Royal Mail have angered stamp collectors this year by issuing a proliferation of commemorative stamps, which collectors say is killing their hobby by making it impossible for them to keep up with every stamp issued. Hunter Davies at the Guardian writes that 'there are just so many new issues each year that children and new collectors will be priced out of the market, should they try to keep up with the output'. Clearly, this is only a problem if you're a completist, and Davies has his own rules which allow him to enjoy his hobby without becoming merely a toy in the marketisation of collecting; he tries to collect nothing which is made especially for philatelists.

There's much to provoke thought in Davies' article, not least the part where he says that becoming 'a born-again stamp collector 30 years ago' was 'a normal human process, whereby we regress to our childhood interests'. His view of collecting is deeply rooted in nostalgia, and this is shared by many of those who comment on the article, one of whom says that 'I collect stamps that I can recall from childhood or youth and which therefore have some emotional resonance'. Another rather beautifully puts it thus;
To young mind before the digital age, a single stamp of unfamiliar places and objects is a macro-world in itself. You can look at it for hours. There is no death, no destructions, no nastiness within the little world of stamps
This, to me, is a really evocative statement. I can just imagine the little boy immersed in the pages of his stamp collection, perhaps passed down from his grandfather (always male, these figures...). It's a romantic image of a child experiencing the world vicariously through these little paper shapes. What a lovely thought.

But on reflection, there's something else at work here, and I'm not sure it excludes death, destruction and nastiness to quite the extent this philatelist would like. The adhesive postage stamp was an invention of Victorian Britain, when it was created in reponse to the frequent problem of non-payment which occured in the old system, where the recipient coughed up for the postage price of any mail they received. The first stamp, the Penny Black, featured a profile of Queen Victoria, and even now, even commemorative and decorative stamps still have a little profile silhouette of our Liz tucked into a corner. In fact, the UK, I am reliably informed, is the only country in the world that does not have its name printed on its stamps; we use the head of our monarch instead.



Penny Black stamp

This seems, to me, to be a very potent symbol of state and imperial power. The image of the head of state attached to every written communication in the land. Or, indeed, going out of the land. Although Elihu Burritt, an American who campaigned for international postage stamps, said that his aim was to 'link all nations in trade and peace', doesn't the postage stamp work both to reinforce the boundaries of nation and promulgate the idea that this nation can reach out to penetrate all corners of the globe?

Perhaps (well, almost definitely) I'm on this line of thought because I read Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities last night. But it's not just that. Another collector who read Davies' essay commented;
Pre-decimal issues are beautifully designed and redolent of our nation's history.
How wonderful to hold a silver sixpence from the reign of Queen Anne, proclaiming her queen of Britain, France and Ireland (MAG BR FRA ET HIB REG)
Or of George III - marked LIMA because it was minted in silver from a captured Spanish galleon
Now we have shoddy tat, explaining the offside rule or some other irrelevance.
Admittedly, he's talking about coins here, but they're similarly issued and, perhaps, spread. Stamps and coins carry images and slogans of imperial fantasy and history. Now, in many countries, stamps are issued in their thousands to raise revenue for the state; designs that have no postal value are produced solely to be purchased by collectors. But Davies' article suggests that perhaps stamp collectors are no longer willing to be manipulated in this way.

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