If you’re the King, you really need to live in London.
But that comes as a problem if you’re the king of Scotland too. What does a guy do? Commute from London to Edinburgh? in 1603?
No: move to London one must, but it is vital to acquire a really good pen.
James arranged to rule Scotland by writing to it. This left him free to wrestle with England and foil gunpowder plots. But the consequences of a snail’s pace, or even a letter which did not arrive at all, were dire. Letters must fly from London to Edinburgh with the fleetest of feet.
Which is why James invented the Royal Mail.
Riders would travel by relay from point to point, passing on royal instructions.Now his written edicts could hurtle up to Edinburgh by royal courier, and the king boasted that he ruled Scotland with his pen.
And everyone wanted in. In 1635 the service became available to the public, and a kind of postal service was born. Granted, the Royal Mail became the Parliamentary Postal Service for a decade or so when the Roundheads got hold of the infrastructure, but the second Charles democratised the sending of messages by banishing Cromwell’s dour label and calling the whole business the General Post Office.
The London to Edinburgh route was just the first of a filigree network bringing intelligence to the people of England, Scotland and Wales, but it was the spine of the nation and the route has always been beloved. Mounted carriers gave way to horse-drawn carriages in 1784, and in the mid 19th century the mighty train assumed the mantle.
The romance of a steam train bringing messages: WH Auden summed it up in his “Night Mail”, the pent-up excitement of the great iron horse hurtling from one end of the country to another, picking up mail as it went. Even the tiniest villages could send their messages using the bag exchange apparatus, a post with a bag which automatically attached to the train as it flew past.
In today’s railway carriage the post has been all but superceded by the astonishing electronic communications made possible by modern technology. After our time in Devon a decade ago, Phil travelled up to London to interview for a job and marvelled at the gadgets and laptops, the chimes and trills which filled the carriage of commuters. In the couple of years we had been away from the capital the shape of commuting had changed forever. You could talk to people anywhere in the country from a railway carriage speeding at 100 miles an hour through the English countryside.
But it was not always thus.
For centuries, while the night mail carried messages, getting a message off a moving train could be tricky.
The thorny problem occasioned a letter to the Times as late as October 18th, 1963. An article the day before had bewailed the problem of sending messages from express trains. How on earth could it be possible?
Mr H.C.B Mynors had the answer.
“Faced with this same problem on the same line,” he writes to the Times, “I consulted the steward of the dining car.
“He provided me with pencil and paper, made an incision in a large potato, and himself lobbed the potato to the feet of the porter as we ran through Peterborough, with my message wedged in it but clearly visible. The station master did what was necessary.”
He adds that he tried to press the dining car steward to take a tip; but that but the ingenious gentleman would have none of it.
Messaging has changed forever in the blink of an eye and with the speed of communication, our pace of life has increased exponentially.
And while I find being away from such communications frustrating, part of me longs for the days when high-speed bag exchanges were the only external communication on a train.
Those, and hurtling message-potatoes.
Picture source here