The Collector is a dissembler, someone whose joys are never unalloyed with anxiety. Because there is always more. Or something better. You must have it because it is one step toward an ideal completing of your collection. But this ideal completion for which every collector hungers is a delusive goal...
The great collections are vast, not complete. Incomplete: motivated by the desire for completeness. There is always one more. And if you have everything, whatever that might be, then you will perhaps want a better copy ... of what you have; or with mass produced objects, simply an extra copy, in case the one you possess is lost or stolen or broken or damaged. A backup copy. A shadow collection ... The collector's need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion ... Someone who hesitates, who asks, "do I need this?" "is it really necessary?" is not a collector. A collection is always more than is necessary.
Susan Sontag The Volcano Lover 1992
Some people have a psychological weakness for collecting. Not necessarily anything specific or planned. But just "collecting". The collector has one of something - a book, a piece of porcelain, a watch, an old bottle,anything - and by chance comes across another. Thus starts the search for a third and so on. Susan Sontag in one of her novels described the collector brilliantly, and particularly the never ending quest. As I read the passage, I realised whom it described! Left to my own devices, and with unlimited space, I would certainly succumb to the fascination of looking for the elusive final item of far more of those "series" or "sets" of things than I could possibly afford or house. Hence the need for an unusual amount of self-discipline! Even then, I still look for particular jazz books, Liberal history, Phil May items, and, particularly, French stamps.
Plunging into French philately a dozen or so years ago was not taking up a hobby entirely from scratch. Like so many children of forty years and more ago, I amassed a big collection of very ordinary stamps from around the world and was fascinated particularly by those from countries which no longer existed independently. It was, and is, a splendid teaching aid. Not for us was there quite the same difficulty in finding Croatia or the Ukraine on the map when these and others again became independent nations! Eventually, however, girls became much more interesting to collect than stamps and the angst of adolescence crowded out the stolidity of stamps!
However, the collecting bug must have remained latent as, once married, I took up collecting again, but this time only Great Britain. "GB" continued as an active interest for many years until I realised that the few remaining spaces in the album were always going to be beyond my pocket, and that, given the number of specialist dealers and collectors for one's own country, I was unlikely to find them languishing unrecognised in a dealer's stock or in an unsuspecting auction lot.
In those days I also religiously presented myself at the philatelic counter of the main Leeds Post Office to purchase and send each first day issue to myself. What a let down later to discover that these pretty covers are worth only the value of the cancelled stamps. The only ones that had any value were those self made covers for se-tenant panes, such as that from the "Stamps for Cooks" booklet, for which the post office did not produce a posh official cover. At the time of one new issue of Machin definitives in 1971 the post office workers were on strike and the "official" first day covers were cancelled retrospectively after the strike with the scheduled first day of issue cancellation but with an extra cachet to explain that they were not delivered until weeks later. However, on the appointed day of issue, I heard that the Malton post office, some 35 miles from Leeds, was working. I hurriedly addressed a plain envelope to myself and drove to Malton, bought the stamps and was affixing them to the envelope, when the clerk informed me that they were only accepting local mail to addresses within Malton! I quickly looked up the address of Tom Mell, the local Liberal party secretary, and altered the envelope accordingly. I then had to 'phone Tom to explain the curious "letter" that would appear the next day, and to ask him to hang on to this cover until we next met. A real "first day of issue" cover amidst the fakes, I recently gave it to a Leeds Club friend who collects GB.
During this period I was making incognito forays into "white" Africa to work with liberation movements on behalf of the Rowntree Social Service Trust (now the Rowntree Reform Trust). This was the era of Ian Smith's UDI Rhodesia and I would fly into Bulawayo on the Friday afternoon commuter flight from Johannesburg, mingling with the weekend whites, always with enough local currency to be able to hire a car quickly at the airport and get into town unnoticed. The immigration official would examine my passport and say, "I see, sir, that you do not have a Rhodesia stamp in your passport- would you like one?" And, as with other international travellers, I would reply, "I would prefer not," and the stamp would be put on a separate, loose, piece of paper within the passport.
