Rob Crossan recounts the stories behind the most legendary, curious, amusing and useless telegrams ever sent.
There was little room for subtlety in a telegram, both in content and delivery. The old movies tell a familiar tale: a rain-lashed evening, a heavy knock at the front door. A man on a bicycle proffering a damp envelope with ticker-taped words glued to the cardboard. A husband or son who died in the trenches, a grandmother on her last legs in a hospice in Peebles or a cousin missing in the Alps for four days and counting.
However, lest we forget, before its demise in 1982, the telegram could also be a source of good news: a congratulatory yet inevitably terse missive from friends in Brisbane on a wedding day, the news of a newborn baby or, most famously of all, a message from The Queen herself, delivered to nursing homes and bungalows across the nation on 100th birthdays.
The one thing a telegram never did was deliver a message of little importance (unless you were Spike Milligan, see below) or convey anything that used the English language in a verbose or florid way. Paying per word for these precursors of the text message meant that economy of language was always a priority, resulting in some impressively inventive corner-cutting as far as adverbs and adjectives were concerned.
Here are 10 of the most memorable telegrams ever sent, from the monumental to the mundane and the downright mysterious.
The shortest telegram in history
This has been attributed to both Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde. In both cases, the writers are said to have telegrammed their respective publishers to ask about sales of their latest published works.
In both cases, the telegram simply asked ‘?’. The publisher is said to have replied with an equally frugal ‘!’.
The three-word telegram which inspired an entire navy
In 1939, a mere 10 minutes after the Royal Navy was given notification of the commencement of hostilities against Germany, the Admiralty sent out a second telegram to the fleet. It consisted of just three words, which Lord Mountbatten later claimed had an ‘electrifying’ effect on the rank and file. Returning to the post he held during the First World War, the telegram simply stated: ‘WINSTON IS BACK.’
The greatest corrected mistake
The ultimate masterclass in the art of understatement was a telegram sent from London by a visiting Mark Twain. Counteracting reports in the newspapers back home, he sent a missive that went into legend and is often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Wilde. He simply wrote: ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’
The truest words spoken in jest
The old truism was manifested spectacularly in this missive. After beating Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election by the skin of his teeth, John F. Kennedy told friends that he’d received a telegram from his multi-millionaire father that said: ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.’
The most tragic telegram of all
There’s a detached and strangely moving element to this message, with the lack of room for adjectives creating its own profound sombreness. The last wireless message sent from Titanic on its fateful maiden crossing in 1912 simply read: ‘We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.’
The most sarcastic telegram
The telegram was never the best for delivering wit, but a few individuals man-aged to get both humour and sarcasm into one sentence. When journalist Robert Benchley arrived in Venice for the first time in the 1930s, he sent a telegram to his editor at the New Yorker asking for help: ‘Streets full of water – please advise.’
The most chilling telegram
Giving news of remarkable birth by telegram wasn’t just confined to the delivery of babies. When the world’s first hydrogen bomb was dropped on the Pacific island of Elugelab on November 1, 1952 (obliterating it in the process), the occasion was marked by scientist Edward Teller sending a telegram to a colleague: ‘It’s a boy.’ The metaphor had irony – the Soviet Union exploded its own device nine months later.
The most pained, and perhaps most selfish, telegram to a dying man
When Hollywood idol John Barrymore was on his deathbed, the great and the good surrounded his bedside. For those who couldn’t make it, telegrams were delivered. The most enduring of them came from W. C. Fields and simply read: ‘You Can’t Do This To Me.’ Barrymore didn’t absorb the message and died days later.
The laziest telegram ever
This was sent from Spike Milligan to his wife. Opening it at her own front door, she was surprised to read the following: ‘I would like a boiled egg, two slices of toast and a cup of tea. Thank you very much, Spike.’ He was upstairs.
The most famous, and most Royal, telegrams of all
In 1917, George V began a wonderful tradition: sending congratulatory telegrams to those who reached their 100th birthday. The message sent to centenarians was always the same, reading that the monarch is ‘much interested to hear that you are celebrating your 100th birthday, and sends you warm congratulations and good wishes’. These days, the Queen sends cards instead.
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