A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps
“Chris West's gripping book reminds us why philatelists are passionate enough to kill. Oh, by the way, it's a fine portrait of the last 175 years of British history, too.”
Alan Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie"
"Small but perfectly formed, like the stamps it describes."
Ceri Radford, London Daily Telegraph
Postage stamps are little rectangular time-machines, that can whisk you back into pivotal moments in history – or to quiet moments in the lives of people long dead.
A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps (entitled First Class in the UK) uses this to tell the nation’s story since 1840 – the year the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, appeared (it was issued on May 1, but no covers with that date exist. Shame…) Courtesy of this iconic stamp, we meet Rowland Hill, and see the tremendous energy, principle and imagination of Victorian reformers. Next, the Shilling Embossed, the stamp that took mail across the Atlantic on the Great Eastern, offers a window into the world of Brunel and the great Victorian engineers. And so on, through Victoria’s 1887 Jubilee, the glory days of Edward VII (glory for some, anyway), two World Wars, to the seemingly conservative fifties, the swinging sixties, the sexy, confused seventies… And end up with a simple question: can Britain still call itself a ‘First Class’ nation?
The idea came when I found an old stamp album that I’d had as a boy. I’d been given it by a Great Uncle who had fought in the trenches in 1916 – it was full of early 20th century stamps. Then I had foolishly taken it to school, where a big chunk of the collection was stolen. After which, what was left of it had sat gathering dust in an attic for decades…
Discovering the album again made me want to recover the lost stamps, and then to build a better collection than the original. Over a number of eBay evenings I did this – missing out a few of the really pricey ones, such as Victorian high values (I cheated and got forgeries of these). As I did so, I became ever more fascinated by the history that surrounded the stamps. What was Britain like when this little paper object was issued? Who might have used it, and to say what?
Come with me on a philatelically inspired journey into Britain’s past…
“Chris West's book is like a collection of witty, informative letters about British history. It's as clear and readable as a picture postcard: short and sweet and chatty.”
Stephen Clarke, author of the international bestseller A Year in the Merde and 1000 Years of Annoying the French
"An ingenious idea... executed with flair and imagination."
British novelist and critic, DJ Taylor