The joys of stamp collecting

Imagine my delight, when I discovered recently that there are still stamp stores. I don't mean post offices. I never go in one of those by choice, any more than I would visit a tax office for the sake of the ambience. Instead I mean stores that supply stamp collectors with the materials of their hobby.

Picture this scene: an old office building, with grotty corridors, off a traffic-crashed street that has seen better days. You find the correct floor and door. And there, inside, is a small huddle of old men -my age, or worse -gathered around a sorting table, going through catalogues, albums, trays. And every one of them looks like a character, and there is light in every fine old eye.

My family, from my father's side, were four generations of stamp collectors. My grandpa could never give it up, for to the day of his death (in 1978) he was sending his grandchildren unwanted First Day Covers. From out of the wreckage of human life, the family collection, full of memories from my own childhood, devolved upon me. Much had been unaccountably lost -or rather, such losses are easily explained by the speed with which the goods of the enfeebled old and deceased are junked or hustled, in our world full of "stuff." (Modern marital breakups also come into this.)

Yet much had also survived, in catastrophic disorder. It was because I had long resolved to restore it, that I found myself shopping for the like of glassine envelopes and stock sheets; and thus in peril myself of stamp collecting again.

"Stamp collecting." There was a time when even optimists did it (in their slovenly way), and stamp stores occupied distinguished premises. You could walk in from fashionable streets. It was a passage in nearly every boyhood (there were girl collectors, too; girls you could talk to), and among the most voluntary parts of his education. I taught my own elder lad how stamps were collected. Alas, he soon lost interest. He taught me how to use e-mail.

With the decline, nay death, of letter writing, stamps quickly exited our lives. An ever more specialized antiquarian market lives on, in which the price of rare and famous stamps remains astronomical. The hobby is still breathing in Asia, I'm assured. But here in the West, the mass of collectors are no longer schoolchildren. No mass at all, but a few old men with stories to tell, and only each other to listen.

The Kings of England used to collect stamps; and so did several American presidents. In an ancient brochure, I find Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recommending the hobby to the young because it promotes all the qualities we look for in a good citizen.

And the funny thing is, he was right. It promoted a lively consciousness of historical time, and an exact sense of chronology; wide but particular geographical knowledge; attention to fine detail and the stamina for this; habits of logical organization and neatness. It led to many subsidiary interests, through the subjects depicted on stamps. It even inculcated fine motor skills. Stamp clubs were the breeding ground of a responsible capitalism -a grounding in civility, promoting trade as an alternative to rapine.

Moreover, stamp collecting was, like all the best and most effective forms of pedagogy, essentially aesthetic. For Plato was right, that there are only two ways to learn: through beauty, or through suffering. Take your pick.

A generation ago, stamp collectors began to be mocked. And I mean mocked, by those optimists, in their hyena aspect, for it was already a dying cult. Peer pressure banned it from the schoolyards. And the collecting impulse, which is ineradicable in man, turned to much shoddier things. It became less shameful to be seen collecting pornography than to be seen collecting stamps. Like the rest of Western Civ, it went into hiding.