Unsolicited book review: First Class—A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, by Chris West

What a cool idea! How come I didn’t think of this? West has written an engaging history of Britain from around the time of the early post office system—the early 19th century–to the present day, with 36 stamps as the leads for each short chapter. So we learn about the growth of the mail service in Britain (which got there first, after all), and West flags what was going on in the country, or the empire, or the world at the time of each particular stamp he discusses. How simple and elegant is that? I’m in awe.

West is an affable companion—he’s mildly progressive, and has a good sense for the drift of history. In fact, this is actually a pretty good history of Britain from 1840—there’s not much I would fault (although he does have some kind words for Margaret Thatcher, but I think that’s mostly because he’s a good sport). He’s not kind to everyone, though—he’s got some harsh words for politicians when appropriate, and for the City in general.

The weaving of the social and political history of Britain and the growth of its mail service turns out to be an inspired concept. We start out, of course, with the Penny Black, the most famous stamp in history, and move on from there. Some of the chapters are great fun—the great Exhibition—and some, like the chapters on the First World War, are heartbreaking. West pretty much has it all here, although he does apologize for not having a chapter on Darwin. Still, there’s not much of the general story here that’s he’s missed. What makes the book shine, though, are his discussions of the stamps. He’s got a lot of good ones–the Penny Lilac (all 33 billion of them), the British Empire Exhibition commemorative, the Machin decimals, the Diana series following her death. He’s even got some of the blunders–the Parliamentary Conference 4d commemorative, and the National Productivity Year issue (which was a blunder only because National Productivity Year was a bust.) And he does them justice in terms of discussing their designers, what the Post Office was doing at the time, how they were printed, the controversy over the introduction of commemoratives, and the impact of the internet (letters are down, packages are up). This is a nifty arc for hanging the history of Britain and its empire on, but it’s a sturdy one, and bears the load well.

A word about the book itself is in order as well. It’s a handsome, well-designed book, with a great dust jacket, heavy paper stock, stitched pages instead of just glued, and attractive color reproductions of the stamps introducing each chapter. The pages have printed perforations to make them look like a stamp. It’s the kind of book you want as a book, not an e-book. Kudos to Square Peg, a subsidiary of Random House, for giving us a book that actually looks and feels like a book. This is the perfect gift for that stamp-collecting partner, friend or relative–if you have any.

Categories: Arts/Literature