Misplaced affection: The art of losing isn't hard to master

We carry more stuff with us than ever, and lost property offices are full of items that we leave behind. Is this accidental or is it a subconscious attempt to free ourselves from a life of clutter? By Michael Bywater

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A quarter of a million pounds' worth of stuff by BBC staff over the last two years. Three times as much lost by government departments, more than £600,000-worth by the MoD alone. Ten thousand pieces of luggage a day gone missing in the USA.

Wheelchairs and wedding dresses at Waverley Station, nearly 9,000 mobile "devices" lost each year in Washington taxis, 85,000 phones (not to mention 21,000 PDAs – remember PDAs? – and "pocket PCs" lost in Chicago in one year, and that was 2005 when stuff was bigger. Lost.

Three hundred mobile phones a week in Disneyland. This stuff is prosaic. What about the lawnmower, the quarter-of-a-million-quid bag of (perhaps, maybe, just, ever-so-slightly moody) Rolexes, the human skulls, the breast implants, and the lawnmower lost on London Transport, except, as in all these cases, when we say "lost" we mean "found". The French have it right. No Lost Property Office for them, but Bureau des Objets Trouvés. Your loss is my find.

Guess where a fishing rod, a chess clock, a toaster, a ballet skirt, three crutches (miracle! miracle!), a miniature Doberman, a milk tooth and a set of dentures were found.

The Munich Oktoberfest. Come on. The chess clock and the Doberman should give it away. And 18 children. (The children were reclaimed.)

Beer and stuff. A dangerous mixture. The wise drinker leaves home with nothing in his pockets except the amount of cash he's prepared to drink, lose or have pinched and, possibly, a bottle-opener. Only a fool goes out for an evening's beerfesting with a ballet skirt, a fishing rod, a toaster and 18 children. Either a fool or someone with an extraordinarily intricate private life.

A hostage to fortune, this stuff. We don't cope at all well. An NOP poll found that twice as many men as women swear when they lose stuff: 28 per cent as opposed to 12 per cent. And twice as many women cry as men. I suspect it doesn't matter whose stuff is lost: the men are swearing at the women. I am a man, and if I can't find my glass eye/wooden leg/18 children/toaster, it's your fault and I swear at you. You can't find your stuff, that's your fault too, and I swear at you. The custom of the ages: Man Swear, Woman Cry. Women, on the other hand, "resort to violence". I like that "resort", as if it's the last step in the process. Not at all. Kicking and punching things (including the men, who nevertheless carry on swearing) is an instant response.

Guess what the most common lost thing is?

Yes! Knickers!

Guess where the most common place to find them is?

Yes! Behind the sofa! Along with, I suppose, the £40m in loose change which the Halifax claims is down the back of British sofas, probably doing about as well as squirrelling it away with the Halifax, times being what they are. Pesky thing, the sex drive.

It eats time. Not sex. Looking for stuff. We each spend a year of our lives looking for stuff, according to some estimates. A pity we can't get it all over at once, immediately after graduation, perhaps; it would in the long run be more profitable than doing that M.Phil. And think of the haul. A park bench, waterskis, a Chinese typewriter, a Tibetan bell, a "badly stuffed bald eagle, complete with half-eaten pigeon in its beak", a do-it-yourself vasectomy kit, a jar of false eyeballs, another jar – of bull sperm, a garden slide, a divan, a bishop's crook, three gas masks, a stuffed puffer fish and two-and-a-half hundredweight of sultanas. You could furnish a house, get Type 2 diabetes and create artificial life with that lot – and that's only the Transport for London list. The British Library's lost a century-old Manchester City football programme, 17 Rolling Stones albums, four Shakespeare plays, three Asterix comics, two books on Jack the Ripper, the biographies of Bob Geldof, Tina Turner and Bob Dylan and a Jamie Oliver cookbook. "Come in, darling. Help yourself to a sultana – they're by the Chinese typewriter – while I slam in the lamb. I wonder if Tina Turner liked Asterix? By the way, did I mention I've been consecrated to the episcopate?"

An entire life, lost and reassembled. A wonder. And if you felt the need to protect your found stuff, why, nothing could be easier than assembling your own private militia. Out there somewhere are 34 policemen's helmets, 83 peaked caps, 111 pairs of gloves, 42 pairs of handcuffs, 20 batons, three complete sets of body armour and sixteen radios, all lost over the previous two years by a police force imaginatively described by the Daily Mirror as "bungling".

