A day off work due to illness presents a perfect opportunity to binge-watch a series that you’ve been meaning to see for a long time. So it was that I recently popped a painkiller, snuggled into my bed, and reached for the comforting glow of my laptop.
Which series would see me through the day? A dystopian futuristic drama about women in forced maternal servitude? One of those quirky Aussie comedies with no jokes in it? A day-trip back to Westeros and Game of Thrones?
Oh no, my friends, I had bigger fish to fry. It was time to explore a YouTube series that had been on my radar for a long time. It was time to explore Exploring Stamps.
Exploring Stamps debuted on YouTube at the end of 2016, comprising seasons that are 20 (short) episodes each in length, along with occasional specials. At the start of each regular episode, our host, Graham, plucks a stamp from a trove stashed in a big cardboard box, and uses it as a launching pad for a journey of discovery. Most often this involves the stamp’s history and subject matter, with a bit of philately-for-the-beginner along the way. But his tangents can delight and surprise.
Graham has the likeable, cheeky manner of a cool substitute teacher who you wish was your normal teacher, and his narrations would be easy enough for older kids to follow. But the music, graphics (hat tip), camera angles and pace, not to mention the occasional goofy gag, all make the videos engaging for any viewer.
From the first episode, I was learning things about stamps I’ve held in my collection for years. For example (spoiler alert): I had never noticed that Marianne, the symbol of liberty depicted on classic French stamps, wears a Phrygian cap also worn by the Smurfs. Who’da thunk it?
I realised pretty quickly what I enjoyed the most about this channel. Due to being a grown-up (cough), my hobby mainly appeals to me on academic or financial grounds. Any lingering sense of wonder comes from an appreciation of the skills of the graphic artists (or the prices people will pay for rubbish on eBay).
But Exploring Stamps recaptures for me the simple enjoyment of learning things from stamps. My kiddie collection stoked a curiosity that lives on in both a lifelong fascination with languages and international politics, and also an impeccable record at office trivia. It’s funny, the things you don’t realise you know until you’re asked.
And yet, I don’t know everything. By the end of Series 1, I’d had my mind blown by a fact about the Cullinan diamond, and enjoyed some detective work into a UK Olympic tae kwon do stamp. I learned the significance of an Indian fighter plane stamp that I’d long largely ignored, and been delighted by the connection between hand grenades and pomegranates. It seems so obvious in retrospect:
Graham sure is committed to his art, if his international airfare expenditure is anything to go by. I only wish I could travel to Dublin as easily every time I wanted to explore some Guinness. I also want his study window that magically transports him to foreign countries with just a flick of his screen blinds.
Season 2 lived up to the promise of Season 1. I learned about the little Fijian man in the boat, and I added the picturesque village of Sandy Hook (not that one) and its lighthouse to my next US travel itinerary. I think I might have even lost a future topic for this blog: I’d been eyeing off North Korea’s insane propaganda issues, but Graham covered it better (and far more engagingly) than I could have dreamed. Nice one Graham. No hard feelings.
I can’t recommend Exploring Stamps highly enough for the casual passer-by or the avowed philatelist. Graham is doing a brilliant job blowing the cobwebs off this dusty old pastime and lifting it belatedly into the 21st century, and taking philately to the parts of the internet where people actually go. (Even – gasp! – young people!) His enthusiasm is infectious, and unlike many online outlets (this one included), he covers an incredible variety of countries and eras. He has truly earned his admission into the Meritorious Philatelic Order of the Punk, which I have just created to reward people who do excellent things for the hobby.
Congratulations, Graham, and long may you rummage through your big cardboard box.
PS: In fairness, I am also retrospectively admitting to the Order of the Punk Tiresias1000, an Instagram account that has now deleted itself, rendering my tribute to it almost incomprehensible. But it was good while it lasted.