call. They'll review the case and contact you within 2 hours.

My reaction to that was to ask:

"Correctly applied" by what criteria?

What are your terms and conditions as regards to you changing your service in the middle of a contract? And how did you make these terms available to me?

Yes I'd like the Escalated Customer Resolution Team to contact me, but it's not convenient for me to speak by phone during office hours at the moment, so they'll have to email me. Please ask them not to send a letter to my PO Box address.

Two hours came and went.  In fact, twenty-four hours came and went. But just before lunchtime today, I did receive another response, this time from Royal Mail Business Customer Service:

I am sorry that you are unhappy with the previous response to your complaint

I do understand the inconvenience that may have been caused by the relocation of your PO Box resulting in you requesting a delivery service to be attached to your existing PO Box. Furthermore I understand the frustration that may have been caused when you received an invoice requesting an incorrect fee for this service.

If I may take this opportunity to explain that the fee charged represents the difference in a PO Box with collection (£244.20) and a PO Box with delivery (£303.60) for the fees charged in 2013. In actual fact the invoice should have been relevant to the fees charged in 2012 (PO Box with collection, £222.00 and with delivery £276.00). A difference of £54.00.

However, as a long standing customer and as a one off gesture I have arranged for this fee to be waived on this occasion. Please note that your PO Box is due for renewal in March 2014. At this time, should you wish to continue with your service you would be required to pay the full fee of £303.60 to have your mail delivered.

Once again, please accept my sincere apologies on behalf of Royal Mail for the problem you've had, and our thanks for taking the time to make us aware of this.

Of course, all the time I've spent in communication with the Royal Mail and writing these three blog posts far outweigh the £54 credit I'm receiving. But it was always about the principle, not the money - the principle of a large company riding roughshod over the little guy, not because they're right, but because they just can. And to get get any kind of justice it seems that you have to expend more effort than it's worth to actually receive that justice.

But it still feels like a win. Yay for the little guy.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Royal Mail Strikes Back

Image stolen from letterstotheeditorblog.dallasnews.com
I’m delighted to inform all of you who read my previous blog post, PO Box Bollocks, that the Royal Mail Twitter Team wrote to me via email to respond to my concerns.
That was after I had been asked by @RoyalMail to ‘follow’ them on twitter, so that they could send me a ‘private’ message to ask me to email the link to my blog post to the Royal Mail twitter 'back office team'… although they forgot to send me their email address.
Why they couldn’t simply forward the blog link on to their own team I have no idea, unless it was all a ruse to get another twitter follower.

Anyway, I did what I was told in the vain hope that there would be some kind of positive outcome.
Here’s their message in its entirety with my comments interspersed:

Hello Gary

 Hello Twitter Team.

Thank you for your message in relation to the closure of Leigh-on-Sea Delivery Office. I am sorry if this has caused you any concern or inconvenience.
We do not take operational changes such as this lightly and give them a great deal of thought including a 6 month consultation period with our trade union colleagues.

Do you mean the trade union colleagues who are balloting whether or not to go on strike over the plans to privatise the Royal Mail? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23933039

 All parties are in agreement that it is vital that we change to enable investment in new technology and equipment and upgrade operational facilities. This helps to ensure we have a world class organisation which will provide the most efficient and effective network for delivering the post and a safe working environment for our people.

Good luck with that.

We appreciate any changes may impact on our customers and our planning activities always give due consideration as to how we can best protect and serve their interest. This will continue to be a top priority during any operational changes. Such considerations include the way we collect mail for delivery and how customers can collect undelivered mail.

If you are unable to visit your nearest Delivery Office to collect undeliverable items, we can arrange a redelivery back to your address or an alternative address within the same postcode area free of charge or to a local Post Office for a small fee (please note Special Delivery items cannot be delivered to an alternative address). This can be arranged by calling the number on the 'Something for you...' card we leave or by visiting: www.royalmail.com/redelivery

And thank you for cutting and pasting a number of stock replies, the last one of which doesn’t actually address any of my original comments. But I know it must take simply ages to read through all these letters of complaint and reply to them all individually.

