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I once knew a poet who suffered from a bout of writer's block so severe that she couldn't even send a postcard. She announced this ne plus ultra of creative incapacity with something almost like pride, just as invalids occasionally boast of their ability to stupefy doctors with the intractable severity of their symptoms.

I once knew a poet who suffered from a bout of writer's block so severe that she couldn't even send a postcard. She announced this ne plus ultra of creative incapacity with something almost like pride, just as invalids occasionally boast of their ability to stupefy doctors with the intractable severity of their symptoms.

On the face of it, you can see her point. The postcard, after all, is notionally accessible to even the most chronically short-winded of writers, who should be able to gasp out a couple of formulaic sentences about the weather and the food before sinking back exhausted. Its narrative is a given, and even the style is fixed by convention - a promenade breeziness that will look good in public. If you can't find words for a postcard, you're really in trouble.

But having spent several gourmandising hours leafing through Tom Phillips's book The Postcard Century I have a feeling I'm going to be just as self-conscious the next time I write one. From a collection of many thousands of postcards, Phillips has selected 2000, 20 for every year of the last century, and the result is possibly the most moreish volume I've encountered for some time - one of those large-format picture books that you continually resolve to set aside, but can't, until you end up glutted and greedy at the same time. Perhaps the postcard of Jomo Kenyatta which marks Kenyan independence should be the last mouthful, but then your eye drifts down the page to discover Mary's postcard of a bullfight - which deplores Spain's national bloodsport but promises fuller description of the beautiful mountains and the "flamingo dancing" - and you realise you aren't quite finished yet.

Every page offers a shard of social or family history. Alice writes from Waikiki Bay, "I have a little sunburn right now which I'll probably add to this afternoon," dating the card to a time before SPFs were even thought of, while an image of the Sydney Opera House shrouded in scaffolding reminds you that the building was actually constructed (in 1967), not simply excavated.

Phillips describes the book as "a composite illustrated diary in which nearly two thousand people have made their entries", and the fact that those entries are mostly banal or oddly distracted (quite striking postcards will carry no written reference to what is depicted, just an anxious inquiry about some sausages left under the sink) is really the point. The postcard, Phillips writes, is a form that has "defined life rather than merely mirrored it, giving a more human picture of the world than any other medium".

By this account, the antique postcard is a kind of graphical amber, once liquid enough to ooze around ephemeral attitudes and prejudices, now solid enough to preserve them. And even when the messages are laconic and banal, the images on the other side leave you wondering. Why exactly did 21,000 men assemble at Camp Sherman to form a living portrait of Woodrow Wilson? And was there really a time when the Forte service station at Keele offered a vision of white-hot futurity, complete with its Thunderbirds-styled attendants and eerily vacant carriageway?

Phillips isn't the first artist to be fascinated by the contingent glamour of old postcards (or the way that their notion of glamour so wonderfully falls short of ours). Gilbert and George have a work called Postcard Sculpture in the Tate collection, a captionless mosaic of postcard images rather like an inlaid Mondrian. Malcolm Morley, the first winner of the Turner Prize, was similarly fascinated by postcards' bright mendacity about the visible world; his painting New York City Postcard replicates one of those accordion-like assemblies of different views which fold all the sights of the city into one neat package. And easily the most valuable postcard in the world - should it ever come to sale - would be the one, currently in the National Gallery in Washington, on which Van Gogh sketched two peasants digging in 1885 (a good 15 years after the first postcards were issued in Austria and this form of stationery had become something of a fad).

But Phillips's openness to his unsung collaborators is quite different. What is striking about his book is its passion for implication - the myriad ways in which image and text combine to suggest more than can actually be seen. And it depends for its effect on the unforced, unselfconscious exhibitionism of those who brought and sent the cards.

The poet was wrong to be fearful, I think - writing a postcard is a kind of art, but it is one which depends on its absolute indifference to artistic effect.

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