Choo the fat with ‘Mainline Railway Stamps’

Mainline Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz

A few months ago I received a new book: Howard Plitz’s Mainline Railway Stamps. As I’ve made clear on the blog, I am bang up for receiving free stuff, so I’m delighted to return the favour with this site’s first ever book review!

Howard is a lifelong philatelist and railway aficionado, and this book is the sequel to his Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps of 2018 (which I haven’t seen). He has chosen a dangerous path in life. What if he made a minor error? The consequences of incurring the combined wrath of philatelists AND trainspotters are too gruesome to contemplate.

Well, Howard can relax for now. This philatelist and secret train fan was all aboard as soon the box was opened. This is just a beautiful book to hold. The size and weight feel satisfying in the hand. It’s handsomely put together, and the vibrant images leaping from the page during a flick-through just made me want to tear straight in.

The feast for the eyeballs continued inside, with colourful railway stamps exploding off the shiny paper stock, illustrating the potted railway histories told around them. The book makes clear at the outset that it’s not a catalogue of railway stamps for thematic collectors; it is not exhaustive in either stamps or railways, and nor does it attempt to value the illustrated stamps. On the railway side, its vision is commendably global, but on the stamp side, it wisely eschews the meaningless postal agency wallpaper and fraudulent collector-bait.

Switzerland 2017 150th Anniversary Brienz Rothorn Railway stamp

Mainline Railway Stamps is tremendously readable, if you can forgive Howard’s occasional meandering sentence bordering on stream-of-consciousness. (And whom among us is innocent of that?) You could devour it in a solid few hours, or dip into it in over a cuppa as life allows. And while the appeal to philatelists is obvious, it would make an attractive option if the railfan in your life is as difficult to buy gifts for as the one in mine. (Yes Dad, that’s you.) The spotlight in this volume is on mainline, mostly broad-gauge railways, with a selection of preservation lines thrown in, along with their cinderellas. And Thomas the Tank Engine hasn’t been forgotten.

As the child of a train fanatic, I inherited a love of smelly old steam engines, but I’ve also been subjected to more technical specifications than I’ll need in my lifetime. (Admittedly, I get the same way over Australian decimal postal rates. I am available for your next dinner party.) Howard’s impressive achievement with this book – against all odds – is to enthuse about trains and stamps without dwelling on details that would cause the average reader’s eyes to glaze over. A note here and there on gauge sizes or postal developments is to be expected, but the text is informal in tone and never gets bogged down. Rarely spending more than a paragraph on any railway service before moving on, the reader is kept engaged, and alert to the next discovery.

And discoveries abound. A real joy of this book for me was a constant stream of little wow! moments. Did you know that Switzerland’s Brienz Rothorn Bahn tourist railway (as featured in the stamp above) was never electrified, with most trains operated by steam locomotives built in the 1890s – so it followed that the same company could supply new steam locos a century later in the 1990s? Did you know that due to track gauge discrepancies, trains leaving Spain for France can adjust the distance between their wheels on their axles?

Cuba 1950 Communications Retirement Fund stamp

Can you believe that in 1950, Cuba released a set of stamps depicting a train accident – and then featured one again in a 1987 stamp-on-stamp? Piltz was unable to dig up information on that incident, or on the two men depicted. But he got me intrigued. Thanks to an old bulletin I found from the Cuban Philatelic Federation, I can tell him they were drivers who lost their lives in a 1947 derailment on the San Luis Oriente line. The original issue concerned a retirement fund for postal employees.

I’m already a collector, of course, and yet this book represents trouble. I’ve always verged on being a ‘trains on stamps’ kinda Punk. Adding this book to my shelf will be like racking up cocaine in front of a model. At the very least, I’m on now the hunt for this Japanese issue marking the 50th Anniversary of the Shinkansen. I like a miniature sheet that screams ‘Get out of my way!’ Stick these stamps on your mail and you can rest assured it’ll get there on time.

Japan 2014 50th Anniversary Shinkansen stamp

Publishers Pen & Sword bill themselves as military and nostalgia experts, but they might be carving out a niche for themselves in the philatelic market. There exists an enormous gap between entry-level ‘How to be a stamp collector’ books, and serious-philatelist catalogues and monograms on specific issues. Magazines and the internet fill that gap somewhat (hello!). But amid the hand-wringing over the  “future of the hobby”, a few more books as attractive and as engaging as this, pitched at normal human readers, might trigger a philatelic itch in a few. (Especially if they were to cover subjects that are, dare I say it, slightly less old-manny.) Mainline Railway Stamps generously ends with a chapter that puts the trains aside and gently introduces the reader to the attractions of stamp collecting. It’s a lovely touch.

I’d like to thank the good people at Pen & Sword (which IS mightier? Sounds like they’re on the fence) for allowing me to preview Mainline Railway Stamps. If you think this effusive review was part of the deal, please know that I warned them that I owe it to my readers to be critical if I felt the need, and they were OK with that and sent it anyway. They must have known they were onto a good thing.