Anyway, now we come to the real bone of contention…

With regards to your PO Box service, I’m also really sorry to hear of the invoice you’ve received due to the change is (sic) circumstances, I’ve contacted my colleagues who deal with PO Boxes and they’ve confirmed that the £59.40 is correct …

No, it’s not correct. It’s blatantly wrong.  

… as that’s the difference to have your PO Box with delivery service attached. To collect your PO Box mail the amount is £222.00, which you have paid previously and to have PO Box mail delivered the charge is £303.60.

Well no, actually, the difference between £222.00 and £303.60 is £81.60, not £59.40. You’re getting confused because the current price of a PO Box is £244.20 (it’s gone up since I renewed my PO Box service).
So actually, if you’re billing me for PO Box Delivery back dated to the start of my contract, shouldn’t you be charging me the prevailing rate at the time I renewed the agreement, which I believe was £276.00, not £303.60? So perhaps you meant to be charging me the difference between £222.00 and £276.00 which is £54.00, not £59.40.

But, honestly, I really don’t think you should be charging me any extra at all.

I’ve already spoken to your PO Box team, which is why I sent my original tweet. They, like yourself either didn’t understand my complaint, or chose to ignore it because well, what the PO Box team says is the absolute truth and cannot be challenged.

Customer service isn’t simply repeating company policy over and over ad nauseum.

My point is that you have no legal right – or certainly no moral right - to charge me the entire difference (or indeed any difference) between the advance payment for my PO Box Collect and the PO Box Delivery, as I explained to your PO Box team, and as I explained in my earlier blog post.

Let me try again:

I renewed my annual PO Box account with you in March this year on the understanding that I would be able to collect my mail from the Leigh-on-Sea delivery office at my convenience.
You have now closed down that sorting office without any consultation with the local authorities or local community (you have merely notified us). There is nothing (so far as I can see) in your terms and conditions that might cover such an event.

Therefore I see it as a breach of contract. My “change in circumstances” to which you refer, is not my desire or choice, but has been forced upon me by the Royal Mail. I have now been given the choice of either (a) collecting my mail – which I have already pointed out is now a ten-mile round trip, with all the inconvenience and travel cost that implies, or (b) paying an additional charge for my PO Box mail to be delivered.

This would be fair enough – but only when and if I decide to renew my PO Box account, which will be in March 2014. The Royal Mail have withdrawn a service to which I signed up in March 2013 - namely to collect my PO Box addressed mail from the Leigh-on-Sea delivery office.

I would think any fair-minded company would at least offer to deliver my mail for the remainder of my current service period. But no, not only have you withdrawn the service I paid for in advance, not only are you insisting that I pay a further fee to have my mail delivered, but you have the sheer effrontery to backdate the additional fees to cover a five-month period during which I have already collected my mail.

So no, it’s not correct. I believe that if you can’t honour your agreement with me, then you should at least deliver my PO Box mail to me free of charge for the remainder of our agreement. If you must insist on adding insult to injury (by closing the local delivery office and then charging me for the inconvenience) then can you please explain how the Royal mail can justify charging me for delivery of mail that I have already collected?

Once again I’m really sorry for the closure of your local office Gary, and for any confusion with the PO Box invoice.

I’m not confused in the slightest. I am, however absolutely livid.

Please feel free to drop me a message if you’ve any questions.
Kind regards
Royal Mail Twitter Team

Yes, I’ve got one question. Seriously, are you still going to bill me for £59.40?

Even if I accept the Royal Mail’s faulty premise of the delivery charge being backdated for the whole of the twelve months (even though I collected my own mail for five of those months), I should only be charged the difference between those two services at the prevailing rate at the time of the start of that contract, i.e. £54.00.

Of course, I reject that premise and assert that it’s probably illegal for the Royal Mail to try to charge me for those five months, so the maximum I believe you should be able to invoice me is for seven months delivery, which I calculate to be approximately £31.50.

But I’m sure by now you’ll understand my position a little more clearly, and you will have no option but to conclude that the Royal Mail should have an obligation to deliver my PO Box mail for the rest of my agreement free of charge.

It’s a no-brainer, right?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

PO Box Bollocks

Postman Prat by Lew Stringer // Copyright © DC Thomson & Co. Ltd.