And while we're at it, hands up – it's only us here, so you needn't feel inhibited – everyone who has been thinking: "Yes, and isn't it just absolutely Sod's Law that, whatever you're trying to find, it's always in the last place you look?"

Well of course it is. But it's not Sod's Law. For once, Sod has nothing to do with it. Consider this scenario: you have lost something. You are either cursing or being thumped, depending on whether you are male or female (or possibly praying to God, or swearing at Him) but bravely you continue your search. By the bed? No. In your other jacket? No. Briefcase? No. In the Useless Stuff drawer? No. Behind the sofa? Yes! Here it is! But you say to yourself: "I am not going to be fooled by that old trick. That's what the universe wants me to think. I may have found it, but I'm just going to keep on looking."

Of course it's in the last place you look. That's where it's been all along. Everything you've ever lost is in the last place you'd look for it, and the great trick in life is this: work out the last place you'd look for any particular item, and look there first. I recently lost my favourite penknife. I haven't had time to look for it properly (there's no point in looking for something half-heartedly because stuff knows about that, and will simply move around, a bit like the Translation of the Holy House of Loretto on a smaller scale). But, applying this trick, I shall save myself a lot of frustration and swearing. Instead, I shall wait for six weeks, and then head off to the Munich Oktoberfest. It's the last place you'd look for a missing penknife.

I have, of course, a penknife in my pocket. My backup penknife, which is different from my Swiss Army Knife, my other Swiss Army Knife, my grandfather's penknife, my father's penknife, my great-grandfather's penknife, my Scout knife or any of my three Leatherman multi-tools. It is important to carry a penknife. A Man carries a penknife at all times. Why? What does A Man do with his penknife?

I can only speak for myself. I cut things with it. String. Tape. Bloody packaging. Now you don't just have to cut packaging, you have to dismantle it, disassemble it into its various components for recycling. A simple sandwich yields four categories of waste: the cardboard (cardboard), the paper front bit (paper), the Cellophane window set into the front bit (non-recyclable) and the bloody gherkin which you didn't order and are damned if you're going to eat because you're a grown man, with your own penknife, and you eat what you damn well like and if what you like is two-and-a-half hundredweight of sultanas which you can't actually lay your hands on at this precise moment (but they must be somewhere, though Sod's Law dictates they'll be in the last place you look) instead of some bloody gherkin which you didn't order, then it's hasta la vista, gherkin (food waste).

That's the sort of reason a Man needs his penknife. But let me be honest. I spend a certain amount of time each day looking for things to cut, so that I can say to myself "Wouldn't have been able to do that if it weren't for my trusty Man's penknife!" A part of me suspects that the penknife isn't for cutting things. Cutting things is for the penknife, just as a religious person will think of things to mention to God as he goes about his daily business. In both cases it is a sort of justification, not by, but of faith. The truth lies deeper. A Man carries a penknife because carrying a penknife demonstrates one is a Man.



I'll turn my pockets out. Backup penknife. Small pocket-sized ballpoint pen. Small notebook. Handkerchief. Zippo. Loose change. Fifty quid in banknotes. Credit card. Lip balm. The end.

Not much stuff. The basic stuff a Man should carry about. My father's pockets would have yielded the same, minus the lip balm, a box of matches instead of the Zippo, and a pen-torch for looking down his patients' throats while they said "Aaah".

But now look over the back of my chair, where my satchel – my man-bag, man-purse, murse, call it what you will – rests. Therein lies a different story. Therein lies an iPhone, a pair of sunglasses, a contact-lens case, contact-lens solution, ordinary glasses in case something goes wrong with the contact lenses, a small camera, a pencil-case (containing three fountain pens, a propelling pencil, a highlighter, those little index tabs you stick in books and a rubber), a copy of Frank Harris's life of Oscar Wilde (work), a copy of Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (not work, more Personal Growth) a Visconti Travelling Ink-pot, a pair of Bose headphones, a pair of Shure earphones, a laptop, power cable for the laptop, ethernet adapter, a big notebook, a big notepad, a bottle of Lorenzo Villoresi Uomo, three USB memory sticks, a plastic camel, business cards with a no-longer-functioning email address on them, passport, voice-recorder, more lip balm, a stapler, a Leatherman multi-tool and a torch.

