A recent article on stamp-collecting by The New Statesman's sports-writer-in-residence Hunter Davies took me back more than thirty years to a very happy period in my childhood. Davies's piece was an attempt to make sense of Royal Mail's decision to put out truckloads of new issues for the Queen's jubilee and the Olympics and the havoc this will wreak amongst philatelists.
However, his well-written essay brought back memories. About the same time I learnt how to read and write, aged five, and before I started full-time schooling, I fell in love with stamp-collecting.
To a Cuban Londoner (as I've called myself for almost fifteen years now) Hunter uncovers a world of which I wasn't aware. He writes about the vendors under the arches of Charing Cross station, a part of London I associated more with second-hand bookshops (Charing Cross Road is choc-a-bloc with them) than philately. He goes on to explain his thematic preferences (football rather than birds) and his rules for collecting.
Like Davies, I, too, had a small corner I liked to call my own in which I lost track of time and from where my parents, or my mum, usually, had to drag me away. Witth tears in my eyes on a few occasions. It's easy for me to forget now forty autumns after, but some of my happiest moments were lived in the little shop on 27th St., almost on the corner with L St., opposite Havana University's Students' Club, in the heart of Vedado.
And it was (is) an art. To that truism my several stamp albums can attest. From the way I divided my collections by themes to how I arranged them, there was creativity partout. Sometimes I'd do it by year, or series, or countries, or, in the case of animals by habitat; birds to one side, aquatic animals to another.
There was even an element of the obssessive compulsive about me in those years, in spite of, or maybe because of, my young age. Nobody could touch my stamps with their bare hands. Tweezers had to be used at all times. And, of course, I had a collection of tweezers, too. The plastic ones came in different colours, of which, blue and black were my favourite ones. I also had a pair of silver ones. Certain collections could only be handled with a specific pair of tweezers. I also had a couple of magnifying glasses. One of the activities I loved the most was reading the historical and cultural information on the stamps. In that sense, stamp-collecting was as didactic as delving into the world of Jules Verne.
Moreover, this hobby of mine brought with it a strong, social component. I had lots of friends who shared a passion for stamp-collecting, too. Sometimes we exchanged collections, on other occasions we did a whip-round in order to buy the ones that were outside our purchasing power. I still recall the feeling of excitement that overwhelmed me everytime my mum announced that on our way back from El Infantil hospital we would be stopping at the little philately shop on 27th St. The news was enough for me to forget about the reasons why I'd ended up in hospital again. Thinking about the special issue that Cuba Correos would be bringing out for Spain '82 World Cup gave me an extra boost of energy and quickened my heartbeat.
The onset of puberty and the arrival of adolescence put paid to any notion I still had around those years that I would continue with this pastime beyond my teens. And yet, when I came to live in the UK, I packed two stamp albums in my suitcase. Maybe, at a subconscious level, I thought my children would pick up where I'd left off. But, I must admit that I was rather lazy and failed to inculcate in them the same passion for stamp-collecting I had when I was their age. It usually takes articles like Hunter Davies's to remind me of the many pleasures one can find in this often ignored and yet, very precious hobby.
Next Post: "Killer Opening Songs", to be published on Wednesday 16th May at 11:59pm (GMT)