British History in Stamps

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Attempting to tell British history since 1840 by using 36 postage stamps sounds daunting, and quite frankly, it can't be done. Author Chris West has latched on to a fine idea, since postage stamps do reveal tiny aspects of history, each one like a pencil-thin beam of light illuminating the vast swath of events in the time it was produced. But as the chapters he writes reveal all to clearly, the history of Britain bears little resemblance to the stamps that he considers.

The problems are innumerable. Consider for example a stamp from 1984, commemorating the Second European Elections (not exactly an event that will ring any bells with any but the most expert Europhiles). In the six pages of text associated with the stamp, we read only that "Fritz Wegner's stamp makes a neat comment on the difficulty of Britain's situation in Europe: the bull is looking one way, the rider another." It may be a creative interpretation, but is that really what Wegner (and the British post office) meant to convey with the issuance of this stamp? I hardly think so.

Aside from that, why was a bull used on the stamp? Who is the female rider? And who is the little winged figure she is looking at, floating in mid-air above the bull's read end? The six pages give a capsule history of Britain's entry into the European Union and the fact that Britain does not want to be part of the political convergence of the Continental countries.

In each case, West offers up a stamp and then goes into a multi-page survey of what was happening in Britain. Sometimes the text actually has something to do with the stamp, such as the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 (pictured here). Yet here again West misses a golden opportunity. He devotes just a single paragraph to the designer of this stamp (Barnett Freedman), but there is obviously so much more to tell about his fascinating life. Instead we are treated to a discussion of the fatal drinking habits of trumpet players in famous American jazz bands! How the author can relate a stamp of a British monarch's jubilee to drunks in another country surpasses my understanding.

Unfortunately Britain issued very few commemorative stamps before the reign of Queen Elizabeth, so writing about Dickens based on a stamp bearing the portrait of Queen Victoria is clearly stretching things too far; and the inclusion of a German stamp from 1923 is jarringly out of place in a book about British history.

There is a great book to be written about the history displayed in Britain's stamps, but this is not it.


 A History of Britain in Thirty-Sex Postage Stamps (275 pages) is $28 from Picador Books.

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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