Charlie Amarnath, Post Master
Charlie Amarnath, Star Post Master
Almost every day, I go to the Post Office to mail parcels of books that readers have ordered. And, over the past year, I have visited many of the Post Offices in the vicinity, searching for the most sympathetic. Without wishing to point the finger at any single example, let me confess that there are some gloomy ones, premises where the sadness and frustration of the world accumulate. Waiting in line in such places, especially at this time of year, can encourage a tendency towards outbursts of the nature described by the American colloquialism “Go postal” – meaning to succumb to a fit of helpless rage.
But – on this last posting date before Christmas – there is a shining exception which deserves to be celebrated. It is the Hackney Rd Post Office run by Post Master Charlie Amarnath who knows most of his customers by name and has created a rare haven of goodwill and community spirit in his tiny shop. Here, Charlie and his crew maintain a constant good humoured banter, senior females are always referred to as “young lady” and, in this week before Christmas, sweeties in brightly coloured wrappers are pushed across the counter to every customer before any other transaction takes place. Most significantly, Charlie keeps a watchful eye over his more vulnerable customers, questioning them tactfully about their health and ensuring they do not get robbed of the money they withdraw.
The unremarkable grey interior of the Hackney Rd Post Office is the model of organisation, yet this is also a location where the unexpected can happen at any time – someone might climb up through a trapdoor in the floor or Charlie might peek out through the security door like a cheeky jack-in-the-box. It makes for a curious experience if you are acclimatised to miserabilist Post Offices, especially as the regular customers here tend to engage in familiar chat while waiting. Even on my second visit, Charlie disarmed me by greeting me by name from behind the counter while I was queueing and it dispelled all my expectations of the usual anonymous service at Post Offices.
So last week, before the Christmas post reached the deluge that it is now, Charlie and I popped across the Hackney Rd for a quick cuppa. In the breaks of our short conversation, Charlie could not resist turning his head discreetly towards the Post Office over the road, yet somehow I managed to learn a little about the East End’s most popular Post Master. Where others might get demoralised by the routine aspect of the work, Charlie has the presence of mind to appreciate his customers as fellow humans.
“I was born in Sri Lanka but came here because of the troubles in my country, I was lucky enough to come and study computer sciences at twenty-one. When I was a student, I started working with my Auntie Grace who ran the Post Office in Walthamstow. It was difficult for me because I had to work in different places to support myself during my studies, and I worked behind the petrol pumps in Outer London, Dagenham, Croydon, and in the East End too.
I worked with Auntie Grace for seven years and then my cousin Cheli, who was running this Post Office in the Hackney Rd, decided to move on so I declared my interest. I worked for him on and off from 1996 while doing Bingo calling across the road and I took over the Post Office in 2002. I put in the retail side and managed the business. I started to do it with my wife, Marcella, but she’s not that keen and we have a son Jonathan, so I had to do it all myself. It was tough, not at all easy with the rents going up and up but I enjoy running a Post Office, meeting people and recognising that others have greater challenges than I have and being able to support them. We try to educate our customers not to draw all their money when collecting pensions, so they are less likely to be robbed. It’s like we are wearing their shoes. I know them all by name and at least once a month I go the Sundial Centre for older people to keep in touch with the wardens and talk to my customers because I don’t always get enough time in the Post Office.
I work six days a week, but at Christmas I work seven days and I open extra hours from 8:30am to 6:30pm and on Sundays, I try to be helpful. By helping others, I help me. I live in Newbury Park, I get up at 5:30am and get home at 7:30pm. I have a pacemaker fitted because I have a stressful life, but I have regular checkups and it’s ok. They discovered it when I bought the whole building in 2007. I had to go and have a medical examination for the mortgage and they found I had an irregular heartbeat.
The business has grown but it has stabilised in the past three years. It’s very hard work and I have four people working with me. We try to understand our customers’ needs. The volume of letters has gone down because of email but we get more ebay and business customers these days, and we sell more insurance policies and travel products. I tried to open up a second branch over in Shoreditch but it wasn’t possible because of the rents. They closed the Post Office but I’d love to go back there.”
Charlie Amarnath “Good afternoon. Thank you for waiting. How may I help you?”
Zafit Rabi has worked here since May. “It’s fun working here!”
Post Office, 198 Hackney Rd, E2 7QL
Top portrait © Sarah Ainslie