Miles Kington Remembered: One of the great mysteries of life is unravelled at last

18 March 2002
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The Independent Online

Today we continue our occasional series of People with Very Unusual Jobs Indeed

No 66: A Man Who Runs the Sock Exchange

That's right. You read it right second time. Not Stock Exchange, but Sock Exchange.

Bill Bobsley runs the Sock Exchange. It is the only sock exchange in the world. But why would anyone want to exchange socks?

"Oh, come on!" says Bill Bobsley. "Anyone who says that has never had to handle the domestic laundry situation! Do you have to handle the domestic laundry situation in your house?"

Well, I do actually sometimes empty the dryer...

"Sometimes empty the dryer!" mocks Bill Bobsley. "Big deal! I am talking, among other things, about getting the laundry upstairs and sorting it all out and putting the pants in the pants drawer and the pyjamas in the pyjama drawer and then coming to the bit that every housewife hates. Sorting the socks out."

Why does every housewife hate sorting the socks out?

(I think that I know the answer to this, but Bill Bobsley is the sort of man who feels good when you seem not to know the answer.)

"Because after you have sorted out all the socks, you are still left with a number of socks that have no mate. Do you know the feeling when you have two black socks that seem to be identical except for the trifling detail that one is six inches longer than the other? It is one of the great mysteries of life that you can put into a washing machine an even number of socks with their matching mates and get out at the end of it all several socks you cannot pair up. Sometimes you get socks that you have never seen before and that all the family recoils from in disgust. Very occasionally you get single socks with name tabs sewn on to them bearing names you have never heard of. What's going on here?"

Well, what is going on here?

"So what the housewife, or laundryperson, has to do," says Bill Bobsley, ignoring the question entirely, "is put aside the leftover sock or socks until such time as its mate turns up. You will find that almost every household has a pile of socks, or a basket of socks, or a drawer of socks, which are all missing their mates.

"It's a bit like a bar for singles. A Lonely Hearts Sock Drawer. And sometimes the missing mate does turn up. But more often the average housewife is left with a pile of socks that are never going to be paired off again, like unmarriageable Victorian daughters. So what do you do?"

So what do you do?

"You set up the Sock Exchange!" says Bill Bobsley happily. "A place where people can bring their socks to match them with other people's socks. A place with a great range of available single socks. A place where that single Tin Tin sock can team up with another single Tin Tin sock, or that turquoise sock you could never quite bring yourself to throw away at last finds happiness with another one.

"People bring us their socks, factories send us their unwanted socks, jumble sales send us their leftovers, and by the time most of them are matched up, we have brought a lot of people a lot of happiness. It's the little things in life that bring a lot of joy. We now have over 20 Sock Exchanges all over the country, where people can drop in, have a cup of coffee, chat and go through socks together. Do you know how many lasting friendships have been struck up in a Sock Exchange?"

No, I don't.

"No, nor do I," says Bill Bobsley happily, "but I bet it's thousands. If you can talk to people about socks, you can talk to them about anything."

And at the end of the year, if there are still obstinate, chronic mismatches, socks that look as if they will never find a mate, chunky purple socks or semi -see-through grey socks, will they be thrown away? Destroyed? Are there some socks that even the Sock Exchange gives up as a bad job.

"You have forgotten one thing," says Bill Bobsley. "There are still one-legged people out there. One-legged people who normally have to buy two socks to get one. That's where our end-of-the-year socks go to."