this (philatelic) life
I first became aware of the hobby of stamp collecting when I was eight. A promotion for a breakfast cereal contained some foreign postage stamps in the box. The intriguing places of origin, foreign languages and pictorial themes of exotic places hooked my inquisitive mind.
Many countries were unknown to me, despite geography being my best subject at school. Stamp collecting also encouraged an interest in languages and history (my worst subject). In time, I learned more about world history from those little labels than I ever did from my formal education.
But as a schoolkid in the Depression, with very little pocket money, building a collection tested the enthusiasm at times. What money I did have was usually converted into stamps. The alternatives of sweets, comics or going to the pictures had me calculating how many stamps I could buy instead. That really became an issue when my mates and I began secretly smoking, and I would calculate how many potential stamps were going up in smoke. So philately became my addiction instead.
And an addiction it certainly was. When I read a wartime news report illustrating a set of stamps issued by the Norwegian governmentin-exile in London, I determined I must get them. But how? I was living in a remote rural area, with no ready cash. So I wrote a letter addressed to “His Majesty King Haakon VII, c/o Norwegian Embassy, London, England” and attached the news cutting. You can imagine the sceptical reaction of the rest of the family, not to mention the village postmaster.
I had the last laugh when, a few months later, the stamps arrived with a letter signed by the king’s secretary. Emboldened, I wrote a similar request to the governor-general of New Zealand, with the same result.
I next began using that technique to gather pen friends in remote places. These all developed into correspondence (and more stamps). The most fascinating was with Tristan da Cunha, one of the world’s most remote island communities. At the time, its currency was potatoes (four potatoes = one penny). It sometimes took more than a year for a reply to arrive. As Tristan da Cunha issued no stamps I was charged for the postage.
By the time I reached my early 20s, I had a respectable collection of stamps, mostly from the British Empire. It was intriguing to see the change of status from colony to independence reflected in their stamps.
Marriage at age 23 forced me to reassess my priorities — the stamps were sold to help pay the bills. But at least now, aged 86, I can credit that obsession for a long healthy life, sans smoking.