Mainline Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz. Pen & Sword

Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz, Pen & Sword

Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz

It’s getting steamy in here

Lots of collectors like trains on stamps. But there are trains on stamps, and then, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s character Neville Flynn from Snakes on a Plane: there are motherfucking trains on motherfucking stamps.

Have a look at these beauties marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the USA:

USA 2019 150th Anniversary of the Intercontinental Railroad stamp strip

There’s some cute design work going on. The Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States from each direction, with the ceremonial meeting of the tracks taking place at Promontory Summit in Utah in May, 1869. The two engines depicted each hauled a trainload of dignitaries to the ceremony – Jupiter from the west, and No. 119 from the east. The so-called golden spike was then driven into the ground between them to ‘finish’ the railroad. This significant engineering feat cut the time it took to cross the nation from months down to about a week.

American pop culture gives us a certain depiction of an old steam engine: the bulbous chimney, the cattle-grid cowcatcher, a giant headlight, a colorful paint scheme and brass trim all over. It’s only when I see old American locomotives that I’m reminded that they actually looked like that! If the framing was a bit wider, you’d see a moustachio’d villain tying a damsel to the rails. It’s a shame they went for the golden spike in the middle stamp, instead of two runaway convicts pumping one of those see-saw handcars. Continue reading

Fondue is big this year

Switzerland 2018 Fondue CHF1 fondue caquelonSo I look away for one moment and suddenly everyone is putting fondue on their stamps. And by ‘everyone’ I mean mostly Switzerland, but also Jersey.

Switzerland can be forgiven. Fondue as a mainstream dish is a surprisingly recent development in cuisine, but it’s theirs, and it’s a thing of national pride. Back in the 1930s, sitting around dipping stale bread into a pot of melted cheese must have been a fun way to pass a cold Alpine evening while discussing in four languages how the nearby rise of fascism left you feeling completely neutral. Continue reading

The 12 Stamps of Christmas

UPDATE! I’ve added a couple of reader’s nominations to the bottom of the list! Read on…

It’s the 12th day of Christmas. The Christmas tree withers in the corner, unwatered for days. The batteries on the toys have expired. The gurgling remnants of Christmas lunch are in a fight to the death with New Year’s resolutions. So it’s the perfect time for me to give you my 12 Stamps of Christmas! After all, I am your true love.

As mail revenues continue to plummet, for the postal administrations of Christendom, Christmas offers one last chance to hear the bells jingling on their cash registers. (Do you know how many Christmas cards I got in the mail this year? None. That’s a first. It might be that I’ve been crossed off multiple lists. But I choose to blame The Pace of Change.)

So which countries brought their festive philatelic A-game in 2018? These are my favourites of the stamps that crossed my radar. Continue reading

Stamp of the day: sunnie side up!

Australia 2011 Living Australian Little Man's Business and This Is So Relaxing 60c se-tenant pairSometimes you can see a stamp dozens of times without fully appreciating its majesty. I suppose you could say the same of any artwork, or building, or person. And then, for some reason, you happen to notice it in a certain light, or at a certain magnification, or across a cosy bar eight vodka and tonics into a Friday night, and your breath can be taken away.

This happy little issue came out in 2011. They called it ‘Living Australian’. Look at those Australians, just going about their lives all Australian-y and shit.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Best Friends and Embrace Friendship 60c se-tenant pair

I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention at the time, and I’ve only vaguely clocked them since. But when I saw this one cross my desk on the weekend – and I mean I really saw it – it filled me with joy.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Cricket at the Gabba 60c stamp

At first glance, it’s entirely possible to miss what’s going on. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t fully taken it in until now. Continue reading

Shoutout to StampShow 2018

USA 2018 Dragons Orange Forever stampA big hello to any US (or visiting) readers attending this weekend’s Stampshow in Columbus, Ohio!

USA 2018 Dragons Green Forever stampI read in a news report that organizers (jointly the American Philatelic Society and the American Topical Society) are seeking to tap into more of the pop culture appeal of stamps at this exhibition. Sounds like a good idea to me. I appreciate the effort that old-school philatelists put into their exhibits on obscure paquebot markings or the plate proofs of Upper Biddlonia, but the hobby is evolving with the times. If that means that more fun begins to sneak into philatelic exhibitions in the form of stamp art or dragon mascots, then I’m all for it. Continue reading

Exploring Exploring Stamps

Exploring Exploring Stamps tnf

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 sexual 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 title board

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. Continue reading

A big, BIG issue

Australia 2018 Silo Art $1 Brim Guido van Helten stamp
Brim, Victoria
Artist: Guido van Helten

One of my favourite Aussie issues of recent times was 2017’s Street Art – vibrant, modern, urban and startlingly different from the usual stamp fodder. Not surprisingly, those stunning works were a big hit on my Instagram page. They’re very like-able.

I’m a month late with this update but I still wanted to say how much I loved seeing Australia Post continue the theme with May’s Silo Art issue. Silo art is the rural equivalent of street art, except that it’s painted on grain silos, and it is, as a rule, fucking ENORMOUS. Continue reading