Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

I can't remember exactly how I got hooked but I'm sure that stamp-collecting was connected somehow to the illness that kept me company for the better part of five to six years. My stomach ulcer and chronic gastritis meant that I was in and out of hospitals quite often, sometimes for as long as a month. Once out, my parents would treat me to an ice-cream in nearby Coppelia ice-cream parlour, from where I would insist we pop by the Jose Marti bookshop on the corner of L St and 27th. It was there, a few doors down, where I first came across the rectangular and square shapes of stamps. To a child enamoured of nature and sports, being presented with a collection of images of Cuban and foreign fauna and Olympic Games was like manna from heaven. I fell hook, line and sinker for the art of stamp-collecting.

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.

© 2012

Next Post: "Killer Opening Songs", to be published on Wednesday 16th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I collected stamps and had gastritis too when I was little, I can't help but wonder why the similarities. I believe the answer is in the big dreams we once had.

  2. I can relate to all of this. I was an avid collector from very early on. I had a lot of bad health and it was an excellent distraction for me when confined to bed. Also an avid collector was my doctor. I have posted before about how when visiting he would bring his books of swaps and sit on the bed whilst we traded. (Imagine a GP doing that today!)

  3. I was never a stamp collector but, from your description, I can imagine its joys. I know what a thrill it was when I discovered that my late parents had kept every single envelope and postcard I had sent them while on my world travels. Never mind what I wrote. The stamps were wonderful, helping me revisit how, where, and when the stamps were purchased.

  4. I think certain personality types become collectors, no matter the circumstance.I collected dolls as a child and still have them all. I never thought stamp collecting would be popular in Cuba but I can see why it would intrigue you. You should get out those albums and show your ninos.

  5. Thank you, Cuban. I still love the little worlds inside the window of the stamp--and the little teeth, too.

    Best regards from Boston . . .

  6. i was never a stamp collector, but my brother is. i just know how he enjoys collecting stamps, so i can see why it'd intrigue you.

    i loved your post!

    wish you a great day!

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Another Cuban in Europe! Nuestro mundo es muy pequeño pero nuestras raíces agrandan a nuestro mundo. Una cubana en alemania.



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