A friend of mine has just met a man. They’ve enjoyed two brilliant dates, but his texting etiquette is driving her to the point of distraction. Her phone tells her he’s read her message, but he waits for hours before responding, and the suspense makes her want to throw it across the room.
So imagine how the captain of the sailing barque Paula might have felt if he’d known he’d be waiting 132 years for his message to be picked up after flinging it off the side of his ship in a gin bottle in 1886.
News that his handwritten note has been found by an Australian family on a beach north of Perth was met by wistful sighs from everyone who ever read a book about pirates and treasure chests as a child. There’s something magical about the idea of a message in a bottle, and thrilling about the idea of finding one, too. It’s a romantic version of winning the lottery, playing to a soundtrack of metal-detector beeps.
The story captures the imagination because it is one of serendipity — the Illman family, who found the bottle, only did so because their car got stuck in sand on the beach and they decided to investigate something that had been washed up nearby. In the smartphone era, chance encounters feel rare.
Anyone who grew up with “snail mail” knows how exciting handwritten messages can be. Love notes were sent constantly across desks at my school, to the teachers’ dismay. Every summer we sent helium balloons, containing a message with our names and addresses, up into the sky to see who could reach the furthest continent (hoping always that someone would write back to tell us it had been found).
Now, we can reach someone on the other side of the world with a few touches of a keypad — but something has been lost in aid of immediacy. Mystery, for a start. When sending a note, a letter or a postcard, there’s an uncertainty about when and where it will be opened. The invention of the “read receipt” means today we all become quickly anxious if our own communications are not quickly answered. And important or meaningful messages are lost in overcrowded inboxes of emails and texts.
Modern messaging also makes me worry that we’re not leaving behind anything interesting for generations to come, given it’s unlikely anyone will stumble across an old WhatsApp message or a discarded iCloud on a beach 132 years from now.
And as my friend’s frustration demonstrates, the current focus on instant gratification means we tend not to trust other people anymore. Not hearing from someone for half a day means you might never hear from them again and the idea of having to wait for a reply actually offends us.
In a former era, we had to have more faith in each other — and in human manners and morals — because we didn’t have a choice. Friends and lovers sent messages asking to be met a day later at train stations and tea rooms, and had to trust that their message would be received and that the other half would appear. Stranded sailors on desert islands sent coordinates out into the fathomless water in bottles they had to believe would be picked up by another ship.
Neither were sent a digital “receipt” detailing the time at which their message had been received and read. They just had to have faith. We could all do with a bit more of it.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Lucy Holden is a freelance journalist based in London. Twitter: @lucyroseannie