Observer feature writer Garfield (Private Battles, 2006, etc.) examines his passion for stamp collecting.
The veteran British author begins in late 2006, when he was on “the brink of ruin.” He was in debt; his marriage had collapsed; he was involved in an affair with a woman from his past. And philately was the proximate—though not, he reveals later, the ultimate—cause of all this. As Garfield slowly unspools the story of his rise and fall, he detours frequently to zoom in on areas of stamp collecting’s increasingly unfamiliar map. (Today’s young people don’t seem interested in the hobby, he notes.) He sketches the history of the postage stamp, interviews a former U.K. Postmaster General, visits stamp dealers and authorities, attends auctions, glances at how various writers (e.g., Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich) have used philately in their fiction, notes that celebrities like John Lennon have been collectors and examines stamps-never-issued in the Royal Mail Archive. Garfield began collecting as a boy, he says, then gave it up as an adolescent and young man, but returned to it, with renewed vigor, in his 40s. He made substantial purchases (concealed from his wife) and became obsessed with “error stamps,” those with printing or production mistakes that elevated their value, sometimes enormously. He eventually credits Freud for helping him understand that his collecting was a form of compensation for the untimely losses of his father to a heart attack, his mother to cancer and his brother to viral pneumonia. Garfield depicts his marital infidelity in the same, vaguely self-serving light—and, of course, the flaws on his beloved stamps are analogous to those in his character. He eventually sold his most valuable stamps and paid some debts.
The author’s enthusiasm does not prove contagious.