"How long is a piece of string?" How long indeed? It's a question often on the lips of those searching for an answer to a knotty problem. A problem that they are struggling to unravel, to disentangle. And I have to say that it's a question I am asking you to consider tonight.
"How long is a piece of string?" Of course, this is a complex matter, and does not lend itself to a simple or a quick answer. There are many factors to be taken into account. For example, it is hardly practicable to begin to determine the length of any piece of string, unless one has a definite idea of the location of the beginning of the string. And of course, we can hardly answer the next question that must surely follow this one as night succeeds day - "where is the end of this piece of string?" - until we have first found the beginning of our string.
As I hope you are beginning to understand, the world of string is full of these tangled skeins. And once we begin to delve into these matters, then we are beset by all manner of issues that seem to well up, all the better to discourage us.
For example, let us imagine that we have indeed found both ends of our string. We might feel justified in congratulating ourselves, for these discoveries are often hard-won. But how do we know that we have got it the right way around? For all we know, we might have mistaken the beginning of our string for its end, or we might have mistaken the end for the beginning!
"Ah", you might be thinking, "what is he talking about here? For surely it does not matter which we call the beginning and which the end. We can measure the length without reference to concepts of start or finish, for surely these are mere arbitrary labels that have no bearing upon the length of our string?"
But let me tell you that this is indeed a crucial question. It is one which we at the Department For String always treat with the utmost seriousness. We are never careless about what we call string direction.
For you must remember that the world of string is a working world. We are not talking about academic ideas, or abstract theories about imaginary string. We are looking at string that is used in the real world by real people. People who need string. String to tie up their parcels. String to keep a bundle of garden canes together. String to serve as a temporary lead for a pet cat or dog (and before you protest - yes, I do know a lady who walks her cat and is careful to keep a ball of twine handy for those "collar and lead emergencies").
String is also of course used in the world of industry. And here we come to the nub of my gist. If a man in a factory wants to cut a length of string, then the length is crucial, is it not? It is vital to get the length right so that the string will do its job efficiently. No modern factory can tolerate vagueness in the question of string length. Industry would collapse.
But let us pursue the thread, as it were. It is vital to be accurate about the length of string you cut for not one but two reasons. Yes, it is important to get the length right for the job at hand. That goes without saying, even if I am saying it now.
And yet that is not the most important reason. No. The most important reason for being accurate about the length of string is when it comes to the matter of stock control. Be careless about string length and your warehousing will fall into disarray. It's vital to know how much string you have left after you have cut off a length to serve the job in hand.
And here we return to the subtle matter of string direction. For if we have failed to determine which is the start of our supply of string and which its terminus, then how can we know whether we have cut off, say, 15" from the start or from the end of our supply?
This is the sort of ambiguity that afflicted the later Roman Empire. We have a saying here at the Department For String. We say, in this saying, that "carelessness with string is the first sign of decadence".
Let me illustrate, if it is necessary (and it surely is, for many of you will be thinking "what is all this talk about string?").
There was a regrettable incident at the National String Laboratory near Wilmslow a few years ago. They had a length of string that was 22" long. They were testing this string for various properties, before allowing it to go onto the market. So far so good.
However, one morning the head tester arrived to find that the string was only 10" long. The problem was, no-one had managed to determine which end was which in the first place. Consequently, they were unable to establish whether someone had taken a length of 12" from the beginning or from the end. Further, they could not say with any certainty whether someone had not cut a piece somewhere out of the middle of the original length and rejoined the two ends (for there are powerful string bonding technologies at the laboratory) to form a new, shorter, remaining length.
Obviously, I need hardly tell you - though I will do - that we learned a hard lesson that day and have ever since redoubled our efforts when it comes to string security and string exactitude.
But why am I telling you all this? I want you to be fully aware of the importance of string, that's why. More even than this, I want you to appreciate the complexities of the world of string. There are no easy answers when it comes to string.
And that is why I feel sure that you will understand when I say that these are hard times for string manufacturers, for buyers of string, and for us here at the Department For String.
And I know that you will heed my plea, when I ask you all to be extra-careful and especially-vigilant about your own string. Cavalier attitudes have no place in the string business.
Please, take special care with those balls of string in your drawers. Use them wisely. Keep a tally of the lengths you cut off, and you will be able to determine how much you have left. Endeavour to re-use - wherever possible - those old lengths of string, too, for careful husbandry of string is one of those old skills many had thought obsolete and pointless in these days of 21st century technology. I am here to suggest otherwise.
While we are all attempting to deal with the enormous national debt left behind by Gordon Brown, it is these old, out-of-favour skills that we will be relying on, more and more.
Just as people are being asked to cure their own illnesses by making potions with herbs they can find in local woodlands, and being expected to provide their own social care in their spare time, so we at String House are now asking you all to husband your string wisely.
Because you never know what we might have to make out of all of this string one of these days. To return. briefly, to the National String Laboratory near Wilmslow, there is vital work being carried out as we speak. Crack string teams are looking at what we might be able to do with string as we struggle to recover from years of Labour mismanagement. These crack teams have already discovered that it is quite feasible to use string to make things like bridges, simple vehicles, bi-planes and anti-immigrant fencing. Who knows how much we might come to rely on good old, old-fashioned string?
And the day may well come when we are all asked to lend our own string to the cause - both national and local. We at String House would be proud to be able to say string played its part in our nation's recovery!
As I said just now, we don't want to be like the Romans. When the Barbarians marched into Rome, I often think that the cry of their appalled leaders - "how could they neglect their string in this manner: did they never hear of string husbandry?" - is one of the saddest statements in recorded history.
I will not keep you much longer. I will only end by saying that, if I have one message tonight it is this:
Look after your string, and your string will look after you in return.