'Winged messenger'

One of the most powerful of all passions is a philatelic one, and when your family is addicted there is very little chance of your holding out against it. When I still remained an outsider, all I saw in stamps were scraps of colored paper and the life that centered on them, full of inconveniences.

Some days I would find the bath floating with soaking stamps; innocent-looking sheets of blotting paper hid in their folds hundreds of dried stamps. Lift them unwarily and showers of stamps, like liberated butterflies, flew out. Albums were piled high all over the house in precarious pyramids. I hardly dared sneeze for fear of scattering stamps, and the dog was ill-advised to wag his tail. When philatelic confreres turned up, the dining room table was covered in a trice with catalogues. Meals could wait, the roast burn to a cinder. Stamps came first.

In a small village nothing ever remains secret for long, and this particular passion was soon known. Our doorbell would ring and an eager-eyed neighbour would be there on the doorstep. "I wonder if you'd look over my collection. I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some very valuable stamps in it. I've heard you're a philanthropist -- I mean a philatelist."

That slip of the tongue has some grain of truth in it, if you measure philantropy by the hours spent going over collections of dogeared and tattered stamps, gummed haphazardly into battered albums.

Village boys with dreams of philatelic treasure troves turned up holding out grimy stamps with torn perforations, demanding, "Is yon no' a penny black?" Our home became so stuffed and stocked with neighbours' as well as the family's collections that I foresaw stamps taking over, like the pigs in Orwell's "Animal Farm," living indoors while we camped in the garden.

It is difficult to date the moment when I first felt stirrings of interest in the colour of stamps, their themes, their cancellations; sensed pricklings of curiosity about postal history, and finally had a definite dislike of being an exile in my own household. The letters that arrived were mainly from France and Italy, and my love for these two countries drew me to their stamps. Through the letter box tumbled a whole panorama of French writers and artists, chateaux and cathedrals, Florentine and Venetian palazzos, musicians of the Italian Baroque. What could not be learned from these pieces of paper!

As an aficionada I became plus royaliste que le roi.m I dreamt those philatelic dreams of attics crammed with boxes of stamps, with forgeries and fabulous flaws. I eyed wastepaper baskets in post offices, for who knew what treasures might have been tossed into them carelessly, and I picked up stamps discarded on the village street.

Wonderful new dimensions were added to life. There was an increased interest in travel, with early-morning arrivals in Paris, on Sundays and Thursdays, walking across Place de la Concorde to Carre Marigny and the Rond Pont des Champs Elysees for the marche aux timbres.m Here, for the space of a morning, the dealers set up their stalls under the chestnut trees. You entered an extraordinary and colorful world of dramas between buyers and sellers, the very stuff of a novel by Balzac spread out before you.

There were the vents aux encheresm in Rue Drouot, visits to Champion near the Opera, to Orlandini in Florence. On other occasions we stumbled up dark twisting staircases to stamp shops in Reuss and Barcelona, often finding some long-sought stamp at the end of the climb. We have rummaged among old correspondence in a stall in Venice near the Mercato del Pesce, Campo de le Becarie, weaving stories round the faded handwriting of those long-since- departed letter writers.

Once we sat with a friendly archivist in the Archivio di Stato of Venice, showing him our most recently acquired prize, a Lettera da Mare. Here was this folded, yellowed paper with the V for Venezia of pre-stamp days. It had sailed out from the Venetian Republic of the last of the Doges, Lodovico Manin, and crossed the Adriatic to Ragusa. Now it was held in 20th-century hands, a small fragment of history.

Above all there have been the friendships cemented through stamps, by the happy encounters of chance and by that elective affinity existing between philatelists. Among others is Bruno, a postal sorter on Italian railways, and a Frenchman who combines cycling and stamps. We met him in Bordeaux outside his bureau de timbres,m lifting his grandson off his velo. This same bicycle had taken him all over Europe, he told us, and would bring him to Scotland, too.

He kept his word. At over 70 he set off from our home in Lowland Scotland to tour the Highlands, sending us daily letters from northern post offices, accounts of colorful encounters with Gaelic-speaking postmistresses, with deilsm and monsters and spooks in haunted castles. All achieved, as he said with pride , on three words of English and not one of the Gaelic.

On his return he sat at our fireside telling tales of wartime adventures, of cycling from Paris to Bordeaux through enemy lines with that same grandson sitting innocently behind him on top of some of the most prized treasures of his collection.

How empty and impoverished my years of exile now appear. Stamps can be to you either as the flower to Wordsworth's philistine -- "A yellow primrose was to him and it was nothing more" -- or ambassadors to far-flung places. They are travelers crossing all frontiers, going by bicycle and boat, by train and the first-ever aircraft -- not scraps of paper but the most marvellous of winged messengers.

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