For all its faults, twitter is a splendid way of expressing one’s frustrations in a timely manner. Another thing it’s good at is getting responses where previously you would have never expected any. Justin Bieber might retweet your appeal for a lost cat for example, or you might convince Richard Dawkins that God exists.

Yesterday I tweeted this:
Can I just say that the @RoyalMail is the most inefficient, inept, parsimonious and arrogant company I've ever done business with.

To which @RoyalMail replied, ever aware of its public image:
Hi Gary, I'm sorry you feel this way, is there anything we can help with?

Well, I dunno, let’s see shall we?

In April this year the Royal Mail confirmed its intention to close their local delivery office at Leigh-on-Sea. This is where mail sent to my PO Box address is stored, and also where my domestic mail is held (thanks to the Royal Mail’s Call and Collect scheme).
The reason why I had opted some years ago to collect my mail - rather than have it delivered to my house - was the continual damage to anything larger than a DL sized envelope, which was more often than not folded, crushed and shredded half to pieces passing through my standard-sized letter flap on the final few inches of its sometimes long and arduous journey.
Any larger items of mail, particularly those too rigid to be forced through my letterbox were invariably returned to the delivery office from where I could collect it with the corresponding ‘We Tried to Deliver…’ card, despite the fact that on most occasions I was actually at home. I am not sure why most courier drivers manage to find the buzzer when the postman is unable to do so
I must admit that the Leigh-on-Sea delivery office was a mere five minute stroll away from my home/office/studio, and the ability to collect my domestic and business mail together at the same time, in invariably perfect condition was a bonus.

Therefore I was aghast, along with a substantial number of other local residents that the office was closing. 8,000 people signed a petition: Leigh Sorting Office Closes Aftermath
The Royal Mail paid lip service to the local community by setting up a meeting with Southend Borough Council to which they sent two representatives with absolutely no authority to make any decisions or change any policy: Royal Mail Slammed fror Delivery Office Closures
And more here: Sorting Office Closures

Two weeks ago on the 10th August, the delivery office closed and moved its operations to Southend-on-Sea, a five mile journey on some of the most congested roads in the country.
Not wanting to endure a thirty-minute-plus round-trip on a daily basis to collect my post, I made enquiries at the Leigh office on their penultimate day of opening about having both my personal and PO Box mail changed from collection to delivery. They told me to contact Royal Mail ‘Modernisation,’ which upon arriving back in my home studio I duly did.
I found the number to call on the Royal Mail’s website and after eventually negotiating the typically convoluted automated voice systems I managed to speak to someone that – after consulting with an unheard superior – gave me an email address where I could authorise the resumption of home delivery for my domestic mail.
She then patched me through to their business department from where I eventually gleaned another precious email address, this time for my business mail.
I fired off two very similar emails to two different email addresses, and to be fair, I received swift responses, both promising that the appropriate departments would be correctly informed of my change of circumstance.

First thing yesterday morning - after nigh-on two weeks of no mail deliveries at all - I attempted to find the phone number for the Southend office but gave up after ten minutes Googling. Obviously the Southend sorting office prefers not to be distracted by people phoning up and asking where their mail is.
So instead I sent off another two near-identical emails to Royal Mail, and early yesterday afternoon I discovered a huge stack of mail that had been pushed through my letterbox (slightly crushed and only mildly shredded), each piece heavily marked ‘C&C’ in biro. It didn’t take long for my superior intellect to figure out that this was an acronym for ‘Call and Collect’ and therefore, as suspected, all of my mail had been collecting dust in a pigeon hole in Southend.
Amongst the various bills, statements and the odd magazine I discovered two pieces from the Royal Mail themselves; one a short letter stating that my request to change from PO Box Collect to PO Box Delivery had been noted, and the other an invoice for £59.40, being the balance between the cost of the two services for a period of twelve months.

Now the first thing that stuck me was the fact that in their wisdom, the PO Box team had sent letters about the delivery of my mail to a pigeon hole in Southend, to which I could not respond as they hadn't been delivered to me, rather than simply continuing our email correspondence.
The second thing that struck me was that, after double checking the invoice, I realised that the delivery charge had been backdated to when I renewed my PO Box account in March.
Effectively, I was being billed for the Royal Mail to deliver the PO Box mail that I have already collected from them over the past five months.

