Stamps of Europe: Sticking comfortably? Then we'll begin...

Europe's annual batch of themed stamps celebrates our heritage of children's stories this year. Victoria Summerley on a cultural feast
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The Independent Online

Considering that the nations of Europe have spent the past 2,000 years invading, pillaging and generally beating hell out of each other, one might be forgiven for greeting initiatives such as the Europa stamps project with a wry smile.

The scheme was launched in 1956 – at the height of the Cold War – with the laudable if somewhat earnest aim of symbolising "Europe's desire for closer integration and cooperation".

Initially, every country used the same design, but since 1974 the designs have had a common theme, allowing far greater individual interpretation. The theme this year is "Children's books", commemorated today in the UK with a set of stamps by the Royal Mail bearing illustrations from A A Milne's classic, Winnie-the-Pooh.

The honey-loving bear was created by Milne for his son Christopher Robin in 1926, and the collection of 10 stamps features the original illustrations by E H Shepard. Milne was not initially impressed by Shepard's style, describing his drawings for Punch as "perfectly hopeless".

He loved the first sketches for Pooh, however, and insisted that Shepard went on to illustrate more of his books. For his part, Shepard found Pooh rather a tedious teddy, describing the character as "that silly old bear".

Some of the 48 countries in the Europa scheme have also used stories that will be familiar to British children. The Macedonian stamps, for example, feature Peter Pan – a very English character – while Jersey's are inspired by Kipling's Just So stories and Alice in Wonderland. Gibraltar also flies the British flag with illustrations from Roald Dahl.

Vatican City, appropriately, has stories from the Bible, while France uses Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella – both first published in formal storybook form by Charles Perrault in the 17th century.

For some countries, the choices reflect national pride, such as the Turkish stamp bearing an image from The Book of Dede Korkut, an epic story that dates back to the 8th century. On other stamps, you can trace common ancestries: one of Ukraine's beautiful stamps illustrates a folk tale, The Golden Slipper, that is not only familiar in Russia but is also a Slavic version of Cinderella.

Ireland has chosen two authors – Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde - who, while undoubtedly Irish, are also associated very much with the political and social salons of London.

Perhaps given Europe's turbulent past, this blurring of national boundaries – and a shared love of a great story – can only be for the good.

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