A col­lec­tor con­fesses

Si­mon Garfield has writ­ten a book about his pas­sion for phi­lately. It’s not weird, he tells Alex Kas­riel

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

SI­MON GARFIELD H A S a c o n f e s - s i o n t o make . He’ s been havi n g a n a f f a i r . B u t n o t w i t h an­other wo­man (al­though that is true as well). His clan­des­tine pas­sion is less about mid­night tristes and steamy sex, and more about vis­its to the Post Of­fice, be­cause the Lon­don-based au­thor has an ob­ses­sion with stamps.

Garfield ac­knowl­edges this could be per­ceived as weird — he ad­mits that it was more em­bar­rass­ing to write about his fix­a­tion with phi­lately in his new book The Er­ror World: An Af­fair with Stamps, than about his ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fair.

“If you go to the book­shop, you’ll find there are lots of mem­oirs and au­to­bi­ogra­phies where peo­ple talk about the break up of their mar­riage, but there are very few about stamps,” he says.

It is true. Stamp col­lect­ing does not have much sex ap­peal and Garfield is not try­ing to change the im­age of the nerdy guy holed up in his bed­room with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and a pair of tweez­ers ag­o­nis­ing over the per­fo­rated square piece of pa­per that will com­plete his de­fin­i­tive se­ries. In­stead he cel­e­brates it.

“It was an at­tempt to write a mem­oir with stamps as a nar­ra­tive through­out.” says Garfield, who is known as a writer on pop mu­sic. “I was able to share my en­thu­si­asm be­cause it doesn’t have the coolest im­age in the world. I’m not sure my book will do much to change that. I al­ways like talk­ing to peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate about any­thing. The English do that pas­sion for hob­bies and I love all that. I’m 48, I’m still rea­son­ably in touch with mod­ern mu­sic — my kids keep me young and I love go­ing to gigs and stuff and I haven’t en­tered an old nerdy world. ”

Garfield has pre­vi­ously writ­ten books on niche sub­jects like wrestling, Ra­dio 1 DJs, and how the colour mauve was cre­ated, but he is per­haps best known for his three­vol­ume an­thol­ogy of the di­aries of or­di­nary peo­ple dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Er­ror World is Garfield’s first au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work. His hobby is an ex­cuse to tell anec­dotes about the quirky world of furtive col­lec­tors, auc­tion houses and sup­pli­ers. “Postage stamps of­fer one way in which we can or­der a world of chaos and they have the power to bring a de­pend­able mean­ing to a life,” writes Garfield, who lost his fa­ther to a heart at­tack when he was 13 and when he was 20, his mother died of can­cer. Be­fore then he says he en­joyed a “rea­son­ably or­di­nary but typ­i­cal life of a Jewish boy”. He lived in Hamp­stead Gar­den sub­urb, in North Lon­don, was ed­u­cated at Univer­sity Col­lege School and went to the lo­cal syn­a­gogue in Nor­rice Lea.

Like many oth­ers, Garfield’s stamp fix­a­tion started in boy­hood and faded away when he was in his twen­ties. He re­vived the pas­sion in his for­ties, and ad­mits spend­ing thou­sands of pounds build­ing up his col­lec­tion of “er­rors” — the rel­a­tively rare stamps which have been mis­tak­enly altered dur­ing the print­ing process.

Stamp col­lect­ing may have had a link to his break-up with Kin­der­trans­port play­wright Diane Sa­muels, with whom he has two sons, Ben and Jake. But the au­thor is sen­si­tive enough not to di­vulge too much in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s not a kiss-and-tell kind of thing at all,” he in­sists. “The only per­son ex­posed is me. I wrote it dur­ing and af­ter the split so we were at mar­riage guid­ance. The coun­sel­lor asked a lot of ques­tions that I maybe found painful but hav­ing done that, writ­ing about it was a very cathar­tic thing.”

But more than stamps or his love life, Garfield says the hard­est part was open­ing up about his brother Jonathan whom he lost the year be­fore his mother to a rare type of pneu­mo­nia. “My brother dy­ing when he was 23 was such an un­nat­u­ral thing. A lot of peo­ple have par­ents who died when they were in their teens. B u t i t was al­most i mpos­si­ble for other peo­ple to take it all in when my brother died. T heir r e a c - tion was so shocked and hor­ri­fied I was pro­tect­ing my­self. I did find it quite hard to write.”

Given this back­ground, it is un­der­stan­able that Garfield would have turned to stamp col­lect­ing for con­stancy and or­der. But it is also un­der­stand­able that the women in his life do not take an in­ter­est. Er­ror World men­tions only one fe­male stamp col­lec­tor. He ad­mits the “other” wo­man — An­nie, a child­hood friend — is not keen on his col­lec­tion, and his mar­riage guid­ance coun­sel­lor was not im­pressed with his album.

His re­la­tion­ship with An­nie was “pas­sion­ate and de­struc­tive” and even­tu­ally he left her for some­one he met 14 months ago. While he says he is very much in love with Jus­tine Kan­ter — with whom he lives in Hamp­stead near his ex-wife and two sons — it is not be­cause of their shared love of stamps.

“It’s wrong to say women don’t col­lect be­cause they do,” he ar­gues, ad­mit­ting that it is a less com­mon pur­suit among fe­males. “Maybe they have got their pri­or­i­ties right, es­pe­cially if you have a mar­riage and kids. It’s also an ex­cuse to get into a spe­cial­ist world. Maybe wo­man don’t need that or can’t do that. Maybe it’s a lux­ury for men to go off on a Satur­day to a col­lec­tors’ fair..”

In­ci­den­tally Garfield also has a col­lec­tion of Chelsea FC badges, Lon­don Un­der­ground maps and Corgi model cars. “There are far more ob­scure col­lec­tors than mine. I’m con­vinced — es­pe­cially af­ter see­ing eBay, that there’s noth­ing that a per­son can col­lect with­out some­one else col­lect­ing it too.” The Er­ror World: An Af­fair with Stamps is pub­lished by Faber, £14.99

‘Er­ror’ stamps are rare and valu­able. The set above with the up­side-down aero­plane were val­ued at $3 mil­lion

PHOTO: SARAH LEE

Si­mon Garfield found it eas­ier to own up about his ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fair than his ob­ses­sion with rare stamps, and ad­mits to have spend­ing thou­sands of pounds on his col­lec­tion

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