The Folly of Philately: The anatomy of an obsession

From the memoirs of Charles Dinglebury, the Victorian inventor and explorer.


In 1870 – a year during which I suffered from terrible piles – the postage stamp was invented and a mania for stamp collecting swept the British Isles. It is said that a woman in London decorated her bedroom wall with 16,000 Penny Blacks. I was also seized with an insatiable desire to collect every available stamp, of which there were initially just four – the Penny Black, the Ha’penny Red, the Tupenny Blue and the Threepenny Green.

Collecting the first three was a great joy. After buying my first Tupenny Blue I remember holding it up to the sky and thinking how it shone like a sapphire in the golden sunlight. I recall admiring its twin phosphorous bands and examining its watermark with delight. Later, I used a stamp hinge to fix it into my collectors’ album, next to my Penny Black and my Ha’penny Red.

I spent hours gazing at my stamp album, bathing in the joy of having collected three stamps. One day, I showed them to Kettle.

‘What do you think?’

He looked at them with a blank expression, then looked at me, then looked back at the stamps, and then looked at me again. ‘I think you out of mind!’

I was much taken aback. ‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘Look how you arrange them, side by side. Would be much better one under other. Look!’ He deftly re-arranged the stamps.

‘By golly, you’re right! That looks marvellous,’ I said. ‘I say, Kettle, you’re a natural at this!’

From then on we spent many hours together enjoying the new craze. We arranged the three stamps in different permutations. For example, once we tried arranging them in a diagonal line.

But amid this joy, there was a secret anguish: the Threepenny Green eluded me! It had been produced in a limited edition of just twelve. I sought it desperately but could not track it down anywhere. It saddened me greatly to know my stamp collection was incomplete. Oh, that elusive, exclusive, rare, infrequent, uncommon, unusual, exceptional, incomparable, unique (except there were twelve of them), strange and mysterious stamp!

That said, I tried not to let my disappointment affect me too much, and kept busy with other things. For example, I decided to set about inventing a glue that would make stamps self-adhesive and so do away with the need for stamp hinges, which I found fiddly.

I spent weeks in my laboratory systematically experimenting with a whole range of chemical compounds. I tried burning, dissolving, boiling, freezing and evaporating them – all without success. But I was determined. It was as though some sinister shadowy force was constantly at my side, driving me on to find an appropriate adhesive.

‘It’s no good!’ I exclaimed one evening, having nearly set the laboratory on fire while trying to combine daniella oliveri gum with uranium.

‘Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey,’ said Kettle, whose lab coat had been badly charred in the fire.

‘Wise words. Thank you, Kettle. I hope you’re right.’ I stood up dramatically. ‘I don’t know. I feel like I’ve tried everything. Sometimes I feel jolly useless!’

Kettle furrowed his brow. ‘That not sound like you, Sir. Perhaps you thinking too much and need rest.’

‘I think you’re right,’ I said, putting down the fire extinguisher.

I decided to take a bath, where I had a most extraordinary thought. I observed the water in the bath and, thinking scientifically, I realised that a self-adhesive stamp-glue should be like water, but dryer and more sticky. Ergo, working under laboratory conditions, I would simply need to boil water slowly until it reached the point of near-dryness then, at that moment, I would have to combine the water with something sticky – such as fragments of a mint humbug. Hence, I would have the solution to the solution – and, furthermore, it would taste pleasantly minty!

It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment. But, in keeping with decorum, I did not shout for joy and leap out of the bath; rather, I stepped out quietly, calmly dried myself with a towel, then said ‘Eureka!’ in an unemotional voice. I then rushed downstairs to the laboratory and immediately set about putting my idea to the test. I worked all through the night and well into the next day. But, sadly, the idea was a complete failure.

However, three months later, I finally succeeded in my quest by diluting a slightly acidic compound in a particular solution of alcohol: I remember feeling a certain nervousness – could it have been a fearful premonition? – as I watched the chemicals smoke and boil together in the glass. I extracted a small droplet of the potion with a pipette and dropped it onto the back of a Penny Black. I watched the glistening dewy wetness harden and dry. And now to test my theory... I licked the back of the stamp, allowing my tongue to linger so saliva could moisten the adhesive. The chemical tasted sweet and, as I swallowed, I noticed an immediate and alarming effect upon my metabolism. I was suddenly gripped by the most racking pangs. I was thrown to the floor in great convulsions. I felt a grinding in my bones, a deadly nausea and a horror of the spirit. Then, just as suddenly as they had arrived, my agonies subsided – leaving me greatly changed.

I stretched out my arms and saw I had shrunk in stature. The backs of my hands had become overgrown with a thick black hair. I rushed to the bathroom to inspect my appearance in the mirror and was shocked by what I saw. While I more or less looked the same – except for the fangs – there was something about my appearance that was hideously different. There was a strong sense of something evil emanating outwards from my soul.

‘Who are you?’ I asked my reflection.

‘Shut your gob, you stupid moron,’ came the reply.

‘I beg your pardon!’ I responded. ‘How dare you speak to me like that!’

