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Saved by the (very) late post

Every year at about this time, I wrestle with a real monster. It's the words that go with the numbers produced by my invaluable colleague, Andrew, for our annual report and accounts.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate's annual report has one extraordinary virtue: no one reads it. It is the greatest unopened work of literature since the Aeneid.

Now some people might think this neglect would be demoralising. After all, the thing takes hours of work by our finance team, me, external auditors, the audit committee, the ALI board and even, eventually, the august comptroller and auditor-general himself. Then designers, printers and a whole new circle of willing souls chip in their five penn'orth to send it to Parliament before members bolt for Tuscany for the summer.

But no. Because no one ever reads it, I can write what I like. It's a kind of literary Butlins - time out from serious endeavour and the consequences of drinking five pints and finding every woman devilishly attractive.

This year, I struggled a bit. It wouldn't flow somehow. I cracked this problem by retiring home to deepest Hampshire for a couple of days, armed with a folio of facts and the faithful lined pad. I wrapped my head in a wet towel, spread the tools of the trade all over the kitchen table, rearranged them seven or eight times, made another cup of coffee and settled down to write. After a couple of days of growling, I'd done it.

My representative on earth, Annette, had given me a large brown envelope with stamps on it and a big sticky label with her name and the office address.

"Don't come back until you've written it. When you've finished writing, put the text in the envelope, seal it, place it in the pillarbox and when you're next in I will have it all ready."

As always, I did as I was told and expected a pleasurable outcome. Back to the office. No envelope. We tentatively ask the Post Office how long before we should start to worry that first-class mail had gone astray.

"Fourteen days," they say.

They are experienced in losing things, we suppose, and, to be fair, I've never knowingly had a letter go walkabout and don't know what to expect.

We wait. At the end of 14 days, still no letter and we have to do a temporary lash-up of an annual report for the audit committee which, quite rightly, gives me a damned good mauling for putting codswallop before them.

Still no letter.

Enquiries are made of central post offices in Coventry and Salisbury and even, through a friendly insider, of Royal Mail HQ itself. No result.

"Ordinary first-class mail untraceable. We handle 30 million letters a day.

Yours had no distinguishing marks."

It takes me back to my own days as a Christmas relief postie when I committed the sins which have come back to haunt me now. All those parcels we used to throw about in the van. The sound of smashing glass and the dismay on the customer's face when you handed over a whisky-soaked, tinkly, mangled parcel which was once a seasonal gift from Skye - with 10 and sixpence excess postage to pay.

Eventually, we send off a politely-phrased complaint form and I settle down for a fun-packed weekend to rewrite the annual report.

Somehow the fun has gone out of it. Stolid, truthful, devoid of all those flights of fancy and irritable outbursts which tell the honourable members what I really think, it's a travesty of my usual literary oeuvre.

Eventually, the auditors complete their painstaking work. Adjustments and provisions are agreed. Exciting transfers between tangible and intangible assets are discussed at length. And then a letter arrives from the Post Office apologising for losing my precious manuscript and enclosing 12 first-class stamps as compensation - except they forget to enclose them.

A month to the day after I had popped my manuscript in the post, the final sign-off meeting is held with the auditors. We are pleased that they are pleased. All is smiles. Off goes the ALI annual report and accounts for 2004-05 for Sir John Bourn's signature and gracious receipt in the library of the House of Commons. And through the letterbox comes my original text.

It doesn't even look travel-worn. When fiercely interrogated, it has no tales to tell of life in the fast lane. For a gypsy, it still looks just like a dull old manilla envelope, but with pound;1.29 excess postage to pay.

Do I dare open it? No. But I can tell you in confidence that if anyone had read that original text they would have really smarted. They would have got the message that the ALI, deep down, wanted to send when no one grown-up was looking. Heads would have rolled, principalities and powers would have tottered.

They have been saved by Her Majesty's Royal Mail.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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