Monday, August 20, 2007


“For seventeen years he did nothing at all, but kill animals and stick in stamps”- Sir Harold Nicholson (1886-1968) in Diaries and Letters about King George V.

The above appears cruel and hyperbolic until it is juxtaposed against the following statement of the same King George V to J A Tilleard, the Honourary Secretary of the Philatelic Society, upon being given the weighty appointment of Philatelist to the King: “But, remember, I wish to have the best collection, not just one of the best collections in England.” Before we think too harshly upon our deceased former ruler, let us remember the immediate reaction of the last emperor of Austria, Charles, upon learning of his accession to the throne: “What should I do? I think the best thing is to order a stamp with my face on it.” Or consider the vanity of King Christian X of Denmark, who, incensed at his portrayal upon stamps with his hair parted to the left and also to the right, remonstrate angrily: “Next time ask my barber to approve them before you issue stamps with my portrait.”
Indeed, from the playground, stamp collection is, in Darwinian-style, decried as the preserve of those who cannot survive the healthy physical pursuits of the jungle gym and sports field. Not being able to have the adage “survival of the fittest” applied to them, young stamp collectors adopt as their motto, “survival of the fastidious.” Seeking to justify and legitimize what their more robust playground peers would variously term their “nerdiness” or “dorkiness,” they ascribe to their pastime, lofty and noble sentiments, which grow in magnitude as they grow older and assume high positions in their society, thus ensuring that such disapprobation a may exist towards their hobby, is not publicly expressed.
Thus, according to Cardinal Spellman of the United States, stamp collecting can be used to plug the gaping holes in the edifice of the United Nations: “The collecting of stamps brings untold millions of people of all nations into greater understandings of their world neighbours.” President Roosevelt concurred with these sentiments, commenting: “Stamp Collecting dispels boredom, enlarges our vision, broadens our knowledge, makes us better citizens and in innumerable ways, enriches our lives.” Considering that some of Roosevelt’s other pastimes included creating the New Deal social welfare package, fighting Hitler, carving up Europe and serving as one of the architects of the post-War world, this remark is not without significance, though noble prize winning scientist and godfather of the element of Rutherfordium, Ernest Rutherford baffles us beyond belief when he paradoxically asserts that: “All science is either Physics or stamp collecting.”
Such subliminal messages even make their appearance in the realm of literature, where if Clifton Fadiman in ‘Any Man Can Play,’ is to be believed, stamp collection is a happy marriage of orderly fascism, with a good dash of nineteenth century liberal protection of the individual hastily splashed in: “The philatelist will tell you that stamps are educational, that they are valuable, that they are beautiful. This is only part of the truth. My notation is that the collection is a hedge, a comfort, a shelter into which the sorely beset mind can withdraw. It is orderly, it grows towards completion, it is something that can't be taken away from us.”
In the quest for legitimization, insidious stamp collecting freaks have even gone so far as to seek an ancient pedigree for themselves. They claim a divine derivation for the objects of their affection, postulating stamps to be the modern derivative of the kerykeion or caduceus, the staff of the Greek god Hermes, borne by him in his capacity of a messenger. The herald’s staff, borne by the keryx in ancient Greece, afforded him safe passage in all circumstances to the place of delivery of the message with which he was entrusted, just as the appearance of a postage stamp of suitable denomination upon an envelope will appease the daemons of the post office from swallowing the contents of our letters wholesale and instead ensure that they are delivered to their destination. It is no small wonder then, that the United States Post Office has inscribed the following saying by Herodotus in his ‘Histories’ in stone, on the façade of the New York Post Office: “Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” E V Lucas is perhaps slightly more lyrical when he posits that the reason why stamps do or should deserve our affection is because they are virtual, faithful friends: “The postage stamp is a flimsy thing/ No thicker than a beetle's wing/ And yet it will roam the world for you/ Exactly where you tell it to.” Perhaps then it is fitting then, that the first Greek stamps ever to be issued, in 1861, bore a representation of the god Hermes.
I justify my own collection of stamps during my youth with the following observation by the poet Yeats: “Designs in connection with postage stamps and coinage may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors on national taste.” As a boy, I lovingly cut out the stamps from letters received from relatives in Greece and perused them intently in order to gain some sort of insight into the fabled land of my ancestors. Accordingly, Greece was a sombre land where people wore ethnic costume and lithographs were all the rage, whereas Australia was a land of mammals and sea creatures. My delight in finding a 1984 Australian Christmas stamp that featured a Byzantine icon of the Nativity ensured my devotion to the multicultural state thereafter.
