Thursday 13 May 2010

Commonwealth Stamps

When I was a boy 40 years ago it was quite normal not only for large numbers of children to collect stamps but also for those of us who lived in Britain to take a particular interest in those issued by Britain, its Commonwealth and Empire. Now stamp collecting holds little interest for most children and most current collectors have grown old with their collections. Children live in ignorance of little pieces of paper bearing exotic names such as Mauritius or Tristan Da Cunha or of islands with romantic histories such as Pitcairn or Malta or St. Helena. There's no thrill for them if they receive an envelope with a stamp on it which depicts a creature from a Barbados or an inhabitant of Sri Lanka or a bird of paradise from Papua New Guinea or a sailing ship from Saint Lucia. Instead those thrills are now more likely to be experienced by someone over 50 who recalls his or her childhood when soaking a colourful piece of paper from an envelope seemed to be a highly rewarding exercise. In latter years these older people have even probably visited some of these countries whose names they first learned from their childhood postage stamp collection with the spread of easy international travel. 
  I have collected new and old Commonwealth stamps since my childhood and I often wonder exactly how many of these old-fashioned style general "Commonwealth collectors" there still are - certainly it is challenging trying to obtain all the new issues that are pouring out from various Commonwealth postal administrations and I long ago became more selective about the new issues that I buy if only because it would be financially crippling to obtain them all. I refuse to buy stamps featuring Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson issued in large expensive sets by tiny Commonwealth islands which the celebrities had not only never visited but had probably not even heard of. If only catalogue editors would recognise the ridiculousness of continuing to catalogue such items which have little chance of being genuinely used on real mail from these territories and how hard it is for the typically obsessionally completist collector to resist buying items which the major catalogues have included in their listing. While the editors continue to list this massive flood of new issues they hand the postal agencies a licence to print money and provide collectors with frequent dilemmas as to whether they should buy the stamps which are, after all, "fully catalogued" and therefore a vital and necessary part of their collection if they to be able to consider it to be a complete collection. 
  By ignoring such issues and only collecting stamps which clearly are relevant in subject matter to and are for genuine use in these territories, and it really is not hard to work out which of those issue are meant for genuine postal usage rather than as a "collectable", a very satisfying collection of Commonwealth stamps can still be built up - one which tells you about the fascinating history, culture, wildlife and so on - of a marvellously diverse range of countries which have a common link. There are challenges a plenty in trying to obtain the stamps meant for postal use from many of the territories - a number, such as Cameroun and Kenya, are now quite secretive about their infrequent new issues so even discovering that the stamps exist is a real problem let alone getting hold of them when you do discover their existence. And then there is the problem of provisional surcharges which a number of postal administrations guard against philatelists so that these items issued in frighteningly small amounts can actually be used on mail sent by the local populations rather than finding their way into collectors' albums. Chasing up some of these stamps is immensely challenging (and great fun as a result) but also potentially extremely expensive (not good fun) and sometimes, ultimately ending in failure. Recent surcharged issues from St. Vincent, Tonga and Fiji are examples of this interesting aspect of modern Commonwealth philately and who knows what else is lurking out there. 
  My Commonwealth collection therefore provides me with never a dull moment. If you do get momentarily tired of the new, you can always delve into some of the magnificent older issues - the beautiful intaglio-printed stamps of the reign of George VI or visit some of the more unusual territories often unheard of by most of the population and whose places in The Commonwealth Catalogue are ephemeral - Transjordan, Batum, Wei Hai Wei (British Post Offices in China), Heligoland and so on. Never a dull moment. 

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