I love Big Fat History Books, full of footnotes (no endnotes, please) and academic caution. But I also love small, idiosyncratic books about history: books that look at the past through one person’s obsessions and interest.
Chris West combined an uncle’s Edwardian stamp collection with his own interest in history to create a quirky and insightful approach to the past in A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps.
Taken together, the stories of individual stamps tell the larger story of British history. West begins with the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black of 1840, which becomes an emblem of the energy and invention of Victorian Britain. He ends with the 2012 First Class stamp and a thoughtful discussion of whether Britain is still “first class” (the inevitable postage pun is his). In between, he considers a number of recurring themes suggested by the stamps themselves: industry, social change, the role of the royal family, and Britain’s post-war decline and subsequent reinvention(s).
West builds a large historical framework on his “thirty-six little pieces of paper”, but he always brings the discussion back to the stamps themselves. He uses details about designs and designers to further illuminate changes not only in taste but also in the national spirit. The book ends with philatelic information about each stamp, including hints for beginners, more detailed information for experts and an occasional description of a rare issue for “the philatelist who thinks they have died and gone to heaven”. This section is written in the same engaging style as the body of the book: even a reader who doesn’t care about stamps as collectibles may find herself drawn into West’s discussion of forgeries, printing errors and rarities.
If you’d like to know more, you can read my interview with Chris West here.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.