If you were a child in the 1950s or 60s in the United States, Canada, or Britain, the chances are good that you were bit by a collecting bug—perhaps baseball trading cards in places where baseball is played, train schedules, coins, or butterflies otherwise. Or perhaps the bug was a slipperier slope still, leading to postage stamps, a habit that, once acquired, is hard to break, at least until other discoveries take its place: girls or guys, say, or cars, or rock ‘n’ roll.
So it was with British writer Chris West, who, owning up to having the stamp bug way back in the day, hastens to point out that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared his philatelic obsession. “I had a small collection,” he says, “some old UK ones soaked off envelopes plus foreign ones you could buy in little bags.” Alas, adolescence came along, and with it, he says, his stamp collection went up into the attic of his parents’ house until, clearing the home decades later, he rediscovered it. Then, he says, he began collecting anew—and not just collecting, but thinking about the stories behind the stamps, leading to his newest book, A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps.
Lennon and McCartney notwithstanding, stamp collectors are often seen as shy, retiring types without much truck with the rough and tumble of the world. West puts the lie to that: Before turning to stamp history, he wrote a robust business book that was particularly popular in Asia, as well as a series of crime novels, all things that, he says, are of a piece inasmuch as they “appeal to logical, precise minds.”
One of those precise minds, he writes in History, was a royal academician named William Mulready, who, back in the late 1830s, designed a special prepaid envelope to send mail flying (or stagecoaching, anyway) across the British Isles. Mulready’s innovation was about to be put into production when opponents of the “penny post project,” as West calls it, got their hands on the design and noted that one of the angels depicted as a mail carrier was missing a leg—that, and the fact that the royal lion at the center of the piece looked distinctly bored. Mulready’s envelope was yanked from production and the prototype destroyed, all of which cleared the way for a less elaborate instrument: a little gummed piece of paper depicting Queen Victoria, new to the job of the British throne. Thus the origin of what came to be known as the “penny black,” which, in 1840, introduced the postage stamp to the world.
From there, the postage stamp spread. It soon arrived in the United States (West’s next book is a companion history of the postage stamp in this country) and beyond. All of those stamps, West insists, have a story to tell. And beyond those stories lie others: Who used the stamp? What did the street look like that he or she walked down to post the letter? “Stamps,” says West, “are little rectangular time machines.”
Of one snapshot in British time West is particularly proud of: the 1953 stamp honoring the coronation of another queen, Elizabeth II, which gave Britons “a refreshing reminder that they were a part of something vast, complex and purposeful, and lucky so to be.” He is also fond of a 1982 stamp honoring youth organizations and featuring a black boy scout and a white boy scout before a Union Jack, an expression, he says, of “an inclusive nation but one that still values tradition.” Pushing the lever on the time machine forward, West anticipates the pleasure of some day seeing “a set of King William V stamps featuring the latest technology—whatever that turns out to be.”
It’s a specialized thing, to be sure, the history of postage stamps, but then there are histories of all kinds of everyday objects these days, from power tools to bicycles to the common fork. With A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, West offers a fascinating look at the stories behind another utterly ordinary object. He’s under no illusion that his book will make philately seem any less dorky, since only recently, as he notes, a British footballer swore that he’d take up stamp collecting only as a penultimate resort, the last thing he’d do being to don the jersey of a rival team. Even so, West adds, the hobby of stamp collecting has recently swept Italy. “If it’s cool enough for them,” he says, “it’s cool enough for me.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.