This is, of course, a relatively modest haul. If you want to see real Be-Prepared Psychosis at work, check out the "What's In My Bag" photostream on Flickr. There are people there who carry about almost their entire existences with them, in vast, black "messenger bags" so that the thread might better be called "What's In My Life".

When did this start? Why did it start? And what on earth do we think we are doing? Being prepared? Protecting ourselves against the terrors of boredom? Making statements about ourselves, but (unlike other statements) only to ourselves?

And how much anxiety is it costing us?

All those laptops, cellphones, Kindles, BlackBerrys, watches and other devices designed to semi-mechanise us into functionaries of the network so that we will all eventually be living in The Cloud – all those are potentially lost stuff, just like the iPods, the books, the pens, voice recorders, penknives and lip balm – to say nothing of the benches, white sticks, false teeth and glass eyes. The more we carry, the more we have to lose.

And perhaps, secretly, we want to lose it, which is why we carry more and more stuff about with us instead of leaving it safely at home. Look, for example, at the hand baggage people cart onto aeroplanes: great puffed-up hods, bursting with impedimenta – literally. We armour ourselves against ennui like soldiers against the enemy; and yet, even on the longest flight, all one really needs is one book or an MP3 player, 20mg diazepam, and, of course, lip balm. A lawyer friend of mine (found a kilo of cocaine left in the bedside table of his hotel room in Amsterdam once. Someone would have been down the sofa swearing at God about that one) has acknowledged this rationally, and carries a tiny briefcase containing his Kindle and his notepad. The richest man I know travels without hand baggage at all; in his pockets are a propelling pencil, a black American Express card, $100, and his reading glasses.

If possession is the flip side of loss, then neurosis is the obverse of inconvenience. We are filled with rage and frustration when we lose stuff which we never actually needed and certainly didn't need to cart about with us. And we cart it about, I suspect, because we are scared and anxious and in some deep way alienated. The stuff makes us feel better: protected, armoured against the need to rely on anyone else at all, as though strolling through central London has become a version of Ed Stafford's trek along the course of the Amazon. By being ludicrously self-sufficient – even down to the refillable, filtered water-bottle – in an environment where self-sufficiency is entirely unnecessary, we both feel safe and somehow virile (women as much as men; after all, women invented the idea that luggage is necessary at all times). Possession of the messenger-bag or the bulging Mulberry chicksack turns us, in our own minds, into an urban Ed, ready for anything and, more importantly, disassociated from our surroundings. Protected by our aural haze of iPoddage, guarded by the ultra-tech polarized lenses of our £250 Maui Jim shades, the comforting weight of technology and luxury resourcefulness over our shoulder, we view the simple exchanges of the society of the street – "Got a light? D'you have the time? Might I borrow a pen?" – as the prodromal stages of an assault. "Do you know where Brewer Street is?" "Look it up on your own effing iPhone, mate."

And so we are hostages to loss. The sunglasses get left on the Tube, the laptop in the taxi, the mobile on the coffee-shop table. The great advantage of the handbag or murse is that it shortcuts the process: we can lose everything, all at once, in one fell swoop of transient amnesia.

And then what?

A terrible dislocation. Swearing, thumping and God. It's not a new problem; Roman Catholics have for centuries had St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. But he must surely by now have taken on staff. C G Jung, whenever he lost something, simply said it had been "magicked away" by the universe and would return as and when. Think of all the time he saved groping around the sofa.

Now, loss is possible – is easy – on a scale never-before imaginable. An un-backed-up laptop is an opportunity to lose your entire life. So then the thumping heart, the drained blood from the face, the scalp-tingle, the calls to Lost Property offices (but on what, the mobile having been lost in the murse?), the gradual realisation that one has been unspeakably diminished, is no longer prepared for anything, is, dreadfully (and hopefully only briefly) dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Yet there's a message of hope. I know of a woman – a collector, a custodian of heirlooms, owner of a fine library – whose house burned down. And when the initial shock subsided, standing on her lawn looking at the damp smoking ashes in which only a single lavatory remained standing like an Etruscan tomb, she suddenly felt overwhelming relief. It had all gone. All that stuff. Gone.

Perhaps I'll not look for that little penknife.

Certainly not down the sofa. What else might I find? Not the sofa. Let sleeping dogs lie.

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