The Perfect Stamp
Little do wives know how much men spend on their hobbies. But my wife is about to find out.
It is almost one o’clock on 22 November 2006, a Wednesday. I’m standing just inside the door of my marriage guidance counsellor’s house in north London. I have a stamp album under my arm and I am in all kinds of trouble – emotional, financial, philatelic – a situation I couldn’t have imagined two years before.
My marriage is over, but the reasons are still unravelling.
We have drifted apart over the years. I have fallen in love and I’m having an affair. I have developed a passion for someone I loved when I was young, and for something I loved when I was a child. I am forty-seven, and I can’t concentrate on anything for very long.
I have built up a stamp collection I can barely afford, and it has brought me to the brink of ruin. The affair and my stamps, the two secrets that have brought me here to a small room in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, are not unconnected, for both are quests for meaning, the classic mid-life dilemma. For my marriage guidance counsellor the affair is a commonplace: a lack of intimacy and honesty with my wife, a beautiful woman who has rejuvenated my days and made me feel attractive, hotel rooms. But the stamps are something unusual.
Collecting fills a hole in a life, and gives it a semblance of meaning. When men get together to talk about their passions, we don’t just talk about what we love – our cars, our sports, our romantic yearnings – but also how much these desires have cost us, and what we have lost. We try to regain what we cannot. We talk about the one that got away – the prized possession – as if that would have made everything right.
Little do wives know: I first heard this phrase from Michael Sefi, the keeper of the Queen’s stamps. Then there were similar observations from the head of an auction house and my stamp dealer. They often spun a web of secrets for their clients, something they called discretion. My philatelic icon, a man who had the heroic name Sir Gawaine Baillie, had built up a collection worth more than ten million pounds, but his wife thought it was worth £800,000.
In the past I have wondered whether my affair was a sort of hobby too, a diversion from reality, a club of extreme enthusiasm. We loved talking about our love, and would sometimes talk of nothing else, shutting out the world with our own code. We knew it wasn’t harmless, and that devastating and far-reaching things would surely follow, but we considered ourselves above life itself.
I found it easier to talk about my affair than my stamps. I was actually proud of it, even in front of my wife. In my mid-forties I could still ignite passion in myself and in another; better, it was a passion I had never felt before. And anyone could understand these emotions, the stuff of books and films, and of a million lucky lives. But stamps? Used postage? Who could be passionate about that? And who could explain it?
I told my wife of my affair in a straightforward way, on a walk along the Kent coast one afternoon, and things moved swiftly from there. Within a week I was sleeping in my office, within a month in a rented flat. There is a practical way these things advance, a clinical order to offset the hurt and anger and tears. There is professional help to call upon. But an affair with stamps – stamps as a mistress, just as uncontrollable as the wildest edge of obsessive love – that might take half a lifetime to understand.
My wife still doesn’t appreciate my stamps, but my marriage guidance counsellor, who I shall call Jenny, is making a good attempt. After our session this lunchtime I have an appointment at an auction house, not to buy but to sell, a meeting that will place a monetary value on my private hobby, which in turn will affect my immediate future and the level of extended mortgages and maintenance payments. Rather than leave my stamps in my car I have brought them in, and I am opening the cover for Jenny to examine.
She is bored out of her mind in less than thirty seconds. She doesn’t even feign interest. I say, ‘Look at this one, it lacks olive-green!’ She says, ‘I know they mean a lot to you.’
I don’t collect ordinary stamps. I collect stamps with errors, with absent colours, with printing faults. It doesn’t take long for my marriage guidance counsellor to make the connection between what I collect – stamps with bits missing – and my family history, which has been a life with people missing. I mention to her that Freud considered collecting as ‘compensation for loss’, and she nods. She doesn’t understand the beauty of the stamps in my album, but she can see that selling them is a great loss, another imminent separation.
First U.S. edition
© Simon Garfield, 2008
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