Smith's regime had issued a number of sets of stamps which were, of course, recognised by very few other countries, such as South Africa and, I think, Portugal. It was also illegal under the sanctions law then in force, to trade in them in the UK. I also had to keep a low profile in the country, but on one trip, on my last afternoon, I went to the one stamp shop in Bulawayo and said that I wanted one copy of every stamp issued since UDI - and I had to leave within an hour! The tweezers fairly flew over the stock books and I kept these stamps until years later when there was renewed - and legal - interest in them.
Similarly, I was in the newly created Bangladesh in January 1972 towards the end of the civil war. The post offices in Dhaka had been issued with rubber handstamps and they were taking great delight in "defacing" the current Pakistan stamps with this improvised "independent Bangladesh" cachet! I bought a number of examples of the different values and put them on envelopes addressed to myself in the UK. Curiously, only one envelope of each set ever reached me - as if someone in the Dhaka post office had looked at all the multiple envelopes and thought, "We'll let him have one of each, but I'm blowed if he's going to make a profit out of us"! I recently discovered that a philatelic friend collected Bangladesh, and he was very happy to be given these covers.
Being often in the right place at the right time, I was recently able to do a similar exercise in Jericho with the stamps issued for the new Palestinian Authority. Eventually someone will also appreciate these items.
It was in 1988 that, together with Elizabeth, I picked up the stamp hobby again, initially as a therapeutic escapism from the struggle to earn a living as a freelance writer, having lost my Leeds West seat in the 1987 General Election. This time we extended our general francophilia into the stamps of France. In French the words "passion" and "folie" don't quite have the same slightly pejorative force of their English transliterations, and it is in the French sense that I have a passion for French philately and, indeed, that it is my "folie".
In the strict sense, I am still a stamp collector rather than a philatelist. My enjoyment is in the building up of a reference collection of the different types and shades of each stamp which appear in the specialised catalogues. For many years I would only seek out used copies, believing as a long standing London dealer said in exasperation to a potential client asking for mint copies, "a stamp isn't a stamp until it's gone through the post". However, inevitably one acquires mint copies alongside used and I've now succumbed to that collecting gene and look for unused copies as well. I have, of course, an interest in French postal history but I remain both astounded and slightly mystified by the phenomenal and detailed knowledge of every postal rate for the past two hundred years as displayed at France and Colonies Philatelic Society meetings by a number of esteemed colleagues. But then, of course, philately has always provided many entries for the title of the most bizarre book title: "Understamped Registered Mail by rail in the Upper Limpopo Valley, 1880 to 1884" or some such volume.
The advent of the internet, and of newsgroups, enables my own philatelic interests and library to be used to deal with most of the stamp queries which come up. What the French readers of the particular newsgroup - and, of course, they are the overwhelming majority - think of this upstart Brit dealing with all the abstruse French questions, I know not.
The great benefit of collecting a country other than one's own is that few dealers and auction lot describers are specialists. Most are "whole world" entrepreneurs, often using only the Gibbons Simplified Catalogue, and they happily confess to not knowing what might be lurking in their stockbooks. As one of my regular dealers once said, "Michael, if you can't make a profit out of my stock you shouldn't call yourself a French expert." I wouldn't assume the title anyway, but I knew what he meant. And, indeed, I have made a "profit" out of him, as from others, even if it remains, as it should, on the album page. Buying stamps for profit is never a wise nor sympathetic way of treating such an honourable hobby. Suffice that shrewd purchases enhance the value of one's collection, and that their value is maintained, unlike the wine collector who drinks his purchases!
France has a great deal to offer the stamp collector. As a country to collect it is never completely out of fashion and there is great potential in collecting the different types of otherwise very common stamps, some of which are exceedlingly rare. As such, from the point of view of the average collector who enjoys browsing through the dealers' stock at provincial fairs, France amply repays a modicum of study. Even many of the French classic stamps are far from being beyond the average collector's means, and, here again, a knowledge of types and shades can secure bargains for a discerning collector.
This is by way of being a brief introduction to future illustrated sections on the different issues.
2 April 2000