A non-partisan journal of the left.

Sixty years of philatelic pleasure, and now?

Mon 5th Mar 2012

For the five or six generations of solitary, sedentary boys in the middle of which fell my vintage (the baby boomers), the hobby par excellence was collecting stamps. Philately, as we preferred to call it, could be enjoyed alone on a long winter evening or with others, particularly when engaged in the cut-throat business of “swaps”.

There were plenty of tangential benefits that surely trumped whatever – other than burning off energy – was to be gained from being out playing football or cowboys and indians. Stamps from abroad opened up foreign parts in a unique way at a time when television was still in its infancy. Significant events and figures from the diverse pasts of diverse nations were apt to be commemorated on stamps. Present national and international events were marked also, and culture, science, industry and other important enterprises were reflected on postal issues. Finally, the philatelic artwork itself gave one an appreciation of design and the particular skills of miniaturisation. So a stamp collection was a guide to geography, history, art and current affairs in little. It did just what John Reith’s BBC was designed to do: educate, inform and entertain.

Like most collectors in that period, I began with British and Commonwealth stamps, the ones most readily available on envelopes that came through the door. But I was drawn to European stamps, so many of which had an elegance you didn’t find in the rather drab and restrained home issues. Then I had a lucky break.

My mother had golfing friends who turned out to have a serious stamp collection. The husband, Henri Castel, was a Frenchman who had been brought up by an English guardian: there were intriguing rumours of an improper relationship. Henri was glamorous and charming with thick, black, wavy hair and a Günter Grass moustache. The little finger was missing from his left hand: in his account, it had been bitten off by a horse when he was serving in the cavalry. I happily swallowed this version. He seemed to me a hugely romantic figure and I was hopelessly smitten.

No less glamorous – if a little forbidding for my taste – was his German wife Hildegard. Everyone remarked upon her facial resemblance to Dietrich, although in truth this was a touch far-fetched. Nevertheless, a German woman living in an English market town less than a decade after war’s end was, to say the least, something of a novelty, and if, by relating her to an acceptable German, the locals found a way to accept her, so much the better.

Hilde’s father had possessed a huge and – I would hazard – internationally significant collection of German stamps that, some time in the early years of the cold war, Henri and Hilde managed to smuggle piecemeal out of East Germany and bring to England. These were the treasures to which Henri introduced me during our regular Saturday mornings at his parlour table in their beautiful townhouse. With a generosity that, in retrospect, makes my head spin, he passed to me many fine items from his own and his father-in-law’s collections.

With Henri’s encouragement, I built my own German collection. Hitler remained a palpable bogeyman for several years after the war and there was a curious frisson in owning miniature portraits of him issued in the years of his pomp. There was no sense, though, that Henri and I were keeping some flame alive. Far from it. We were dealing objectively with the historical objects that happened to be available to us. For a school open day, I prepared a potted history of twentieth-century Germany illustrated with stamps from my own collection. By mutual consent, Henri gave me no assistance with this, save for his comprehensive enthusiasm when it was finished and ready to show. I duly won a prize.

My own instincts embraced French and Dutch stamps quite as much as German, and Henri helped and encouraged these parallel collections. As with any collecting field where the items are contemporary as well as historical, the new issues need to be systematically added if the collection is to remain sharp. Though I had built serviceable historical cores to my collections, the various intrusions attendant upon growing up prevented my keeping them up-to-date. The Saturday morning sessions dwindled. I suppose I was eight when they began and 12 when they ended.

The Castels had slipped away from the centre of my life when my mother told me that Henri had dropped dead on the golf course. I remember that my emotions were curiously detached, that I had somehow sensed that such a treasured mentor would be snatched away. I guess I was then about 16, Henri probably in his early 50s.

I still have the stamp collection. Would it be worth anything? Collecting is very subject to the vagaries of fashion and to quite external factors. In a world where so much of what we deal with is digital, stuff that you can hold is less favoured, but that may not always be so.

