February 13, 2013

Definitely definitive?

One of the fundamentals about collecting stamps is the desire to gather complete sets of issues. We can argue about the depths of desire involved - the extent to which we are prepared to overlook minor changes - but that completeness is a key feature. Whilst my main interest is Machins, I have also regarded what used to be clearly definitive issues as a vital part of my collection and the occasional forays the Post Office made into non-Machin designs were essential additions.

The 1d black anniversary issues, therefore, required no second thought - even though they commemorated something, they were the same size and, of course, what they commemorated was indeed the ultimate definitive itself! They were also Machins in my view, and most others', from the start anyway so that was a simple decision.

The Greetings stamps that first appeared in 1989 were fun and didn't commemorate anything but then neither had Birds or a host of preceding theme-like issues so in my mind at the time they were a separate and non-definitive group. Similarly, Christmas stamps didn't bother me in the slightest. Until the flag one appeared.

First there was this one:


and later this one:


The first flag came with a similarly sized sunflower, Hello, Love, Teddy and the robin in a letter box. I was just about able to dismiss those as 'Greetings' or 'Christmas' and safely non-definitive but the flag bothered me, especially as it was the right size.

Definitives had also, almost exclusively, been that small standard size so something else appearing in those dimensions triggered 'definitive' in my brain in late 2005 and has been firing queries ever since. I was, however, I now recall, quite happy to dismiss the bigger horizontal format flag issues as not definitive so I think I have finally satisfied that portion of my mind that was asking questions at inconvenient moments and worrying me about that completeness thing.

Douglas Myall, the Lord of all that is Machin, wrote in the September 2012 Philatelic Bulletin on this subject and, whilst he made excellent points there, he concluded with "In my view, an important feature of a definitive is that the main element of the design must be a portrait of the monarch". I have trouble with that conclusion as it would imply that the Castles High Values, from 2/6 to the £5 in 1988 and later reproduced as a miniature sheet in 2005 were not definitives whereas I would never have thought they could be anything but definitive.

My logic for that statement further helps my sorting out my brain too; if you needed a 10/- stamp in those earlier days then the blue Castle 10/- was what the Post Office gave you. There wasn't anything else. So it was the definitive 10/- stamp. If you are in Northern Ireland and wander into a Post Office and ask for a 1st Class stamp then the chances are that you'll be handed a small standard size green stamp with fields on. There hasn't been any other Northern Ireland 1st Class stamp since 1998 (ignoring the one-off Design book in 2000 which produced a unique 1st NI Machin!). So I would call that pretty definitive. Maybe that's a good name: Pretty definitives!

I remember writing back in 1999, when there were thoughts that the Machin series might end, that I wouldn't mind seeing sets of new definitives for each country featuring buildings or views so the Northern Ireland issues sat happily as definitives, as did the other non-Machin Regionals. I suppose that if I were to extend that thought further then one would have to consider again anything vaguely 'national' that isn't commemorating anything as definitive. Heavens, that would bring in the 2005 Farm Animal stamps which are even the right size! And those flags.

Well, it might, I say to myself hurriedly, had they been the prime items that would have been supplied to requests for a particular denomination stamp. But they weren't. Even the ubiquitous Hello stamps didn't manage that status, although selling them in booklets did make them pretty popular. But not definitive. The Machins have always been that. That's not to say you can only have the one definitive at a time for any denomination or that it has to be widely available or we'd have trouble with many items that were only available for a short period but were none the less very much definitives.

So, until it looks as though a new series is going to replace the Machins, all these others are also-rans in the Definitive Stakes. Despite Royal Mail calling the Olympic small size 1st and Worldwide stamps 'definitives', they're not. In fact, they don't require any second thoughts - they're celebrating the Olympics and came out to do so and have now gone. Not exactly definitive behaviour so I shall ignore that classification by our friends at Royal Mail and put it down to an alcoholic lunch by the staff at Tallents House one day when they were preparing the literature. As Douglas Myall points out, though, if you had 'special issues' only on your standing order with Tallents House you would not have received those Olympic ones which were, however, distributed to those, like myself, with a 'definitive' standing order!

