Lost Property

Andrew O’Hagan

I used to lose several items a week. It was to do with being young, part of the psychopathology of everyday life, then it stopped. Maybe you stop losing small things around the time you start losing big ones – parents, countries, friends – but I haven’t lost a bank card in ten years and I used to lose ten a year. In my twenties, I was forever dropping keys and leaving coats in cloakrooms, or spectacles on bars, and I still wonder if the things I’ve lost would better describe me than the things I kept. The other day, I found a shabby old ledger at an antiques fair and the thing has been keeping me up at night. It’s the Lost Property Register 1928-91 from Glasgow Central Station. Every page is inked with life, if by life we’re talking about the things that come and go (but mainly go).

Before we get to the gas masks left behind, the book itself is an object. The hard cover and the long, regimented columns – ‘Date Found’, ‘Where Found’, ‘Article’, ‘Description’, ‘Name, Marks, Initials, Addresses, Labels’, ‘By Whom Found’, ‘How Disposed Of’, as well as the handwriting itself – speak of a world before virtual reality. This was how reality was and it came with rules and regulations, updated and inserted at the front of the book in 1955. The British Transport Commission, British Railways (Scottish Division) expected that all lost property would be noted and that all articles would be sent to the Lost Property Depot in Glasgow at the end of 48 hours. ‘Items of value such as Documents, Jewellery, Cameras and Field Glasses must be carefully packed and despatched as a “Value” parcel.’ If the item was a coat ‘in good condition’, it had to be wrapped in paper and have a label attached to the right-hand sleeve. T.H. Hollingsworth, the commercial superintendent, felt strongly that umbrellas should be rolled up before dispatch and that suitcases should not be interfered with. Mr Hollingsworth would have left one in no doubt as to the importance of these matters. A letter was folded into the book, from a predecessor of his named W. Crozier. History records almost as little of Crozier as of Hollingsworth (though the National Portrait Gallery holds a bromide print of the latter) and as I travelled into the year-by-year compendia of lost things I began to think of the people as lost too.

The first item in my ledger is a lady’s black umbrella, wood and bone handle, found on the morning of 13 August 1928, and the last, a green bicycle, left on an evening train to Fort William on 8 January 1991. There’s no obvious pattern to the losses over those 63 years – lots of coats, umbrellas, parcels and scarves – but a number of items are more or less extinct, or hard to imagine, as things that might commonly be lost today, those gas masks, for example, and army tunics, a pipe, a copy of Old Mortality. The ledger stops before mobile phones become more popular than gloves (next to keys, spectacles and umbrellas, they are now the things most commonly lost), but a different world is conjured by the items people took on trains before the dawn of Amazon. In 1934, a frying pan. In 1938, a blue beret and a spirit level. In 1939, a steel helmet. In 1942, a khaki respirator and a typewriter – 1942 was a big year for the register. In 1948, a snakeskin purse containing two ration books. (There’s a whole novel right there.) In 1950, one pair of ladies’ white knickers (‘retrieved from the 3rd Class Compartment’) and a lot of handbags. On Christmas Eve 1955, a person left their false teeth on the 10.30 train to northern parts, but thankfully only ‘the upper set’. The 1960s got off to a good start with the loss of a ‘pair of dancing shoes’, but it thins out after that, suggesting people either kept a tighter grip on their possessions, or, more likely, the old systems of lost and found were themselves lost, eroded by job cuts. In 1976, someone found a pound note and handed it in. In 1981, someone found a bag of Christmas presents: a bottle of Scotch, some perfume by Helena Rubinstein, and two Christmas tree baubles. I can’t swear that was me, but I think it was.

Losing things became a thing with me quite young. My father once took me to a coffee morning and asked me to hold the £5 note that was all we had at the time. Of course, I dropped it on the way. I remember it chiefly because of the look on my father’s face and the sense of a spoiled weekend, entirely my fault, when everything promised to be so sweet. ‘It takes me a whole day to earn that,’ he said and the way he strode ahead made me feel like a lost cause. I like the way childhood first visits some of us as tragedy and then as comedy, but the joke, I now realise, was that my father was the great lost property item of our childhood. He was never there, and when he did come back, it was with fivers for us to hold, until he passed a pub. In my happier moments, I like to imagine I threw the fiver away rather than lost it. But I’m sure I didn’t, I was too greedy and too happy to see him.

