A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West is a unique take on looking at history. West is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied economics and philosophy. He wrote his first book Journey into the Middle Kingdom after the traveling to China. His fiction includes theChina Quartet four crime novels based in the the People’s Republic of China. West’s other non-fiction include books on business and entrepreneurship.
Stamps are history. I remember having stamp albums as a child and going trough the pages studying the stamps from different countries. There was almost as much to learn from stamps as there was from books. I had nearly forgotten that old hobby until I saw West’s book.
West starts with the 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and ends with the 2012 1st Class stamp featuring a young Queen Elizabeth. Most stamps feature the current monarch’s profile with the exception of 1996-2012 when a small silhouette of the queen was used and other subjects where the main art of the stamp. Through time most of the stamps in the book displayed current events or anniversaries. There is a shift in the art work too reflecting the times. All of the stamps used are British except for a single German stamp from the interwar period. A 200 Mark stamp over printed 2 Million Marks reflecting the hyperinflation in Germany.
West writes a clear and easy to follow history of Britain. Each chapter starts with a stamp and a story connecting the stamp to a piece of history. Whether it is a new king, a royal wedding, or marking the death of the former Princess of Wales there is a piece of contemporary history connected to the stamp. Some history is less obvious, like an odd looking Christmas stamp, or a misplaced “46th” on a stamp, or even a minority occupying the center spot on a stamp. It is not only the history of the stamps but the history the British Post Office. At one time mail was delivered twelve times a day in London. The price of a stamp was cheap enough so that, as the author says, people posted letters then like people text today. The Post Office was one place where everyone was equal. Post office brought a standard rate for all letters, provided decent jobs, and operated a bank. The bank, unlike others at the time, was for the common people. Also mentioned several times in the book is Britain’s most famous postal employee (and author) Anthony Trollope.
Thirty-Six Postage Stamps is a fun and rather light historical read. It is a history book for those who really don’t like getting bogged done in dates and such. A single stamps followed by a story makes makes for a nice and informative read. For those who like history or stamp collecting it is still an excellent read. From early in Victoria’s rule until the present the reader will get a taste of British culture and history. An excellent read.