Subterranean homesick blues

Amongst the items of lost and found property presently stored by Transport for London are an attaché case packed with dentures, a stuffed fox and twenty-two World War I German Picklehaube helmets. These are small drops in a very large ocean. Every year Transport for London gathers together more than a hundred and fifty thousand items of property left on buses, taxis and trains. Waiting to be reclaimed are three hundred engagement rings. Five hundred male and female wigs. Ten thousand copies of The Da Vinci Code. More than a thousand sex toys. Three thousand mobile ‘phones – some dating back to the power breakfast days of the 1980s. Half a million babies dummies. And at least one Agatha Christie murder victim from the 1930s. Dismembered and trunked up. Approximately 40% of all items handed in or recovered by staff are reunited with their owners. The rest are held in safekeeping. Some subsequently binned, some recycled, some auctioned. Some never leave. Some are never claimed.

The items are stored in vast underground caves beneath Baker Street. This is a dusty world of the half finished Rubik’s cube, the forgotten Sony Walkman with Haircut 100 cued up on tape and the Teddy Boy’s sharpened flick comb. Here are London’s own catacombs. But whilst the catacombs of Sicily and Naples contain the desiccated remains of their dead residents, with the corpses posed to mimic life in poignant poses, the catacombs of London, typically and aptly, represent its populace in the retention of 27,000 umbrellas. Not to mention those dentures, the stuffed fox and that army of mislaid dildos.

This is modern palaeontology. The phylogenetics of our materialism. Living archaeology. This is the Tutankhamen’s tomb of the City banker and the LSE student. The eternal briefcase and the political textbook of the dead. These are the discarded belongings of Bakerloo Man, the Australian backpacker, and his forgotten trip through the blinding snow to visit Tate Britain. An annotated Rough Guide and a Rolf Harris autographed didgeridoo. Here rest the relics of our civilization.

In the dusty bowels of the London Transport property office stories of comedy and tragedy are expressed in the unclaimed child’s buggy and the discarded iPod. There is a tale to everything, if only you look for it. If you allow it to exist. And not just in the embalmed remains of a Dodo found in the back of a Hackney carriage or the Emmanuel wedding dress left on an empty train at the conclusion of the Northern Line. Or the false leg that turned up on the top deck of a bendy bus by Green Park. But in every object. Even the mundane. The cheap Swatch watch, the Furby which sings ‘Bob the builder’ when you squeeze its neglected belly and the Thomas the Tank Engine ruler. Each is a window on a private life. How were they lost? Why has the owner never been to find it?

Monuments and public art speak of our aspirations. They represent what we would wish to be. The big moments that have affected us. That have enriched or impoverished our shared existence. Our hopes. Our beliefs. Our pain. Our triumphs. Our egos. They attempt to assimilate the broader, shared events of life. The wars. The tragedies. The milestones. The achievements. They are a coping mechanism. They try to convert emotion into marble. To set it in stone and make it manageable. They are aids to comprehend the incomprehensible. These are the Cenotaphs. The Angels of the North. The Nelson’s Columns. The mementoes of a culture. Nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. But it’s the lost bi-focal spectacles and the Gent’s trilby (size 9½) that speak about who and what we are/were. A mislaid leather glove holds more poignancy than a thousand stone triumphal archways. Posterity will not know us from our grand buildings and monuments. What does Tower Bridge truly tell us about the Victorians when compared with a woman’s whalebone corset c.1862? What could capture 1985 better than a lost ‘Frankie Says’ t-shirt with half a can of Quattro poured down the front of it? Our lives in the early 21st Century will be more aptly summed up in a broken controller for the Nintendo Wii than has ever been achieved by the Millennium Dome or Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin. Nothing shows us for what we are better than the stuff we throw away or the things we lose.

In this world of greed and selfishness Lost & Found is a beacon of hope. The very fact that a stranger will hand in some item of value so that the owner might have it back is out and out cockle warming. One Christmas I lost my wallet. It had £70 in it. I remember the feeling of emptiness and despair when I dipped my hand into my empty pocket. The sudden emotional disorientation. Without hope I visited the police station. My wallet had been handed in by a traffic warden. The cash still there. My heart soared. My faith in humanity was reinstated.

Obviously not everyone is so honest. Ying and yang. Light and shade. There are the items reported missing that have never been found. That, so far, have not been handed in. The copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio that was last seen on the Circle line. The scale model of HMS Ark Royal made from polo mints that went missing on the Docklands Light Railway. Paul Weller’s sense of humour which disappeared on the number 75 somewhere between Soho and Pimlico in 1976.

You know who you are.

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