I have added little to the German, French and Dutch collections for years. But I have systematically kept my British collection current by purchasing the new stamps as they were issued, a set to keep mint, another to post to myself so that they acquire postal franking. Though the Royal Mail makes a great fuss about the delights of philately and puts out special issues in ever increasing numbers, most of the management decisions made concerning postal services over the past couple of decades have militated against the collector.

British stamps were graphically modest and infrequently issued before the 1960s. Then suitable occasions for special issues began to be found: the Post Offices Savings Bank centenary, the European Postal and Telecommunications Conference, the ninth International Lifeboat Conference. In 1964, the first commoner was depicted on a set of British stamps when the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth was marked. By this time, a modernist was overlord of the postal service.

The post of Postmaster General dates back to 1823 and it had cabinet rank. Among distinguished PMG’s were Austen and Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Charles Hill and Ernest Marples. The last holder of the office, before it became Minister of Post and Telecommunications outside the cabinet in 1969, was the notorious John Stonehouse.

From 1964 to 1966, the PMG was the MP then known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn. At this time, the organisation was called the General Post Office (GPO) – my mother used to say “I’m just going down to the General”. The GPO was a government department and, as its effective chairman, Tony Benn greatly expanded the scope of commemorative stamps and encouraged the recruitment of contemporary graphic artists.

New structures such as the Forth road bridge and the GPO tower were depicted and the first themed set, of British landscapes, was issued. The death of Churchill was marked – a real departure this and not without controversy – and a third commoner, the poet Burns, was celebrated. The battles of Britain and Hastings were memorialized and (another populist touch) the football World Cup, which England hosted, was the subject of a set, followed by the rush-release of an amended stamp to mark England’s win. Finally, 1966 saw the first issue of Christmas stamps, an annual treat ever since.

The art of postage stamp design, with a few vulgar exceptions, has been upheld by successive manifestations of the postal service until quite recently. In 1969, the GPO ceased to be a government department and was converted into a nationalized industry. Twelve years later, it was divided into Post Office Ltd and British Telecom, the latter of which was subsequently privatized.

The division of the telephone service from the postal service had an immediate and deleterious effect. Vandalism of public phone boxes had become epidemic but you always knew that you could find a working callbox inside a post office. With the split, public phones were ruthlessly ripped out of post offices and, until mobiles made the callbox redundant, finding a working phone was even harder.

What is now called Royal Mail Group is a public limited company wholly owned by government. At vast expense, the group changed its name to Consignia about a decade ago, then paid belated attention to what everyone told it and, at more vast expense, reverted to the title Royal Mail. This absurd gaffe, over which no resignations were evidently required, is an indication of the sorry state into which the administration of the postal service has steadily plunged.

The motto of the Wells Fargo company was “the mail must get through”. Whether by stagecoach, steamship, railroad, pony express or telegraph, Wells Fargo delivered the fastest way. Much more than the post service in Britain, the US mail was a mission, a crusade, an absolute. It remains true. Go to New York’s main post office by Madison Square Garden: its customer service is a model of its kind.

There’s a celebrated legend carved on the frieze of the New York post office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. My American friends report that this is not exactly an accurate account any longer, however. Mail between the UK and the US does get through in good time; but internal US mail is notoriously delayed.

The UK post has perceptibly declined in my lifetime; it has also lessened at each of its government-decreed changes of status. In my childhood, any item posted early in the morning to an address in the same town (or marked ‘local’) would without fail arrive by the second delivery the same day. If a parcel were too big to be accommodated by the letter box or it had to be signed for, the GPO would move heaven and earth to get it into your hands at the earliest opportunity, calling round again and again until they found you at home or coming to some arrangement with a neighbour.