My reflection put on a girly voice: ‘Oooh, how dare you speak to me like that?’ it said, mocking me.

‘If you weren’t me, I’d punch you!’ I said, shocked by my tone of aggression.

‘That’s more like it!’ laughed the apparition. ‘Show a bit of spunk for a change, you big clod!’

‘You really are a most peculiar fellow. One minute you’re mocking me, the next complimenting me, the next mocking me again. I’m confused.’

‘Your confused! How do you think I feel?’

‘Well, what are we going to do about this?’

‘We can do whatever we like! Think about it, if you could do anything you like, anything at all, what would it be?’

I was speechless, too ashamed to say it.

‘Go on, don’t keep silent! And remember I know what you’re thinking because I am you and you are me!’

‘Urgh! What a horrible thought,’ I said. ‘Well, if you must know, I was thinking about…’

‘Go on, say it…’

‘I was thinking about the Threepenny Green, and how I would love to get my hands on one.’

‘Of course you were – because I was thinking exactly the same. Now, come on. Look lively! We have work to do.’

The Evil Me had triumphed! I was under his spell. I feel ashamed to tell what happened next. First, I crudely cut up my clothes so they would fit, though it made me look like a tramp. I then collected cash from my safe and left the house by the back door.

I wandered the streets. Wherever I went, anyone who looked upon me would recoil in fear – they found me repellent and disgusting – and, bizarrely, I took great delight in it.

The first thing I did was to go to the nearest bookshop and buy a copy of the full and unabridged version of the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue. It contained everything you needed to know about stamp collecting, including pictures of the four stamps available, and, even in those days, it was an incredibly hefty tome. Armed with this mighty weapon, I stalked the streets of London ready to mug anyone I suspected of owning a Threepenny Green. This went on for some days, with no sign of that elusive, exclusive, unique, etc, stamp. I lurked in the shadows, slept in back alleys, and fed upon discarded scraps of food and dead rats. All the while, an unstoppable force drove me in search of that exceptional stamp. Newspaper reports of the time spoke of mysterious raids on post boxes in which all the stamps had been savagely ripped from their envelopes.

Then, one day, I was about to club some poor fellow whom I suspected of having a stamp in his pocket, when he suddenly turned around – and I recognised him.

‘Kettle!’ I said.

‘Who?’ asked Evil Me.

‘Er, no-one,’ I said hurriedly.

‘Well, if it’s no-one, why aren’t I clubbing him?’

‘What going on, Sir?’ said Kettle. ‘Why you speak like this?’

‘Kettle, help me! I’m trapped inside, er, me!’

‘So you know this worthless moron, do I?’ said Evil Me, mixing his pronouns. ‘Well, I’m going to club him just for the fun of it.’

‘No, don’t! I forbid I from doing it!’

‘You can’t forbid I! I will do what I want!’

‘Sir, this very odd!’

I raised the Stanley Gibbons catalogue in the air and with an almighty thump I brought it down upon my own head.

‘Ow! That hurt! Why did I do that, you nincompoop?!’

‘That’s nothing. I will do it again!’ And I hit myself again with the catalogue. I then threw myself to the floor and started grappling with myself, kicking, hitting and punching frantically.

‘Sir, that look very painful.’

‘It is, Kettle, help me!’

‘Er, I not sure what to do.’

‘You keep out of it. This is between me and me.’

‘Now I even more confused. You want me help or not?’

‘Yes!’

‘No! Get lost!’

‘Me can’t help and not help at same time! What you want, Sir?!’

‘A Threepenny Green!’ I screamed in unison with me.

‘Oh, you mean one of these?’ Kettle produced a Threepenny Green from out of his pocket.

‘I knew it! I could smell it!’ said Evil Me. ‘I must have it! Give it to me!’

‘There is no need,’ I said. ‘Kettle and I share a stamp book! In a sense it is already ours.’

‘Sir? Who you talking to? I think you need help.’

‘No, leave me alone!’

‘Yes, Kettle, get help!’

Fortunately, Kettle listened to the real me and went to fetch my doctor who sedated me. When I came to, several hours later, I was back to my normal self. I explained to Kettle what had happened and we had a jolly good laugh about it.

But, joking aside, it is scary to think how easily a man can get caught up in philately. It might appear to be an innocuous pastime, but – as I learned from experience – it eventually removes its innocent mask to reveal its true evil nature.

It is my solemn belief that there is a philatelist in all of us waiting for an opportunity to indulge in full-blown stamp collecting. It is therefore incumbent upon us to keep that depraved part of ourselves in check. Sadly, it is a task that is becoming harder and harder. Nowadays, even as I write this, there are as many as eight different stamps available for purchase in the shops, and I have heard there are plans to start releasing one new stamp-design a month in order to satisfy the depraved cravings of philatelists. I find it incredible that these items are openly displayed in shops in full view of women and children, and are perfectly legal to purchase. I believe they should at least be displayed on the top shelves of newsagents or wrapped in brown paper. No wonder many people assert that Armageddon is around the corner.

The End.