this (philatelic) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Don An­der­son

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.

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