Taking Yeats’ observation further, up until the age of fifteen, whereupon my stamp collection was first bequeathed to my sister and then duly filed away into obscurity, it was my firm belief that the political system of Eastern Bloc countries, in particular East Germany and Hungary, was infinitely superior because their stamps were so well designed and colourful. I also resolved to migrate to the exotic land of Umm al-Qawain, which I later discovered to be a constituent emirate of the United Arab Emirates, because of a set of five stamps that I possessed, which portrayed dazzlingly coloured tropical fish. Just prior to kicking the habit for good, I was amazed to receive into my possession, a set of stamps issued by the short-lived government of Autonomous Northern Epirus in 1914, a remarkable artifact of modern history and also amassed a good selection of soccer stamps from various People’s Democratic Republics.
Stamps can therefore be used as historical evidence, a learning tool and propaganda. Olympic Stamps in particular are worth our attention because they mark one instance in which all countries express the same attitude towards the same ideal in exactly the same way. In a stroke of genius, the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, in collaboration with the Chinese Community of Melbourne, is playing host to an exhibition of Olympic Stamps lovingly and painstakingly collected by a Mr Ioannidis, resident in Greece.
The exhibition, launched this month and currently occupying the third floor of the GOCMV tracks the history of the Olympic Games through postage stamps, first day covers and other postal paraphernalia. On the way, not only is it remarkable to notice how all countries cannot fail to be inspired by the ideals of the Olympic Games but that they all tend to express that ideal in similar ways. European countries, with Greece at their helm, tend to emphasise unity and the ancient pedigree of the Games, through their featuring of ancient representations of athletes, and the ruins of ancient Olympia. These representations are to be found less in Anglo-Saxon and other countries, where more emphasis is given to the competition itself and the portrayal of the actual sporting events is more common. This notwithstanding, one thing is certain: it cannot be doubted that the millions of Olympic stamps that are issued worldwide each Olympiad and in the lead up to each Olympiad, pay homage to a singular achievement and to a singular people in a manner that does not find a counterpart anywhere else on the globe.
Coupled with the fascinating exhibits, which commence with the first issue of pre-Olympic Stamps for the 1896 Olympic Games, and end with the most recent stamps issued in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, one is able to track the development of the Games’ importance, their growth and the changing emphasis on various of their aspects throughout the century of their existence. Mr Ioannidis’ carefully researched commentary also provides valuable historical snippets of trivia. For example, it is a little known fact that as early as the 1860’s, the inhabitants of the Greek village of Artakoy, in Bithynia, Asia Minor were holding athletic games, which they called ‘Olympic.’ Similarly, the great Northern Epirot benefactor Evangelos Zappas wrote to King Otto of Greece in 1856, offering 400 shares in his steamship company so that the dividends could be used to establish the Olympic Games, the ‘Olympiad’ and to provide prizes to the Olympian victors. In 1859 he succeeded in reviving the Olympic Games in a city square in Athens.
It is a testament to Mr Ioannidis’ dedication that both the Chinese and Greek Communities embraced his exhibition, which has toured over ten cities in Greece, with such fervour. In compiling the exhibits, Mr Ioannidis did so with the stated aim of “imbuing viewers with a sense of the history and the noble ideals of the Games, as well as an appreciation of the Greek thought process that led to their development and revival.” Ultimately, culture is an exportable commodity and the Olympic Games provide a unifying pivot point such as could never have been imagined by the ancient Greeks, permitting others to see us at what they consider to be our very best. Considering that the ideology of sport, with all its ethical ramifications has been adopted wholesale by the entire oikoumene, this exhibition is pertinent to philatelists, stamp-collectors, sports-fans, and cynics alike, abolishing the distinction between the dorks and the cool for all time.
Having enjoined one and all to visit the third floor of the GOCMV, on the corner of Russell and Lonsdale Streets, Melbourne this month and to view this unique, exhibition in the annals of our community, we leave you with the following musing by American humourist, John Billing, equally applicable to decently rendered propaganda: “Consider the postage stamp, its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.”


First published in NKEE on 20 August 2007