I wouldn’t describe myself as an uncool kid in the eighties. Certainly my parents, nineteen when they conceived me, were regarded as an extremely cool young mum and dad.
Despite this, some mysterious force compelled them to give me a huge old-fashioned stamp album for Christmas when I was about ten, accompanied by a charity bag of used world stamps.
Pulling them out of the stocking, I had laughed and rolled my eyes, muttering something about stamps being for nerds. In spite of – or maybe because of – this, I got a charity bag of stamps for the next ten years or so. It became a running joke; my parents were pleased to see me look for them amongst the normal gifts, and it pleased me to complain about them when I found them, year after year.
Dutifully, in the early years I placed the stamps in the fragile paper slips of the album, straightening them gently and running my hand over the protective cellophane shield to flatten the edges down of the little works of art. Secretly, I would pull out the album and re-categorise the collection: always in country of origin, but then sometimes by theme, colour, year or price.
The album has survived many removals: dearly loved share-houses; now defunct de-facto situations; blissful solitary inner city loft living. I never once considered getting rid of it. Looking back, I can see that curating the stamps, the re-categorising and re-ordering, put me in a pleasant state of control during my turbulent adolescent years. It was a solitary, quieting of the mind amid the clamour of the classroom or the din of the house, as everyone complained bitterly about living with my hormones.
The stamps were a retreat. Later, as an adult, the stamps became a constant in my ever-changing world of housing, jobs, social groups, partners and news cycles. Who would have thought the stamps would become such a poignant reminder of the old world of my childhood, when even emails weren’t invented yet.
Six years ago, a punter visiting for a drink incredulously spied the stamp album on my bookshelf. It could have been the drinks, it could have been that I liked him – either way, I gingerly placed the album in his lap. I talked him through the categories, pausing every now and then to let him appreciate the beauty of the finest: the Hungarian stamps, the Polish ones. He was amused, a gentle smile on his face, and at the end he murmured something about me being a funny little nerd. Later, he admitted he knew at that minute that I was a keeper because of my lack of inhibition in declaring myself a lover of stamps. And now he has to lug the album through every move, every renovation – he grumbles, but never denies they are special.