Introducing the lone suitcase on a carousel of mystery

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The Independent Online
I WENT to my local bookshop in Bradford-on-Avon on Saturday to collect a book I had ordered, and Mike the bookman was going through the pile of ordered books to look for it when he held up one called Understanding GMDSS.

This was a huge paperback, about 2,000 pages long. I think GMDSS stood for 'General Methods of Distinguishing Signs and Signals'. Or it may have been 'Guide to Maritime Distress Signs and Signals' - anyway, it was one of those books that are essential on any yacht, but which the yacht captain can never find when he needs it because it has been used to prop open a tool box or something.

'No, I didn't order that,' I said.

'I know,' said Mike. 'I know who hasn't ordered it. I know lots of people who haven't ordered it. I only wish I knew someone who had ordered it.'

Apparently the book had come in the other day, and the bookshop could find no record of having ordered it, nor had any memory of anyone doing so, and Mike was wondering what his next course of action was. I wasn't too displeased to hear this, because in this information-packed world I think the more mysteries we have, the more we are reminded of our own fallibility.

It is nice, for instance, that when we get off a plane our luggage miraculously reappears on a carousel miles away, but it is also nice that when everyone has collected their luggage from the carousel there is still one suitcase circulating, unclaimed and mysterious. Almost every day, if we did but keep our ears open, we would find that mysteries are hovering quite near us.

For instance, I recently found myself at the University of Warwick in the company of hundreds of graduate recruiters, those people who work invisibly in big companies getting the right graduate recruits from the right university.

That wasn't the mystery. Nor was finding the University of Warwick - though that was bad enough. In the Sixties most new universities were placed on top of the nearest mountain, as at Canterbury, Bath or Brighton, so that even the dimmest student could raise his or her eyes unto the hills not have to ask the way. There being no hills in Warwickshire, they had to build the place in a flat gap between Coventry, Warwick and Kenilworth, and now the only sure way to find the university is to go to one of those three towns and take a road that doesn't go anywhere.

Nor was the mystery supplied by the man with the lapel badge saying: 'Operational Psychologist, British Steel' who, seeing me read it, said: 'I'm afraid the job is not as exciting as it sounds,' although that was mystifying enough.

No, the remark that stuck in my mind was that of the man who said to me: 'You'll find that graduate recruiting and personnel are two very different areas, and attract quite different kinds of people.' As soon as he said that, I knew I would never know the truth about graduate recruiting people and personnel people and, although I don't really want to know the difference, the problem will linger with me and pop out now and again just when I want to relax and do nothing.

Our lives and minds are stuffed full of this kind of incomprehension, like a kind of compost of misapprehension, a forest floor of unanswered questions and queries. Papers like the Guardian and Independent now have columns that do nothing but answer these little mysteries.

(Occasionally you have one cleared up for you by accident. The other day I was listening to an excellent Radio 4 programme called Fin de Siecle, all about the end of the 15th century, and a man said that the high point of the Mass was when the priest said 'This is the body of our Lord', or, in Latin 'Hoc est corpus', but hardly a soul understood what he was talking about, hence the expression 'hocus pocus', and a little extra light shone into my life . . . .)

'We had another book sent to us last week which nobody ordered,' said Mike, 'It was called Understanding Satellites. But I don't think any of our customers wants to understand satellites.'

I suddenly thought I saw the answer to his mystery.

'Look, Mike, if you were a publisher and had a book that wasn't selling, and stocks were piling up? And you started sending copies to bookshops pretending that the bookshops had ordered them, right? And at least half the bookshops assumed it was a genuine order and hung on to it? You'd soon get rid of that book, wouldn't you?'

'It's a nonsensical idea,' said Mike.

But I could tell that I had got him worried.