I’ll get to the train in a minute.
As I write this post, the horrors are still unfolding of COVID-19’s rampage across the world. We’re all keeping our personal distance, thousands are grieving, and the international economy is grinding to a halt. I’m into – what, maybe my third week? – of self-imposed isolation. Mrs Punk works in an industry considered ‘essential’ and takes a small risk every time she walks out the door, so I’m worried for her, and we take no chances mingling with others. I’ve been glued to the headlines for months, ever since this thing began to look like it might disrupt our much-anticipated holiday to Europe. Well, ‘disrupt’ was an understatement. The holiday was called off weeks ago. If I want a change of scene now, I leave the house and head to the garage.
I’ve enjoyed seeing members of the international philatelic community mounting initiatives to combat the isolation and boredom of global lockdown. A quick Google, Facebook or Twitter search will soon turn up any number of online meet-ups among collectors, and paywall take-downs by publishers. At YouTube, you can binge-watch back catalogues of Exploring Stamps or check out recent newcomer Ted Talks Stamps. And a special shoutout to the American Philatelic Society, which is hosting a regular stream of interactive online stamp chats. This link contains details of forthcoming presentations, as well as past chats available to view online.
But right now, I need a breather from the big picture. Let’s go small-picture. Smaller! I’m talking about one tiny part of a small picture.
The stamp above was released in February 2020 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the intercontinental railway spanning the breadth of Australia. It runs from Sydney to Perth, crossing the vast expanse of the outback. Passengers can make the journey aboard the Indian Pacific service, named for the two oceans it connects. Fun fact: the trip includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track – 478 kilometres (297 miles) of no bendy bits across the Nullarbor Plain.
I liked this stamp when it came out, but had no particular plans to feature it here. But while I worked from home this week, the latest copy of Stamp News Australasia magazine was sitting on my desk. This stamp stars on the cover in gigantic proportions, exploding off the page with the force of a freight… er, an iconic intercontinental passenger service.
And seeing it so big, for so long, in my peripheral vision, I’ve come to love one particular design element. Probably not the one you’d think.
The Australian outback is majestic, but at the height of summer, you cannot fail to notice the heat. It’s a dry heat that knocks you sideways and sucks the air from your lungs the moment you step into it. The sun is angry and relentless. You fight to keep your eyelids open as they instinctively recoil from the radiant heat bouncing off every nearby surface. You can dehydrate to the point of death in a matter of hours. When the planes start flying again, come check it out for yourself! We have water.
This stamp captures much of that outback atmosphere, but one aspect of the design speaks so much more to me than any other. Is it the dusty haze on the horizon? The piercing blue skies? The apparent endlessness of the glimmering train carriages?
A: none of the above. It’s the white-hot rail at bottom right, next to the word ‘Australia’.
I’m not stupid, I know the sun glistens off railway tracks all over the world. But Australians know only too well the particular agony that ensues from touching metal that’s been lying in our summer sun. We regularly experience this when we lean against cars, or reach for door handles. We learn nothing from having our bums burnt to crackling when we make the mistake of being the first kid down the slide. (Again, I know this happens in any country with a hot summer. But I hold my line. Your pain is not our pain.)
This blinding rail represents a bold use of negative space – when you think about it, it’s the one big chunk of the stamp that doesn’t have ink on it. Of all the elements of this design, it’s this rail that most evokes for me the searing heat through which the Indian Pacific carries its passengers in air-conditioned comfort.
It’s been a while since I returned to this blog’s origins, reviewing new Australian issues. Lovely to end with an official Respect to designers Jamie and Leanne Tufrey, along with Australia Post, for this one.
By my count, this is the fourth article on this blog with trains on it, and the third in a year. This is a worry. I think I just tested positive to becoming my dad.
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