The first time I went to New York, aged twenty, I picked up the wrong bag at JFK and took it all the way to the YMCA on West 34th Street. On the ninth floor, with humidity like I’d never experienced and police sirens going wild below, I opened the bag and discovered it was filled with saris and strange dried fruit. Also a camera. I didn’t know a single person in the city and wondered what you did if you had no clothes, no credit card, and no stomach for the full transvestite experience. But for a moment, standing there in yesterday’s clothes, I considered what it would be like to swap identities. What if I hadn’t lost my bag but had found a self? What if my lost property belonged to someone else now, all those white T-shirts and black jeans and pullovers from Joe Bloggs? It seemed a writer’s problem to me, the first of many, and I enjoyed the scheme of unreason, the daft possibilities, as I trundled back on the subway to Queens and went in search of my bag.

Some people took these things much more seriously than I did. Jenny Diski, late of this parish, once gave me one of her novels in manuscript and asked me to tell her what I thought. I was moving flats at the time, and the printout was in one of the boxes and I couldn’t say which one. I called Jenny. ‘I’m all over the place. Give me another printout of your novel, will you, Jenny?’

‘Certainly not,’ she said.

‘But I want to read it. I just can’t lay my hands on it.’

‘If someone gives you their novel, put it in a drawer,’ she said, ‘and take it out and read it when you can. But don’t lose it.’

‘But I haven’t lost it.’

‘Yes, you have,’ she said.

To my mind, Jenny’s position was admirable but unjust, but she would tell me that’s the sort of thing men say. But I believe in accidents almost as much as I believe in secret intentions. Yes we lose things, sometimes, because we want to lose them, or because we aren’t sufficiently in love with them to protect them, but at other times we just lose a thing because we’ve been unlucky.

Sadly, many lost things are not in fact lost, they are taken, and life can change altogether because of things taken. Think of Leonard Bast’s umbrella, which is ‘quite inadvertently’ taken from the Queen’s Hall by Helen in Howards End, an event that leads to the downfall of nearly everything in the novel. When the umbrella is taken, Bast is at first ‘corroded with suspicion’ of the Schlegels, but he feels better when he sees, from Margaret’s card, that they have a good address. On the way to the house, while Margaret speaks of Monet and Debussy, ‘he could not quite forget about his stolen umbrella.’ And so it begins. In quick time, when they reach the house, Helen will insult his umbrella just as inadvertently as she took it, and Mr Bast will flee the tea. If only someone had handed in his umbrella, instead of silly Helen flying off with it, the wheels wouldn’t have turned so far, and the drama could have been contained in an old ledger.

I wasn’t done thinking about my book’s very lost person, W. Crozier. You can get lost yourself in looking for the lost – I’ve vanished into this territory before – so I soon felt quite comfortable in the Universal Directory of Railway Officials, 1919 (compiled by S.R. Blundstone, editor of the Railway Engineer). Turns out our man was William, and he spent 48 years of his life working for the railways. He started as a boy at Glassford station in Lanarkshire and worked his way up through the stations of the central belt to become operating manager at Glasgow for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. ‘He played a large part,’ the Scotsman reported on his retirement in 1936, ‘in the transport of men and war materials throughout the war,’ and received an OBE. He died in 1961. And now Crozier, like the umbrellas and the old suitcases he once harvested at Glasgow Central, is immortalised in a few strokes of the pen and otherwise forgotten. Beyond a certain point, there’s a comfort in that, but I expect to work my way back to losing things quite soon. The next time I lose my scarf I’ll be thinking about the person who picks it up. I’ll imagine them handing it in and imagine someone making a note of it and someone else reading about it in sixty years’ time. The person who lost the scarf will be beyond scarves by then, but someone else will be warmer for it.