What do stamps say about nations?
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Looking again at my stamp collection yesterday, I was struck by the variety and sophistication of so many of the items in my neatly ordered albums – the quality of illustration, the thought that had gone into producing them, the attempts at a narrative. I should say that I did my collecting in the late 1960s and early 70s and have no idea how stamps have developed since; indeed, until a few years ago I had assumed that I’d sold my not very impressive collection for beer money and so was delighted to come across it intact. Now I’m hanging on to it (it’s certainly not worth anything).
What do stamps tell us about countries? Maybe not much, but there must be an element of them representing that country to the rest of the world, even in these globalized times. After all, if we receive a letter or postcard from abroad do we not cast a glance at the stamp? I can’t help noticing that some countries back then put little or no effort into presentation (it may be very different now): India (surprisingly), Brazil (ditto), Argentina, and, to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand, which were very royal (cultural cringe?). Then there were the Scandinavian countries, with their unforgivably dull stamps, and almost equally dull Switzerland, East Germany, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium. Maybe that spoke of national self-confidence. I don’t seem to have any stamps from the Soviet Union so have no idea what they were like but I can imagine.
Greece, on the other hand, clearly took a lot of trouble: aside from some attractive images of traditional dress there is plentiful illustration of the classical heritage. France, as one would expect, drew on its artistic and cultural patrimony, Italy appeared not to (missing a trick there), while my Spanish section includes fifty-three representations of women in traditional regional dress, from Albacete to Zaragoza – I must have bought them as a job lot. Then there are the explorers Ponce de León and Cabeza de Vaca, and of course Franco is present . . .
Latin America has a lot of representations of Simon Bolivar the Liberator as you would expect (especially in the Venezuela section). Bolivia champions its (painfully slow) development – “el desarrollo” – and commemorates a South American tennis tournament held in La Paz in 1965; that city being at some 12,000 feet, it must have been quite a challenge to the players. For a more traditional image, meanwhile, see below:
For Cuba it was no effort spared, whether it be bird life . . .
. . . or celebrations of Lenin's centenary (below).
Africa, meanwhile, is a riot of colour and exuberance (see the stamp at the head of the post). Maybe there was a celebration of recently acquired Independence. What beautiful stamps, from Mauritania (commemorating both Lenin and Gandhi), to Mali, Guinea,
Senegal, Ghana to Ethiopia.
Further east, Yemen likes its cars (below), while a stamp from Afghanistan, dated 1970, reproduces the UN credo “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”.
What of UK stamps? Lots of kings and queens – and there’s the 1964 Shakespeare Festival. Literary figures abound – I almost certainly had no idea who Wordsworth or Keats were, much less Inigo Jones. There’s the new Post Office tower, a spanking new hovercraft, the World Cup being held aloft, EFTA, the European Communities, 50 years of the BBC, the new universities, Concorde, the QE2, Churchill’s centenary, W. G. Grace, the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips in 1973. All very traditional. And then there are the historic buildings, castles and palaces. Just as last week a set of six stamps was announced illustrating Buckingham House (c.1700) to Buckingham Palace today. Plus ça change.
In Finland, and bizarrely on the same day, a set of three stamps was announced (to be released in September) celebrating the work of Tom of Finland (1920–91, real name Touko Laaksonen), who is chiefly known for his homoerotic (some would say pornographic) depictions of leather-clad (and unclad) muscular men. The three stamps don't reproduce his more explicit images and anyway, this being a family website, I’ve shown a mere detail from one of them.
I guess Sibelius, the architect Alvar Aalto and his works, the writer Tove Jansson and the Olympic runner Lasse Virén have already been covered, many times probably.
So one has to say: hats off to the liberal or liberated Finns for pushing the envelope, or should that be stamp? Probably best to keep those stamps when they appear away from any budding young collector though.