The National Castles issues that featured pictures of castles as labels with a 1st Class Welsh red and green dragon, English flag and Scotland's saltire are close calls in the definitive debate. (They left Northern Ireland with just the familiar definitive fields.) It's that flag thing again. I may just defer a decision on those, although, as they were not exactly commonly available to the casual purchaser at the Post Office counter, I probably won't have too much trouble assigning them elsewhere, maybe best along with their bigger horizontal format cousins.

That does seem to have cleared my head a great deal, which was the purpose of the article.

It has also greatly reduced my imminent expenditure on necessary catch-ups as I hadn't been getting the Smiler sheets for many years. As all the items I have been debating were also issued in Smiler sheets that would have brought a whole new printer being required to be collected into the frame along with the DLRs or Walsalls for the mainstream versions where they existed. I have spent best part of a day rummaging through dealers' annoyingly badly designed websites trying to get a complete list of all the printings of the all the candidates for my catalogue in this section and that list was growing rapidly, as were the prices of some of the early items I may well have missed. Then, of course, I would need to find the equivalent DLR or Walsall versions and everything seemed to be in sheets or panes when I just wanted singles. So having decided not to include them that is one big relief!

I think, despite some of the logic I appear to have developed, what actually decided me were all those Farm Animal stamps, of which I recall seeing about three in total in use and which I have been extremely reluctant to grant the same status as a good many decent contenders, let alone as genuine definitives. They lacked class, presence, that je ne sais quoi that British definitive stamps should bear. I would have really stuggled with New Baby issues and the seemingly never-ending stream of ruddy sheets from this or that place featuring the Hello stamps. I am really not very concerned that Indonesia is doing something and rather question the need to say Hello to whatever it is. That's the way I feel about most commemoratives - I can take them or leave them, however well designed some may be. So that Smilers list can grow and grow for all I care and Cartor can have special techniques, apps and sheets of all sorts and I can happily ignore them for a while, except for the occasions when they do feature their version of a real definitive, of course.

I was about to relax and finish this when I looked through the lastest material from Royal Mail. Dragonflies take up three pages in the February Bulletin!  These Post and Gos are serious business, and that's not just in terms of income generation for Royal Mail either. Could they be the future definitive? If so, then, by definition, these early examples of the product in development will become definitive in retrospect. I have already included the Machin head and printed rate ones as definitives, as has Douglas Myall. What do I do about the Birds and the Bees, sorry ... dragonflies? If we take my casual person who wanders into Post Offices then he or she may well find they're dispensed one with a pretty picture by default. If they have to choose that then it's not a definitive. But if it gets doled out to them in some sort of Definitive of the Day fashion, then my argument breaks down.

Just as I was prepared to envisage scenes of Britain becoming a definitive issue in the course of time, so could these Birds, Farm Animals and whatever else they have up their sleeves. If these things had remained an oddity, produced only at a few locations and seldom to be seen except on Ebay, then I would have no problem not bothering about them. They do seem to be getting more widespread, though, and if 143 machines (or whatever the number of locations where they're available is now) grow it is feasible that they could become the new definitive label. Note I didn't use the term stamp. If they do supercede the Machins we know and love then we'll want to have had all those early ones. 

I am belatedly getting the non-pictorial ones in each denomination and type but not the overprints. As for the pictorials, I can't take the risk that they don't fade away so I'll get 1st Class examples of each to start with. 36 for each set would be a bit much, I feel. Royal Mail has the three Farm Animals issues and the Flag issue so it is only the 4 Birds I need at this time. Birds 1,3 and 4 are available at only slightly above cost but Birds 2 seems pricey. I have a bid on that so hopefully that will bring me up to date. 

One encouraging thing is that the numbers of these Post and Gos being sold, and the frequency of change, coupled with what I suspect will be inevitable tweaks to the machines, paper, printing etc. as they develop, ought to make them attain higher prices in future than normal commemoratives, if that's what they do turn out to be in the end, and that little bit more collectible. I can't say I'm excited at all about deciding to add them but it will be fascinating perhaps to return to this article, or have someone land on it in future, when wondering whatever happened to Post and Gos and were they ever definitives?!

Postscript:
Of course, Royal Mail's site announces that it is 'unavailable' when I try to pay for the items this evening! Typical. It's not a good site at all for collectors. Poor images and terrible navigation.