None of this survives. The second delivery was never a fully national service. Sydney Smith, the great clerical wit whose life only extended into the Victorian era by eight years, loftily dismissed a rural retreat he had visited as “a place with only one post a day … in the country, I always fear that creation will expire before tea-time”. But second deliveries everywhere died out some years ago. In 2004, the Royal Mail announced the formal end to second deliveries. “Some customers will see little or no change to their current delivery times” claimed a round robin over the signature of the Sales and Customer Services Director. Indeed, daily deliveries were by then so delayed, especially in London, that they arrived later than second deliveries had done a generation earlier.

Thereafter, our post in the west country arrived some time between 10:30am and noon, extending now to as late as 2:30pm. I hate it. Until 2004, I was wont to open the mail with my breakfast. Now, because the moment has passed, it gets left unopened in my study, sometimes for days on end. Bills go unpaid and reminders get issued. Special offers expire. Replies to the few personal letters that now arrive are tackled later than I would choose.

More important than all that, the sheer pleasure of receiving post has withered away. And how disappointing not to get your cards before departing for school on your birthday. It is inevitable that email has supplanted letter post. I can read an email within moments of its birth. That’s a big plus, of course. But there are down sides. With a few exceptions, the writer will have dashed off the email and not read it through so it will be strewn with errors. And it almost certainly will not get bequeathed to Harvard. Shall future generations be treated to fat volumes of The Collected eMails of Will Self or The Annotated Texts of Paris Hilton? I doubt it. But unlike the scorned “snail mail”, it does get through (technical glitches permitting).

Without announcement, the Royal Mail abandoned another part if its service in 2003, a part more subtly significant. It tore up its collection timetable. For decades, postwomen and men emptying postboxes had diligently indicated so doing by changing a small white enamel square slotted into the box’s face just above the posting aperture. So, if you arrived at the box to post your letter and the black numeral on the enamel square said 2, you knew that you were in time for the second pick-up at (say) 11.15am, as indicated on the timetable displayed on the box. This was critical for attempts to catch early collections whereby you confidently expected next-day delivery.

With the timetable gone, the enamel squares went too. Now you could not tell if the box-emptying had been performed to time. In fact, there was nothing to say that the box had been emptied at all, let alone when it was emptied. All that was displayed was a formal last collection time and, as I soon discovered by occasional observation of the postbox nearest our house, this time was a mere approximation and might be missed by twenty minutes or more either way. So you might post a letter at 5.35pm, expecting it to be collected at 5.45pm (as advertised) and so be on its way that day to its destination, unaware that the collection has already been made at 5.25pm. And your letter was still lying there, perhaps until after 6.00pm the next day.

In the face of evidently influential criticism, the post office did restore a crucial part of the publicly revealed timetable. Now the boxes at least carry a square indicating the day on which the next collection will take place. So, if it announces ‘Wed’ when you post your letter at 5.47pm on Wednesday, you can hope that it will be collected shortly. Whether there is any more than the one advertised ‘last’ collection each day, we cannot guess.

Of course, as a public concern, the Royal Mail is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Sustain a loss – £120m last year – and it’s inefficient and a drain on public investment. Make a profit and it is creaming it at the public expense. The only way the company can win back its good name is to break even by performing efficiently. If the public feels that it is dependable, whether it turns profit or loss is secondary. Meanwhile, successive governments’ fetish for privatization will ensure that Royal Mail loses its most profitable services to ruthless competitors.

From my philatelic point of view, the 1950s and ‘60s made up a rosy era. Every tiny village had its own circular date stamp (CDS) with its name included. In philatelic philosophy, CDS’s were thought much the most preferable franking on a specimen that was termed ‘used’ (which is to say franked and then soaked from the envelope, allowed to dry and mounted on a gummed hinge in an album) as opposed to mint (unfranked and with its full original gum on the reverse and so preserved in a slip-in album). I favoured used stamps for, unlike the pristine and rather soulless mints, they had seen life.

