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A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

Chris West

(Picador; US: Oct 2013)

When I saved up my allowance as an nine-year-old, my first purchases were the boxed Ballantine paperback set of The Lord of the Rings for $2.85 and a secondhand Scott’s stamp catalogue, the latter sold cheap as it was one year outdated from a local philatelist’s shop. Those two red hardcover volumes set me back $7.50, but I lost myself there in as many imagined realms as mapped in Tolkien’s trilogy.


Staring at the small, monochrome images of stamps, I had to create in my mind’s eye the magenta, umber, or carmine hues as distinguishing issues. My favorites were from British territories and protectorates and Crown Colonies. I’d scan their chronological entries, until the kings and queens stopped. Then, I’d switch from, say, Bechuanaland to Botswana, and watch as independence triumphed, titling the first issue of the new nation.


Through these stamps I learned a lot about history and politics. Chris Wests incorporates similar lessons into his snappy survey of three dozen British stamps. These offer a cultural tour around the United Kingdom, since 1840.


With (once-?) typical English efficiency, the Penny Post came about nearly the same moment a new queen ascended the throne. Rowland Hill, a liberal reformer eager to spread literacy and offer a cheap method of sending letters which did not rely on the fluctuating fees demanded from the recipient from the postmaster, pitched his proposal. Overhead then as now proved low compared to distance; the expense lay in overheads. These would be reduced by a standard fee, a non-negotiable surcharge.


Hill’s three reasons convinced the Royal Post Office. It might lose money at first due to the loss of postmasters’ income, but the cost would soon convince many more to use a fixed-rate service. In turn, businesses would save. Finally, families separated by industrialization and urbanization could stay in touch. They did. The first issue, the Penny Black with the young Victoria in profile, sold 68 million in its year of production. Its successor, the Penny Red, over the next 40 years sold 20 billion; starting in 1881, the Lilac sold 33 billion. In London by 1857, 12 daily deliveries allowed rapid exchanges of letters or postcards, and that city counted for a third of British correspondence.


Most chapters, however, depart from a stamp itself to summon up its era or a dramatic event. For example, the Irish famine pairs with a depiction of a Penny Red postmarked there. Doughty Victoria’s profile alters and her inked color changes over long decades, but given the similarity of the designs for much of the period charted, there is not as much to discuss about these stolid stamps themselves. When topics emerge, as with later commemoratives, West remains chary about what he explores.


Is there a need for 75,000 words which prefer to retell modern British history more than how stamps altered key moments of it, however tacitly? Perhaps, if one prefers West’s subtlety. From each selected stamp, he surveys its illustrative era. He finds in each brisk chapter a vignette or perspective which suits his broad-minded humanism. He astutely credits earlier generations when, as with Rowland Hill or Charles Dickens, they asserted the sustenance of humanity in the face of relentless mechanization. He selects (if, frustratingly, with no references to any of the anecdotes, local history, or factoids he shares so often) stories which narrate in a thoughtful tone the mindset of his forebears.


He fairly calculates the imperial balance sheet for standards of living after the seizure of Hong Kong from the Chinese. West shows how the Army Form B 104-82 sent to the family of a dead soldier (fallen officers by contrast merited telegrams) at the cost of a George V Penny Red epitomized the bureaucracy of mass slaughter. “There was a hand-stamp for ‘killed in action.’” Regarding the results of a 1919 “Homes fit for Heroes” campaign to house the returning troops from the Great War, West notes how “the results can be seen in most English villages (down the road from the war memorial).” Speaking of war, his only foreign inclusion, a two million over-stamp of a 200 Deutsche Mark 1923 issue, allows him to consider the relevance of hyperinflation to what replaced the Weimar Republic.


I agree with West as to his favorite. Monarchs tend not to amuse as much once one sees them over and over as the subject on a stamp, but what he terms 1953’s “Gloriana”, after Benjamin Britten’s opera praising the coronation of Elizabeth II, remains handsome. Elegantly, it presents the new queen facing us, her calm gaze composed, her posture proud, her ermines and orb resplendent. This final design from the talented Edmund Dulac softens even this Irish (with a small-r) republican reviewer.


