Posted on January 29, 2012


They say the past is a foreign country. One where they do things differently. If this is true, then those differences call out to you loudest from the stamps of each nation. Yes, stamps. Those small, often square, sometimes triangular things you place on the corner of a letter and then forget about. There is not a country in the world without them. Every stamp holding a worth much deeper than their nominal currency value. They are a rossetta stone to the past, and sometimes, to the future.

Nothing says more about a country in one small tidy package than their stamps, or the passage of time for that matter. Our Queen is a perfect example. You can watch her age before your eyes leafing through a stamp album. And not just at home in the comfort of the Royal Mail. Here she is, a young happy Queen in 1950s Canada. Later, a rather groovy 70s Queen in New Zealand. Her hair line retreats as surely as her smile until now, in the UK, we are left with a stone Queen. A statue of a head of state and nothing more.

One of the joys of collecting stamps is the learning. You discover the world through stamps. Recently, I learned there is a tiny nation in our world called Penrhyn. And no, it is not found on some rainy mountain in Wales. Penrhyn, sometimes called Tongavera, or Te Pitaka, is part of the Northern Cook Islands, far out into the Pacific Ocean.

Two hundred people live on the atoll, but in the past the population was much larger. The decline began in 1860s’ when Spanish boats came and kidnapped the islanders for slaves. It is reckoned that in just one year, ninety people were left on the island out of a population of five hundred.

What of the stamps themselves? What stories do they tell? Here is France, hastily walking the catwalk with a thousand variations on Liberty’s name. Her Phrygian cap jauntily sending increasing disdain in the direction of our Queens stoic image across the Channel. Australia chooses to reflect its nation with wildlife. Strange exotic beasts journeying across the song lines of mythology.

Whilst South Africa resolutely ignores the politics of its own past. It concentrates on its own natural world in a myriad of Buffalos, Zebras and Ostriches as underneath the country festers in the Apartheid of broken dreams.

Therese Giehse, how about her? Therese, I discover from a German stamp. It turns out she was a famous German-Jewish cabaret star of the 1920s and early 1930s in Munich. With the rise of Hitler she fled to Switzerland, wedding the English writer John Hampson in a marriage of convenience that saved her life. Later, as shown in the stamp, Therese returned to her homeland, working with Bertolt Brecht to acclaim from audiences on both side of the Iron curtain.

What of the Germanys, all four of them? Their stamps span the history of the twentieth century in one neat line on a page. The Germany of 1920s’ Weimar Hyperinflation, with 100 thousand Mark surcharges over-stamped on the original 400 mark stamp, leading economically and politically to the austere Nazi Reich stamps of German demigods. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, Fascist stamps of all nations are universally ugly. Just look at Spain and the endless heads of Generalísimo Franco leering out at the sender of the letter, a warning of disapproval in every glance of his eyes.)

Then, two Germanys emerge. East and West; bookends of ideals, each competing to depict their own progress in a cacophony of buildings, boats and satellites. Every stamp saying ‘I am here! Look at me!’ Finally, the stamps collapse back into one world, one Germany, of history and renewal. Which is a moral as well as geographical journey in five stamps.

Indian stamps are wonderful. Faint greens and reds of life, be it gods or mountains or people working the fields. There is a great humility in Indian stamps. Some counties go for the more obscure appeal to the outside world. Fujairah, one of the seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates, says hello with the image of Winston Churchill’s serene head floating above a pink Houses of Parliament. My personal favourite is from Equatorial Guinea. The stamp shows a shot putter, poised in his ring, ready to launch forward the weight. The stamp, to celebrate the Montreal Olympics of 1976, is drawn in marvelous cartoon colours

It is a beautiful stamp, full of latent action awaiting release. I can only imagine a young Equatorial Guinean looking up at the stamp and dreaming. The stamps magnificence is raised when you learn there were no athletes of Equatorial Guinea at those Olympics. It would be another 24 years until they left their mark on the games, in the shape of Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani ploughing his lone furrow down the swimming pool. Maybe in his own youth Eric saw that stamp? Maybe he dreamed?

Imagination is the key to enjoying stamps. They hold a design beauty of their own, but to full appreciate them you have to go a step further, and imagine the worlds they hold. If you want you can always go two steps further, like Donald Evans and his painted stamps of invented countries, each a beautiful miniature painting of his own imagined world.

On a cold, and very dark, night in January there are not many more rewarding trips as that you can take through a stamp album. It can fill you with learning, and with yearning for adventure. Most of all, it makes you think not of the stamps at all, but of all those letters. The stamps are our last relics of what lay beneath. The words of the people who sent the letters. So here is a salute to stamps, and to all the people of the world who ever wrote a letter. You do still write letters don’t you?