Very nice, too, but is it me, or are there rather a lot of new stamps around these days? Just when you've become accustomed to Marine Timekeepers, it's all change and Orchids or Roman Britain or Inland Waterways or the Prince and his impression of Chirk Castle. Unsettling. The Captain made some discreet enquiries and discovered that yet again his finger was on the pulse of controversy. The stamp world is not happy with the Royal Mail; albums are being brandished, hinges hurled. Too many issues, too many stamps; flooding the market, overwhelming young collectors, travelling the road that made Hungary and Tuvalu philatelical outcasts and sneer- objects.
'There are many complaints both from dealers and collectors at the substantial number of trivial commemoratives,' says Mr H S Whittaker, assistant librarian at the National Philatelic Society. The old story of national decline, I'm afraid: 'At one time we had a very good reputation,' says Mr Whittaker. 'Now we're the worst in Western Europe.' Derek Yardley, chief executive of the Philatelic Traders' Society, speaking in a personal capacity, believes that the frequency of issue is undermining Britain's 'collectability'.
It all began with Tony Benn, the famous Postmaster General. Before Benn, only 12 commemorative stamps had been issued since Rowland Hill. Benn started annual issues; the number has risen from four or five in the Sixties to the current eight or nine. But that is not quite the end of it, as Tony Buckingham, of Benham, the leading dealers, points out: there is also an annual greetings issue (illustrated) and a 'prestige stamp book' which last year marked the Peter Rabbit centenary. Moreover, the number of denominations in the issue has also been increased. Mr Buckingham claims that the number of special stamps issued has increased by 50 per cent in the past 10 years, and quotes a similar decrease in the number of young collectors.
In addition, the Royal Mail's Philatelical Bureau sells and dispatches first-day covers, cutting into the dealers' trade, claims Mr Buckingham. But, he says, it does not buy stamps and so unbalances the market. The Royal Mail says it must balance the interest of collectors with the thousands of demands for commemorative issues.
Mr Buckingham wants talks between dealers, collectors and the Royal Mail. He suggests that John Major should encourage stamp collecting, as an integral part of the basics. Perhaps his ministers could take it up; such a safe hobby.