Addressing a British audience, West never mentions why these stamps always show a monarch but never list their origin. Great Britain premiered the adhesive stamp, so by the International Postal Union’s decision, the kingdom did not have to name itself on it. Intriguingly (West again does not account for this), the British monarch, usually unnamed, is always depicted. For many reigns, this convention meant that the stamp tended to fill up with a regal profile. Only in the later 20th century, as that royal figure herself sought rapport with her subjects in a post-imperial era, did Queen Elizabeth find her image shrunk to a cameo. As such, on most commemoratives she remains today, her head usually enduring as a tasteful silhouette at the margins, a presence I find symbolic.


Tellingly, British business confidence, even on Her Majesty’s stamps, weakened by the second decade of her reign. “National Productivity Year” (1962) cannot overcome its dull theme. The queen’s portrait takes up the right half. Arrows rise up superimposed over an outline of the kingdom at left, and the N-P-R initials jostle for supremacy at center. The 3d version, West must admit, had “white blobs” on the map, so parts of the realm were submerged as if into inland lakes. On some printings, Kent crumbled into the sea; on still others, “the Queen has a nasty white spot on the end of her nose”.


Fortunately, the Beatles boosted revenue. West’s fondness for a “true Summer of Love” during 1966, when Revolver appeared, while the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” provided the season’s theme for Swinging London, makes England’s World Cup triumph proclaimed on a stamp all the more splendid.


What follows, for what West’s iconic David Bowie evoked as a mood of “Life on Mars”, dampened prospects post-Yoko. Unions walked out, factories groaned, prime ministers sagged. Dismayed by unemployment, Britons tried to rally. A decimal system replaced ancient pounds, shillings, and pence, so the stamps had to match the new currency. A first day cover features all decimal definitives (the standard design with a uniform image for all denominations) with its own rubber stamp below. “Posting delayed by the Post Office Strike 1971.” Inflation jumped from four percent in 1972 to 25 percent by 1975.


Few authors may find common ground strutted by Sid Vicious and Margaret Thatcher, but West joins them by their individual ambition. Confronting a British system no longer working, both resented conformity to outmoded models: one musical, one economic, maybe both political. West carefully examines the controversial legacy of the Iron Lady, whose mark probably left a far firmer imprint on British society than the Sex Pistols and all the spiky kids united. As with the British taking of Hong Kong in light of its subsequent prosperity, West aligns Thatcher with her embrace of “Victorian values”. He asks if his nation indeed can survive without a “sound currency” and a thriving support of the entrepreneurial spirit which, after all, inspired reformers such as Rowland Hill as well as Maggie.


Another high-profile woman’s entry onto the national stage at precisely this very contentious time would be commemorated with its own complex iconography, behind the simplified or soon polarized media manipulation of a much younger blonde. Princess Diana’s ambitions to seek not Charles’ sense of inherited duty but her own personal “authenticity” in West’s analysis account for her own divided legacy. As “the People’s Princess” she sought to connect with causes, such as landmine eradication or AIDS patients, driven by her own wish for exposure, and self-satisfaction in a difficult role she made public, or which was made so inevitably for her. West aligns this drive with her struggle against a fairytale wedding aftermath, one that trapped her. He notes how all five issues after Diana’s death feature photographs from only her last ten years. That way, no royal family had to be included, or cut. Instead, as a representative of her post-1960s generation, Diana occupies the full stamp frame, alone.


Stamps serve as a synecdoche for Great Britain’s challenges and creations, if affording a small peephole rather than a panorama. West’s philatelic appendix explains how from the stamps featured the eager may acquire “space fillers”, or experts with more money better specimens, or for “the philatelist “who thinks they have died and gone to heaven” mint condition rarities.


One wants more about the lore of stamps, much more. West might have provided a more consistent ratio between the historical events and royal dynasty these stamps memorialize and the humble, if often marvelously designed (considering their artistic merit, too few commemoratives enrich his sample) stamps themselves, with their quirks and trivia. However, as a welcome reminder in our wired age of the value and charm these little stickers possess, A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps illustrates the kingdom’s ambitions and the inherent modesty of its eccentric title.

Rating:

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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