Assuming that this was some sort of clerical error I called the number on the letter for ‘any queries.’ After breaking the keypad code to get through to speak to a real live human, I was informed that this indeed was the case, and there was no option for me but to either pay the invoice and have my deliveries resumed, or to collect the mail from Southend myself.
The telephone operator kindly offered to pass my request for a partial refund on to a higher authority, but he already knew what they would say. It wasn't his fault of course; he being just cannon fodder to act as insulation between the Royal Mail hierarchy and their customers, so that they can continue making unreasonable and inflexible policies without having to face any consequences.
So, not only have the Royal Mail closed my local delivery office – the one I expected to be able to continue collecting my mail from when I renewed my PO Box account – not only do they expect me to choose between spending over half an hour every day driving into Southend and back, or to pay for the privilege of having my PO Box mail delivered – but they also expect me to pay for a five month period where I had been collecting my PO Box mail myself.

Rather amusingly, I also discovered a We Tried to Deliver…’ card in amongst my pile of mail, despite the fact that - you guessed it - I was at home all the time. I would have thought that it would be in the postman’s best interests to actually deliver a bulky package, spend a few seconds looking around for something that looked like a doorbell or an intercom buzzer, rap on the window maybe, perhaps see if a neighbour would take it in… rather than have to write out another ‘We Tried to Deliver…’ card and take the package all the way back to Southend. But, no. And now, I have to wait until Tuesday to have a redelivery attempted at the earliest.

The saddest part of all this is that none of it surprises me. It’s all entirely typical of my experience of the Royal Mail’s behaviour and general level of service over the course of the last twenty years or so.
The worst part is that not only has the service gradually deteriorated over time, the quality of service reduced to such a point that I'm actually surprised when a first class letter arrives the next day; their deliveries have been cut from two per day to one; delivery offices are being closed all over the UK; and, worst of all, that their charges have increased exponentially over the corresponding period.
Newspaper journalists always enjoy when the price of a first class stamp is raised as it makes good headlines. Last year the cost of a first class letter went up 30% to 60p, and a second class stamp went up 39%. In 1993 the cost of a first class stamp was 27p.
First-class stamps to cost 60p

International costs have soared by an even greater degree, and it has seriously curtailed and quite possibly put a stop to my tradition of mailing out specially drawn Strangehaven Christmas cards to friends, colleagues and customers.
But other changes to the service have made nonsense of postage costs for small businesses like mine.  If you've ordered a set of three Strangehaven trade paperbacks since the Royal Mail brought in their domestic ‘large letter’, ‘small parcel’ and ‘large parcel’ services (based on dimensions as well as weight) you may have wondered why they arrive in three separate packages. The answer is that it costs almost twice as much to send them in a single parcel. That is illogical, stupid and just plainly unfair in my opinion.
I now use services like Collect+ http://www.collectplus.co.uk to send my packages, which are cheaper, more convenient, reliable and trackable.

Most outrageously of all is that the cost of my PO Box Collect service for a twelve month period has risen from £62.85 to £244.20 in the last five years.  That’s a quadruple increase! In five years!

That is just so far beyond any relationship to rising costs or inflation it’s ridiculous. How they can justify that price for what is essentially the hire of a portion of a wooden box and a divider is almost beyond comprehension. It’s simple extortion to charge this amount to small businesses that have promoted their company over a period of years and invested in business cards and stationery with their PO Box address printed on it.
Personally, I am currently assessing alternative mail delivery options, as there are numerous and more affordable alternatives.
It sometimes looks to me like the Royal Mail is almost deliberately pricing itself out of certain services they no longer wish to provide. It certainly seems like an attempt to become a relatively viable business to be open to privatisation in the not-too-distant-future, as has been surmised for years.

So, to get back to Royal Mail’s tweet to me yesterday afternoon, ‘is there anything we can help with?

Yes.

How about compensating the residents of Leigh-on-Sea for closing our local delivery office without any consultation? A bunch of flowers, or a box of chocolates perhaps?

How about waiving the delivery charge for all Leigh-on-Sea PO Boxes until the renewal date of their PO Box account? We didn't ask – actually, we didn't want you to close it, after all. That would be only fair.

Or, how about not invoicing me for five months of a service that you haven’t actually provided me with?


I look forward to your response.