Sunday, November 25, 2007
  Philately Won't Get You Far - Now
"... I owe my life to my hobbies, especially stamp collecting." - F.D. Roosevelt

Poor old Franklin Delano was confined to a wheelchair for the latter part of his life; there wasn't any TV back then and as for computer games ..., well, it's fairly obvious that he needed a sedentary occupation to while away his spare time away from his day job as the President of the United States.

Yalta Stamp Collectors Conference 1945
Winnie, F.D. and Joe.

He may well have learned that Yalta was in the Crimea because his pal, Josef Stalin, collected the stamps of his country and had swapped some for an 1851 3c portrait of George Washington. Strangely, this looks remarkably like the famous Penny Red first issued in the UK in 1841.
As a schoolboy, I had a Penny Red and loads of other stamps from various countries. Where my stamp albums are now, heaven knows 'cos I certainly don't. If I still had them, I could probably sell them for loads of cash, although I was never interested in their perceived financial value. I was more interested in what they represented and how they had reached me from far distant exotic places.

Largely thanks to that schoolboy's hobby, I know where various countries are and can generally pinpoint them on a world map in seconds. For example, I know that Monaco is on the south coast of France because in 1956 the wedding of the year was between Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly. She gave up a life of film stardom for a more secure celebrity's existence. She gave up Bing for bling, and loads of stamps were issued.

I had pen friends who sent letters and post cards. I steamed off the stamps and swapped them with school mates and we compared values in a communal Stanley Gibbons Catalogue, a massive tome which needed two of us to carry. What is more, it was re-issued every couple of years to reflect changing valuations and new issues. We mostly kept our collections in albums using gummed 'hinges' on the backs of our prizes to keep them in place on a page. Not only did we learn geography, but layouts and other design features were also absorbed.

But things are different now.

The Stanley Gibbons Catalogue is now online and now, as with Fuckr, Mugshots, Fraudster and similar 'social networking' sites, philatelists can send their collections into virtual reality whilst storing their bits of paper in a bank vault. Stamps are now much more of a financial investment and you can bid for them on ebay. They are now appraised rather than appreciated.

So is that the point of stamps now? Whereas they were once a pass to new worlds, and note that immigration officials 'stamp' our passports, they are now to be hidden from sticky fingers and prying eyes. It's akin to not bothering to save Sumatran rainforests because you can see a tiger or two in a zoo.

Admittedly, Indonesians are more pro-active with their post office, but that's most likely because of the appalling state of telecommunications here. For folk without access to the internet, and some fifty percent of the population here don't even have access to a telephone, snail mail is the lifeline to the outside world. This means that there is still a need to stick stamps on envelopes containing business proposals, love letters, thank you notes, as well as on non e-postcards. (The envelopes to ignore are those which are franked as they are probably bills and other impersonal missives.)

Once sent or published, writing can't be retrieved so these all need a fairly major mental effort to produce and the process can be a lengthy one. Apart from business letters, which are usually typed anyway, there is generally a sense of anticipation when the postman comes to call. "Ah," we say, "I recognise the handwriting. It's from ..... whoever."

Once upon a time, a mere ten years ago, we expats in Indonesia would pass our letters around, excerpts would be read aloud and shared. Sometimes they got sniffed because, yes, aromas and scents would occasionally linger. Stamps would be steamed off for the few philatelists we knew.

It's probable that letter writing is a dying art.

The advent of email - not to mention texting, instant messaging and social networking - has undoubtedly played much the biggest role in the fate of the letter, but the novelist AS Byatt traces its long-term decline a little further back.

"I think the television has killed letter-writing just as much as email has," she says. "In the Victorian era, letter-writing was what people did in their spare time, and then they read the letters to each other. In a way, it was the news, as much as anything. People would get these very long letters, and they'd know the writer expected the person to whom they had written to show it to the rest of the family. I don't think that happens any more, except those round-robin things people write at Christmas. They're the last ghost of all that."

Those round robin things? Could she be talking about blogs?

Visitors to Taman Mini Indah Indonesia (TMII), on the toll road south from Jakarta, can gaze at Indonesian stamps at the Stamp Museum whilst serious collectors of new stamp issues are served by the Post Office which has a dedicated website. You may be interested to know that the next first day cover, December 6th, will celebrate the SEA Games XXIV, followed on the 13th by the 50th Anniversary of the Juanda Declaration.

Thus we used to get educated.

PS. UK readers may well not feel very happy with the Royal Mail having recently discovered that a pair of CDs were lost in the post. The problem is that the CDs were not encrypted or password protected and they contained the bank details of about half of the population, some 25 million.


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