Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps

It sounds like a gimmick, and in some ways it is—though an effective one. Chris West has given us a brief, readable history of modern Britain, using the issue of postage stamps, one after another, to serve as signposts along the way. Perhaps five percent of the book involves stamps—how the images are chosen, how the design elements have changed. For the most part the text deals with what those choices and changes say about life in Britain at a particular point in time. West also cleverly spins tales off of other aspects of a given stamp.

For example, Chapter 3 focuses on an Irish postmark from 1848 on a Penny Red. The postmark gives West a point of entry into the famine that swept Ireland in 1846 after the arrival of potato blight from North America. Always on the outlook for balance and contrast, and seemingly in command of every detail of British history, West observes that at the time Ireland was a part of Britain and had 105 representatives in Parliament, who did nothing special to alleviate the plight of their constituents. But he reserves the bulk of his criticisms for Sir Charles Trevelyan, the government-appointed chief of famine relief, whom he describes as “ a man with a pig-headed conviction that the market was a solution for all social ills.” 

West maintains a conversational tone throughout the book, asking questions, raising issues, then offering solutions in a speculative rather than a conclusive spirit. To take another example from early in the book, a 5 Shilling Red gets him to talking about what he calls the mid-Victorian Wealth Machine, which was based on industrial production, cheap labor, and a competitive market that weeded out inferior or over-priced products. This machine brought generations of landless folks out of poverty, though it left others behind. Both of these economic developments, he notes, had been anticipated by Adam Smith a hundred years earlier.

Contra Adam Smith, West now brings Karl Marx into the discussion. “Marx can be criticized in lots of way,” he writes, “but in pointing out that the Wealth Machine didn’t automatically benefit everybody, he was surely right.” Good point. West continues: “This was a truth that some Victorians…didn’t understand; others understood but didn’t care; still others understood, cared but didn’t know what to do about it.”

Comparing the two visions of economic life, West notes that Marx depicts capitalism as based on nothing but ruthless greed, whereas Smith emphasizes not only competition but also sympathy and “moral sentiment.” 

Rather than enter into a detailed analysis of The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital, (neither of which were widely read at the time), West suggests that we examine two books that many people did read and respond to, Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and Dinah Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman. A few pages (and a new stamp) on, we’re deep into a description of the career of Charles Dickens, who humanized the plight of the urban masses more effectively still.

West rambles easily from economics to literature, from the Opium Wars to a Royal Jubilee, often choosing a significant detail to illuminate a larger truth. Always on the lookout for balance (or a silver lining), he finds it even amid Britain’s rapacious imperialism on the Dark Continent of Africa. “British education has been, and  still is, valuable in the continent,” he writes. “Nelson Mandela studied first at a Wesleyan missionary school, then at Healdtown School (established by Methodists in 1845), then at Fort Hare University,  a world class campus set up by a mixture of  eminent blacks and liberal whites in 1916.”  

In the chapters on Tony Blair and New Labour West describes the arrival of “spin,” which at the time was applied to everything from the invasion of Iraq to the postal service itself:

“Even the postal service suffered at the hands of the spinners, undergoing a ₤2 million revamp of its image that lumbered it with a new and meaningless name, Consignia, which people said reminded them of a deodorant or a walk-on part in an opera.”

West judiciously points out that, matters of spin aside, New Labour also brought peace to North Ireland, more women into parliament, and a minimum wage.

Other topics that his stamp collection calls to mind include the Falkland’s War, the changing ethnicity of Britain’s population, the EU, soccer (World Cup champs 1966, and a stamp to prove it), the Sex Pistols, and Lady Diana. After a description of the outpouring of grief in the days immediately following Diana’s death in 1998, West writes:

“Looking back on those days, some commentators regard them as a national embarrassment, like a teenage diary suddenly found in the back of the drawer. But this totally misses the point: it may have been a bit over the top, but the tears were genuine; they were the tears of people who had spent their lives being told to bury their emotions and were now suddenly allowed to let them out. It was a substantial shift in the nation’s sensibility.”

I’m no expert on British history, but it seems to me West seldom, if ever, “misses the point.” Indeed, he has wrapped aspects of economic, social, and political history into a pleasing narrative, carried along by an undercurrent of that same benevolence he finds in many aspects of British life and history. The intrusion of philatelic detail, far from serving as a prop or a distraction, helps to keep the narrative light and also reminds us that if we’re sitting with a stamp album on our lap in the midst of a decent life, it’s due to the efforts of several generations of communitarian effort… including those of the postal service.

 “Stamps tell stories,” West writes in the foreword. “They speak to us across generations – if only we’d stop squeezing them into albums and worrying about their catalog value, and just listen to their voices instead.”