Arts/Literature

“Allies learn a lot from Axis parachuting failures”

This nugget of a sentence—one of the best sentences I’ve ever come across, I believe—was contained in an exhibit at Stampex yesterday called Parachuting with Dolly Shepherd, a clever history of parachuting as told by real parachuting pioneer Dolly Shepherd through the usual tools of stamp collectors—stamps, envelopes, letters, buttressed by photos and newspaper clippings. This is one of the cool things about stamp shows—the exhibits, which are often a delight. Dolly Shepherd’s life, intertwined with a history of parachuting, was very cleverly done. But it wasn’t even the best one—that kudo goes to Denmark’s Internment Camps in WWII, which held both British and American civilians after it was occupied by Germany. And you learn so much—who knew the Danish Police were so uncooperative that the entire Police Force was replaced by the occupying government in one fell swoop, sending 2000 Danish police to Buchenwald? I do now.

This is why I love stamp shows, and keep going, even though their attendance keeps declining, and I still manage to bring the average age down at each one I go to. Someone has to, and I have stamps to buy. The number of kids does seem to keep increasing, so I’m hopeful, as do the number of teenage girls with their mothers—not the kind of thing you bring your friends to, in all likelihood—not the kind of thing you even tell them about, I imagine. But let’s face it, we’re a declining breed—but not for lack of trying.

The main appeal for me now is the exhibits, which I initially tended to view as the aggressive efforts of OCD collectors. But there’s a lot of genuine scholarship here, and they’re a lot of fun. Where else can you see displays—consisting of a well thought out narration, interspersed with stamps, letters, envelopes, photographs, often telling a compelling story—on just about anything at all? Well, some of the stories are not exactly compelling, I admit—Early Stamps from Sarawak, or a History of British Airports, or a history of the Macedonian postal service. But there are stamps about everything, and you can tell wonderful stories with them—other exhibits a this show included Shackelton’s Voyages to Antarctica (all four of them, and he never lost a man), The Wounded Soldier (with lots of letters, of course, but also lots on military hospitals and homes), a history of Tennis (Steffi Graf sure shows up on a lot of stamps), The Battle of the Falkands in 1914, and another on the Falklands when it was occupied by Argentina and the mail service was provided by the Argentine Post Office, a history of Paper, the Goat (really cute!), the Evolution of Puppetry, the Atlantic Puffin…

So I try to be a good audience. I don’t have the patience to actually create one of these things, but I can appreciate the effort by those who do. We’re a weird bunch, us collectors. Not only do we collect, but we can be as OCD about it as anyone can be about pretty much anything. We’re pretty harmless, by and large. We don’t go around creating unnecessary wars. In fact, it’s a good bet that real stamp collectors know enough about the complexity of the world to know that wars are generally a bad idea. For one thing, it disrupts the mail service. It’s a remarkable thing that POWs got mail in WWII—thanks to the Red Cross, but still, the system was set up for it.

The mail does go through, eventually. In every part of the world, too—you can send a letter anywhere, and it will get there, because there’s a treaty system among practically every country in the world to ensure that it does. It’s a remarkable system for one that has survived for several hundred years, more or less, and while it’s threatened by technology, it perseveres, and will undoubtedly evolve.

In the meantime, we have this living history still stored in attics and basements, waiting to be unearthed and reviewed. Much of which will end up in albums of collectors like me, or dealers, or more serious collectors who will find something that will spark a thread, that will lead to an amazing little tapestry on, well, the history of parachuting, or Danish Internment camps. Stamps, and letters between people, capture this, if we let it—people living their lives in one form or another, and sharing their lives with each other. I remember a quote that was ascribed to Walter Benjamin—“Books are not life—but then, what is?”—that I haven’t actually been able to verify as being something Benjamin said. But it’s still a great quote, and if he didn’t say it, he should have. And it applies to stamps, even more so. Stamps are a symbol of the contact we have with each other, of our urge for maintaining that contact, through wars and peace, as persons, or citizens, or creators, or just observers. Stamps are not life, either—but then, what is?

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