A short while ago my brother handed me my childhood stamp album and asked me if I still wanted it. He’d dug it out of some old box or other. I flicked through it, feeling a frisson of nostalgia but also wondering what on earth I was thinking collecting stamps. The experience was a little like when you’re on the beach and find a lustrous pebble or shell, and take it home where it seems to grow duller and duller until you wondered what you ever saw in it. I can remember the business of stamp collecting – the way I used to immerse envelopes, mostly sent from relatives living in England, in a sink full of water, the slow peeling off of the stamp once it had unstuck sufficiently, and the process of patting it dry and then slotting it into the album behind a protective layer of plastic. But I can’t remember the feeling. That is to say, I can’t remember what made me want to collect stamps in the first place. It may be that it was just a carefully curated piece of eccentricity, the kind of knowingly odd thing I used to do to set myself apart from the pack. I still have that instinct – a kind of incurable contrarianism – but I’m also suspicious of it now. Once upon I time I would have lapped up the defiant musings of a writer like, say, Helen Razer, but these days just as often I read her work and all I see is thousands of words in search of a point of view. That’s the trouble with contrarianism – while it can yield useful, even essential, counterpoints to prevailing ideas, it can equally just – in the manner of Tony Abbott – amount to little more than an enormous no (in contrast, I suppose, to Larkin’s enormous yes, which was, of course, love). The late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote Letters to a Young Contrarian, disavowed the label, I suspect because he too came to see its limitations (even if, in supporting the Iraq war, which was backed by most of the media and political establishments, he missed one of the few opportunities to put the opposite case when it would have really mattered).
But getting back to stamps. I suppose there may have been other reasons I collected them. The hint of valuableness (although I strongly suspect mine were worthless). Their exoticism, hailing as they did from all over the world (although mostly one or two suburbs on the fringes of London). And then there were the intersections with my other outsider interests, namely Doctor Who and Queen (the band, not the royal). I remember a stamp featuring an image of a Dalek taken by Lord Snowdon and another featuring Freddie Mercury that became famous/notorious for being the only stamp issued by the Royal Mail featuring a person who was still alive (the band’s drummer, Roger Taylor, who was just visible behind the singer). I do still want the album, even if what it meant to me remains a mystery.