An Era or a Dramatic Event on a Postcard: 'A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps'

Stamps serve as a synecdoche for Great Britain's challenges and creations, if affording a small peephole more than a panorama.

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

Publisher: Picador
Length: 288 pages
Author: Chris West
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-10
Author's website:

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of The Lord of the Rings for $2.85 and a secondhand Scott's stamp catalogue, the latter sold cheap as it was one year outdated from a local philatelist's shop.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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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