Beginnings with Philately…

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

My country and our men and women have a passion for football. Even the kids. And that is why I sometimes wonder why the postage stamp on my snail mail ignites an interest more profound than the squabbles with our FA and its leadership. This stamp I just collected bears the grey-haired bust of our own William Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, sporting a grey beard and a very grey mass of grey hair that he wears like some crown. An inscription, ‘Literary Icon’ seemingly is what should introduce him to any other equally enthusiastic philatelist anywhere in the world as that. Apart from this however, there is almost nothing different from this grey-haired chap from any other grey-haired chap anywhere else in the world. But with his image adorning this national utility I think surely sends a message: that that little rectangular piece of paper certainly is more than an archive of a country’s culture, history, politics, technological drive and creative genius. It is a vital document having the kind of aesthetic value normally ascribable to the Beowulf, a sonnet or a Haiku or any of the popular odes.

I have not seen the Penny Black or the Inverted Jenny. In fact, if I had before my interest in stamp farming was aroused by a friend, I would not be attracted to them the way I am now. I wish I could get my hands on at least one of these Mona Lisas of my hobby and place them in my treasure chest almost the way Wole Soyinka wears his grey oeuvre like some diadem. The Penny Black, the Inverted Jenny are just about the only two rare stamps I have that are the collectors’ items that I have hardly seen, yet they are here right in front of me, in an encyclopedia and my thinking is this: why not make a print of and slice them to size at least just for the sake of having them adorn and crown my album? Nope. That would not do. Never. My stamps are like precious stones and they seem to be able to breathe and attempting to counterfeit or make a copy of them by any other means apart from the normal painstaking methods of either swapping with another collector, buying them from the local post office, or getting them via mail devalues their worth. This will bring me to how it all began.

I guess mine was more a combination of the negative elements of envy and greed and how I immediately shook myself free from those virtues by starting a collection of my own in 1988. As a young lad growing up in that neighbourhood in the late eighties, nobody saw too much wrong in peeling off the stamp from a letter you just received and sending a reply with that same stamp. All you did was gingerly peel off the stamp, leave in a bowl of water for several minutes and hey presto, the franking ink dissolves, at least to a maximum extent. My friend Jude who once worked at the local post office told me it was easy then to spot a used stamp put back in circulation but that they were mostly a negligible proportion. According to him, if the stamp was really that bad, they made the addressee pay for the cost of postage because in most cases, senders hardly put down their addresses at the back of the envelope.

As a kid in that hood, if you were not playing football or not familiar with the very recent exploits that took Axterix and Obelisk to Gaul or Rome, you were seen as mere vegetable. You had to know the latest adventures of that comic character known as Tintin and his little dog Snowy. You had to know stuff about Superman, Spiderman, Thor the god of Thunder, the X-MEN and the Fantastic Four. The Incredible Hulk was a major hit, what with the Dr Jekyl-Mr-Hyde character, Bruce Banner transmuting from that puny scientist to a mass of raging, uncontrollable flesh. He used to say before he transmuted, ‘Please don’t make me angry; you wouldn’t like it when I do!’ You had to know everything about English football. If you did not know about Trevor Francis, about the football Annual Shoot! and its Scottish legend, Hotshot Hamish, I tell you again, you were barely alive. The teams then were Nottingham Forest and her famous captain Kevin Keegan; Southampton, Manchester City and United, and of course Liverpool. These were the days before the Internet.Those were also the days that the stamp was put to some terrible use too-some were able to encrypt an entire five-page document on the back of that sacred little document to be decoded whenever they wanted-sometimes in an exam room. It took just a glance at the back of that stamp and the code opens up the way the donkey, sesame opens up the entrance to their treasure cave.

At that time too, what was actually in vogue among my peers was the collection, apart from comic magazines, of buttons. Yes, buttons. And they were very different kinds- the ornate and the plain; the big ones and the very little ones. Leaving clothes out there on the line then was hazardous business, yes it was. Nobody took any notice of stamps as sadly, some people don’t today. Stamps. Stamps? Whatever for? Well, that was until I ran quite by accident into a friend’s exquisite collection and was wowed silly. His was an amazing sight. He had them sorted out and arranged either by their countries of origin or by their sheer aesthetic dignity-some were flowers, birds, lakes, mountains and animals. My modest collection from that day hence pretty much follows the same configuration and when I look at it now, I wonder if I would ever have the heart to let go any one of them. And that is because my mind is made up that whenever he comes of age, my unborn Junior should be able to carry on where I leave off, what will be, a family passion.

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