You soon learned where the franking machine was most likely to deposit the postmark on the envelope, so you could position your stamp to catch the CDS. In any case, much franking was still done by hand and, as postal staff looked in a kindly way on stamp collectors, the hand franking was usually performed with care. In order to give my collection variety, I got into the habit of posting stamps to myself on trips away from home (or persuading others to do it for me) so that the places franked onto the stamps were many and various.

Eventually the Post Office saw that the franking could provide a promotional opportunity. Accordingly, slogans began to appear alongside the CDS’s – POST EARLY FOR CHRISTMAS was a famous one. For a while, even commercial advertising was permitted but I suspect that firms found the variable legibility of the messages something of a liability and this was dropped.

But changes in methodology rendered posting stamps for franking a less and less satisfying method of building one’s collection. Postal depots closed down and mail travelled ever longer distances to be sorted. The localities with their own franking identity dwindled in number. Now they encompass whole cities and counties, even regions. Most depots have installed inkjet printing, which does not use CDS’s at all but simply franks a city or county name and a date.

And the Royal Mail no longer has any feel for stamp collectors’ wishes. When I first lived in London, I shopped for new issues at the block-long post office in St Martin’s Place. Its philatelic department was a whole wing with its own entrance, and its staff handled the stamps wearing white gloves. But that was long ago. The philatelic dept became a Prêt and collectors’ concerns are dealt with at one window on the main strip. Elsewhere, all the philatelic counters that used to serve collectors in large post offices outside London have closed. The only way to be sure of obtaining all the new stamps is to pay regular visits to St Martin’s Place or to order by post from the Philatelic Bureau in Edinburgh.

The number of new stamps has burgeoned. There have already been thirty-four (34!) issues to mark the imminent London Olympics/Paralympics. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will add substantially to the understandable but still huge accumulation of issues featuring the royal family past and present. Miniature sheets and multi-page booklets of otherwise unavailable stamps add to the cost for the collector who is a completist.

As for franking, if the machine misses a stamp, nobody cares and the envelope is delivered without franking. In recent years, I have been obliged to post the same envelope seven, eight, nine, even a dozen times to secure a franking. Worse, some misanthropic sorter will blithely score through the stamp in biro, rendering it useless as a collectable item. As the stamps I post to myself are priced well in excess of the amount required for postal use, the philatelic aim of the posting is obvious. That some sorters take a perverse pleasure in spoiling the stamps is clear, for they sometimes wield their biros even if a stamp has been successfully franked.

I wrote to the Royal Mail’s official organ for stamp-collectors, the British Philatelic Bulletin, about this disheartening development. My letter was passed to Royal Mail Customer Services, whose agent’s response could be summed up with the word “tough!” At any rate, she felt that the matter was “outwith the control of Royal Mail” – the use of “outwith” indicates that Royal Mail headquarters is in Scotland. It seems it is possible to send one’s stamps under separate cover for franking with pictorial images that are permanently available but such a service thwarts the desire to have a collection that looks authentic, as well as adding substantially to the cost of collecting. (Anyway, there’d always be some bugger at our local depot who decided to spoil my stamp with its special franking, just for the pleasure of it).

And now Royal Mail has delivered the coup de grâce. At a time when we are all obliged to economize – some of us more than others – the proposal to send the price of stamps through the roof is the last straw. The plan is that first-class post should rise from 46p to a minimum of 50p – and Royal Mail would prefer a lot more. Even this minimum rise is 8.7 per cent or 5.1 per cent above the inflation rate. Of course other postal rates would follow suit.

With competition pressing in from every side – private enterprise delivery, digital communication – Royal Mail appears to have decided that suicide is the best course. The only unique aspect that remains is the philatelic one. But as Royal Mail prices itself out of the postal market, so it is squeezing collectors out of the hobby. I for one simply cannot afford to avail myself any longer of the combination of the glut of issues and the dwindling of attention to collectors’ needs. After nearly 60 years of pleasure, I am giving up stamps.
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