I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Van der Dekken, Captain of the Flying Dutchman, cursed God in a loud voice for the lousy weather and was promptly doomed to keep sailing his rotting ship around the Cape of Storms until Judgement Day. What you probably don’t know is that Van der Dekken has a contract with the Post Office. This helps explain why letters to friends and relatives overseas take an eternity to get there. Exactly how the Post Office manages to get the mail out to The Flying Dutchman remains a mystery, given that the ship only materialises once every few years, usually during a furious storm.
And while it may seem daft for the GPO to rely on such a dubious service, there apparently weren’t too many options left when the last ocean liner steamed out of Cape Town back in the 1960s. Back then you could pop a letter in a post box in Cape Town confidant that a ship would immediately weigh anchor, steam up the coast, whizz through the Suez Canal, cross the Mediterranean, battle the big waves in the Bay of Biscay and finally dock in Southampton. Your letter would fall through the letterbox onto the carpet of your old Aunt’s house in Little Chipping or Bognor Regis a mere two weeks after you’d posted it. Now it will bob about off the Cape of No Hope until the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse have laid waste to the world and God has finally let Van der Dekken off the hook. By then your ancient Aunt will be moaning like a drain about how you don’t keep in touch.
What’s all this antiquated talk about sea mail, I expect you are rudely asking by now. Have you not heard that these days we have aeroplanes? A letter destined for overseas is transported through the stratosphere at close to the speed of sound. It’s bound to get there in a couple of days - in theory. In practice and on average an airmail letter takes longer now than when letters travelled in the damp and mouldy hold of a steamship. Why remains another mystery, albeit not quite on a par with that of The Flying Dutchman. I’m sure it has more to do with union rules, strikes and very long lunch breaks than with divine wrath.