The Error World, By Simon Garfield

Confessions of a man with a serious addiction to gummy paper squares

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:34

It takes an intrepid investigative journalist (which Simon Garfield is) to write about a passion for stamp-collecting. As a typically droll aside puts it, "Hollywood child-molesters stand more chance of rehabilitation". Piling risk on risk, this witty and poignant memoir-cum-meditation fails to stick within the safe zone of deftly phrased nostalgia for a cute suburban childhood.

Then, his cherished ranks of gummy paper squares delivered the "old-fashioned way of shutting out the world while bestowing it with meaning". But a midlife recurrence of the bug coincides with his collapsing marriage. Wads of urgently needed cash vanish into the accounts of philatelic pimps. They deal in the modern British "errors" (rare stamps with printing glitches) that Garfield compulsively pursues.

Since Fever Pitch, British readers have become accustomed to the Hornby-gauge male confessional. These wistfully funny and sad books splice the fan's or hobbyist's arcana, and a rueful encounter with grown-up emotional truths. The Error World excels in this now-familiar genre, and stretches its boundaries, too.

The hobby serves as a balm, if not a cure, for hidden wounds. Raised by edgily prosperous parents who fled Nazi Germany (save for a name-switch, he would be "Simon Garfunkel"), Garfield lost his father in early adolescence, his gifted doctor-brother not much later. Stamps ("a solace, and a way of restoring order") papered over the chasms left by sudden vanishings. Those ruinously pricey "errors" were all about missing shapes or people, after all.

Garfield nimbly covers highlights in philatelic history, the surprising aficionados of recent times (John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Pete Townshend and... Maria Sharapova), and the mysteries of a business whose habits of obsession and discretion make the phrase "stamp dealer" painfully germane. When the super-collector Gawaine Baillie died, his widow imagined his haul might be worth around £800,000. Sotheby's estimated £11m.

The Error World hares off into non-philatelic collecting realms, sometimes pushing the genre envelope too far, though the scavenger's itch does work like that. I missed Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish thinker who wrote classic essays on collecting. But yearning for completeness is a giveaway collector's vice. Non-sufferers can simply relish a book that so engagingly evokes the bittersweet allure of a "hobby of enduring sadness".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments