The Error World: An Affair with Stamps by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield is best known for his three-volume anthology of the private diaries that were kept for the Mass Observation project during and after the second world war, recording the minutiae of ordinary people's daily lives. In The Error World, he has produced a similar account of an "ordinary" life, his own, made unusual by his obsession with stamp collecting.

He began collecting by replying to the adverts in the back of boys' magazines for stamps "on approval", which meant that you didn't have to pay for them as long as you agreed to buy more. The free stamps would duly arrive, heavily postmarked, sometimes fairly tatty and torn, and virtually worthless. But by using the complimentary plastic tweezers and magnifying glass that came with them, you might just be able to discern the exotic names of the countries they bore.

There were still plenty of stamps in circulation from the old colonies in those days, and albums were called things such as the Windsor, the Strand, the New Imperial, and there were specialist stamp shops in the heart of London with names such as Bridger & Kay, WELea and, of course, Stanley Gibbons. Commemorative stamps changed significantly over the years as well. They used to be all Trafalgar and fighter planes and royalty and wild flowers (issued in 1967, "designed by the RevWKeble Martin, the author of The Concise British Flora in Colour"), whereas now they celebrate Wembley stadium, the abolition of slavery, and Harry Potter. And as Garfield notes, collectors today are invited to nominate the subjects they would like to see commemorated, from a carefully chosen list including Legendary Football Managers, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The address to write to is "The Data Solutions Centre, Manton Wood Enterprise Park, Worksop".

When Garfield's father died prematurely, letters of condolence arrived from all over the world with some extremely collectable stamps on them. "Inevitably, the best ones arrived from furthest away. Switzerland, France, Israel, Canada, the United States and Africa, all stamped." It was "the biggest haul I ever had". But it didn't take the young Garfield long to realise that there were far too many stamps in the world to collect, so he began to specialise in "errors" - stamps that had accidentally been produced when "the printing machine had run out of ink, or a paper fold had caused the colour to be printed on the gummed side". He could reel off all the great mistakes, including "the 1961 European Postal Conference 2d missing orange" and "the 1962 National Productivity Year 3d and 1s 3d both missing light blue (the Queen's head)".

He lost interest in stamp collecting around the age of 20, which seems quite late, although it was for the usual reasons: the hobby suddenly seemed to belong to childhood, and there were other things to concentrate on. What is odd is that he returned to stamp-collecting again when he was in his early forties. "I once had ISAs and Tessas," but now it was all hugely expensive errors again, on which he began to spend more and more, storing his album secretively in the base of a built-in wardrobe in his office.

Only later would he connect this revived hobby with the gradual decline and then break-up of his marriage, and a subconscious longing for the simple pleasures of his boyhood. This delicately perceptive bit of self-analysis gives the book an added poignancy. He even took his stamp album along to his marriage-guidance counsellor. His interests and his wife's had diverged markedly over the nearly 20 years they had been together and "she was not interested in used postage". His new girlfriend wasn't that keen either, but then "I'm not sure that I could ever be attracted to any woman who was". He told the counsellor that he intended to sell all his errors, and she observed that "their sale (the selling of my mistakes) might signify a new start for me".

He did try to give up his increasingly expensive hobby, and at one point was on the verge of buying a Jaguar instead. In the end, however, he admitted defeat and went back to his lasting obsession, finding solace in putting these tiny bits of paper in order. And, unlike other forms of collecting, buying, consuming and hoarding, Garfield points out that "the nature of stamp collecting is partly non-consumerist, as we safeguard artefacts that previously would have been used up and thrown away, but in the 21st century collecting ultimately always means buying things".

THE ERROR WORLD An Affair with Stamps by Simon Garfield
Faber £14.99 pp247

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