Solace in stamps

How Brexit handed me a midlife crisis I wasn’t planning, and how stamp collecting kept it at bay.

In July of 2016 (a year ago, at time of writing), I turned 40. The same weekend, I began collecting stamps. These two things are sort of related, but I thought it’d be interesting to examine the events leading to it, and how collecting stamps has helped my sense of optimism over the last 12 months.

I’ll be honest — the Brexit vote crushed me. The ugly events and national debate both before and after the referendum, as well as the result itself, overturned my understanding of things I recognised as being decent and generally agreed on in our society. For the first time in my life, the path I sort of saw lying ahead for me, my partner, and especially my children, was thrown into doubt. I wasn’t planning on having a midlife crisis, but Brexit handed me one on a plate.

So there I was, the day after my 40th birthday, three weeks after the referendum, still in a daze, walking along a street in a coastal town, trying to distract myself from everything by catching Pokémon. I walked past a charity shop which was selling bundles of old stamps. I was reminded of the stamp collection I had as a kid — long consigned to landfill. I loved the different shapes, nations and designs as a child, and now as a professional designer, I had a more analytical appreciation of them. The boutique publisher Unit Editions had recently published a book about stamps, which I’d had my eye on, which had also rekindled my interest.

So I bought some.

International Telecommunications Union Centenary, 1965. Nice.

I took my bundles home, and spent time sifting between stuff of no interest to me, and cooler, older designs, while my not-at-all-worried partner looked on. It didn’t take long for this to move from a little trip down memory lane, to realising that each stamp was a fascinating window into a designer’s mind, approach, and execution. Not to mention the sheer vibrancy of the things.

Stamps for Information Technology Year 1982. Pretty cheesy design, but I had the one on the right as a kid.

My criteria for stamps I liked (and wanted to collect) solidified pretty quickly. They were usually post-war, up to around the mid-1980s. Highly graphical with interesting illustration, colourschemes or photographic treatments. Cool subject matter; not monarchs or the gentry. I realise this is absolutely to do with looking back to a more optimistic time (as I saw it), be that my entire lifetime up until the referendum, or just a bit before, when expressive graphic design was on the up.

I like stamps. I like modernist architecture. I like these stamps about modernist architecture.
A full sheet of Canadian ‘earth sciences’ stamps, from 1972. Beautiful.

Fast-forward to now, a year later. I have quite a few more stamps. Not loads; I buy a few each month. And I’ve realised why I’ve been doing it. The last 12 months have been very tough. Brexit, Trump’s ascendancy, the distinct possibility of Le Pen winning in France… they were all chipping away at my (admittedly complacently liberal) understanding of where society ought to be heading. I was struggling to focus on my work, and finding it harder to be optimistic in general. Postage stamps gave me a little respite and hope.

You see, I realised that stamps, for the most part, are about Good Things. They celebrate the wonders of the natural world — trees, mountains, birds, insects! They examine the fantastic achievements of individuals — scientists, artists, inventors, architects, social reformers! And they also celebrate great feats of co-operation — sporting events, world fairs, education, the United Nations, space travel! So many Good Things.

International Year of the Child, 1979. Wonderful.

It sounds a bit silly really, but collecting postage stamps gave me just enough hope to cling on to, whilst so much around me was on fire. Whilst I was sagging under the weight of worry about my business, about my kids, about a nuke-happy president, about my EU friends here in the UK, these tiny, delicate, marvellous pieces of design gave me a welcome distraction, every time a new small, well-sealed envelope landed on the doormat.

1976 stamp for the UN conference on human settlements, Vancouver. Gorgeous. As you can guess, Canada have some of my favourite stamps.

But they are more than a distraction. They remind me that there have always been, and will always be, things to celebrate in this world, and in this society. People who make things, who change things, things that have been around forever, things that are brand new. Things that have changed lives or saved lives.

Remarkable illustrations for Netherlands’ “Youth Welfare 1968” set — they do a set each year and they’re all brilliant.

I now post pictures of my stamps every Friday on Twitter under my one-man hashtag, #PhilatelyPhriday – just one pic a week, and I get nice comments from folks who dig the designs too. Turns out that other people find a welcome pocket of happiness from these things too.

Think of something good, and there’s probably a stamp about it.