You can imagine my dismay when I realised I’d been had. I don’t mean that I’d been scammed again, as happened when a gang of internet scumbags from Belarus got into my credit card some years back. No, what had got under my skin was seeing that the Australian Mint appeared to be going down the same path as Australia Post in turning coins and stamps – legal tender of the realm, if you like — into fund-raising commodities to be flogged off to thousands of dozy punters like me.
Let me explain. Like so many of my generation, I was pushed into stamp collecting at a very early age because not only was every public school the home of a stamp club in those days, but King George V and Franklin D. Roosevelt had given the hobby a cachet that no well-meaning, responsible parent would wish to ignore.
Over time, my collection grew to encompass such rare, iconic Australian stamps as the ‘green Harbour Bridge’ and all the high-denomination ‘Kangaroos’ (leaping from the map of Australia), becoming an object of pride to me. That is, until the postal authorities decided this was such a good money spinner that no sooner had the gum dried on the back of one set of new stamps than another was on the market.
When you consider that snail-mail was declining in volume, you didn’t have to be Einstein to work out that people like me were being made mugs of. Thus, my collection went to the auctioneers, to be off-loaded to someone with more stamina than I had, or deeper pockets.
Let me digress. During my youth, there were significant events worth treasuring in our memories, such as the 1953 Coronation, the 1954 Royal Visit and the 1956 Olympic Games. And there were significant personal milestones as well, such as winning sporting events or being awarded some academic prize or receiving a certificate for climbing up the Great Wall of China (which is far steeper than you’d guess from tourist brochures).
But the one item of memorabilia that meant the most is the medal given to every school child, in New South Wales (perhaps, Australia) in 1951, to commemorate 50 years of the country’s nationhood. To stand in a huge assembly of baby-boomer-fuelled Gladesville Public School, to be handed personally a precious glittering medal with green-and-gold ribbon attached, that was the first public ceremony of my then short life.
All of these events had similar memorabilia, official and unofficial, associated with them, but because of the absent-minded goat that I can sometimes be, barely a handful of such items survived those years. Including some truly wonderful bits and pieces from the Melbourne Olympic Games, which I also particularly regret having misplaced.
These items were an integral part of my maturing and what imbues them with such a profound sense of loss, is that they were generated in an era when a souvenir was a genuine souvenir, something to stir the recesses of memory, and was never tainted with the expedient title of “merchandise”.
And so I decided that I would like to quietly build up a collection of small things that said something about the world my two boys were growing up in. And one way, I thought, was to put together a collection of Australian commemorative coins, each of which signifies the evolution of their own country during their formative years.
It was going quite well. I could find the coins in my small change, they were well designed, and there appeared to be no possibility that such enduring pieces of substance could be debased in quite the same way as Australia Post turned stamp production into something little short of a racket. Until!
Until, I casually turned over one of those dollar coins commemorating the centenary of the First World War and found, not 2014, the year in which the coins were produced to commemorate the start of that epic conflict, but 2017. Disbelieving research then revealed that those crafty devils at the Australian Mint had reissued the same coin every year between 2014 and 2018. Shades of Australia Post, which I shall have to learn to live with.
It got me thinking, though. About how I’d always been a sucker for collecting, despite the auctioneer who relieved me of my stamp collection, confiding after the dirty deed was done, that “anything worth collecting has no value”. Phew!
When I look around my bookshelves today, I see many complete sets, such as the Penguin Social History of England or the New Pelican Guide to English Literature or the Playfair Rugby Annuals, right down to the Champion Annual from its inaugural volume of 1924 to its absorption in the Tiger Annual in 1957. Not surprisingly, many of these books have never been, nor will they ever be, read by yours truly.
But still the question remains: what is it about me, or our society if you take a more gentle approach, that makes the collection of sets, particularly commemorative sets, so compulsive? For years, I could never have three books in a set without being confronted by a NEED to acquire the fourth – which I knew I would never open. Was it because, as Oscar Wilde once said, the only way to be rid of temptation is to give into to it? Because, it’s not just an academic question, it’s also damned expensive.
To seek an answer, I was addicted for several years to the ABC-TV program The Collectors. Now there was a compendium of the world’s eccentrics. The lucky ones displayed their collections of Clarice Clift or Faberge; and the mildly weird, their disparate items having only a particular shade of green or beige in common. But when one collector presented a row of jars filled with his own navel lint, I thought, “hang on!” this is only going in one direction – due south – and I’m not going there.
Yet, that need for orderliness or completion remains in my psyche and I seem powerless to bring it under control. Perhaps I should hold firm to the image of the Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman (the telephone marketing spivs of yesteryear) in my living room reaching for his last prop to secure a sale.
Having failed to persuade me on the grounds of my children’s futures or my vanity in being the smartest mouth in the local pub, he suddenly produced a bizarre fold-up reproduction of the spines of the complete set, spread it out, arms stretched wide, and bellowed desperately, “Won’t this look fantastic on your bookshelves?”
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