Stamp of approval a one-horse race

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Australia Post celebrates Winx’s record-breaking 26th consecutive win with a commemorative stamp

You’d have to say Australia Post had a bit riding on the champion mare Winx winning her 26th consecutive race at Warwick Farm last Saturday. Let’s say at the outset that this is about stamp collecting, not horse racing (surveys show the latter subject turns FOMM readers off – or politics – that was a three horse race…Ed.)

Whether you like horse racing or not, the existence of Winx the super horse must have filtered through, as it is many a moon since any horse won this many races on the trot, which is racing parlance for an unbroken winning streak.

Celebrating the mare’s place in equine history, Australia Post released a commemorative stamp, pictured here by courtesy of AP and ‘with perforations’ as requested. Journalists received the press release from Australia Post about a minute after the race was run and won.

We plan ahead for important activities, achievements, and national events in the calendar, and had extra resources on standby to assist in producing the special stamps,” an Australia Post spokesperson said, in response to our obvious question.

So all ended well. If you are a stamp collector or philatelist as it is known in the trade, you will already have ordered your first day covers, special 26-stamp packs, a set of maxi cards and a medallion cover.

Horse stamps are not that unusual – examples include Black Caviar in 2013 and a set of four stamps issued in 1978. They featured Phar Lap, Bernborough, Peter Pan and Tulloch. The collection is notable for fine art work by Brisbane artist Brian Clinton.

Like Dusty Springfield, I was wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that either Malcom Turnbull or his nemesis were philatelists so I could make this politically relevant. But it seems only one (former) Federal politician, Philip Ruddock, collects stamps. This seemingly innocuous hobby at times embroiled the then Immigration Minister in controversy.

Ruddock, now Mayor of Hornsby Shire, was a member of Amnesty International. Critics found his membership of the organisation was at odds with his government’s hard-line immigration policies. In 2000, Amnesty asked Mr Ruddock not to wear his lapel badge when performing ministerial duties and not to refer to his membership when promoting policies opposed by Amnesty. AM 18/3/2000

In a profile for The Good Weekend in 2002, writer Richard Guilliatt was given a look at Ruddock’s collection, which spans three generations. Guilliatt, perhaps innocently, suggested that the high dramas of the job had spurred the stamp collecting hobby on.

“…every month letters pour into Ruddock’s Parliament House office in Canberra, imploring him to liberate the men, women and children detained behind razor wire in Australia’s desert camps for Third World asylum seekers,” he wrote. “Those letters come affixed with all manner of exotic stamps, which Ruddock gets his secretary to tear off so he can take them home to his house in the leafy northern hills of Sydney, to be packed away for sorting.

“That’s one of the good things about getting a lot of letters from Amnesty International,” Ruddock told Guilliatt.

If few politicians collect stamps, at least a dozen former Prime Ministers featured on Australian stamps in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s important to note that all received the honour after their deaths.

“Until the introduction of the Australia Post Australian Legends Awards in 1997, the only living person allowed on a stamp was the reigning monarch”, the spokeperson told FOMM.

Nevertheless, the PM’s head on a postage stamp seems clearly out of fashion now, in this era when one is never quite sure if the PM will last his or her term. But there have been enough sporting celebrities, athletes, actors, singers, writers and decorated soldiers to compensate.

In an aside for crime fiction aficionadas, the most infamous stamp collector award must surely go to Lawrence Block’s fictional hit man, Keller. John Keller is the protagonist in Block’s crime series which began with Hit Man in 1998. Keller collects pre-1940 stamps and uses down-time between ‘jobs’ to visit stamp shops and exhibitions. It’s a kind of cover for his apparent lack of legitimate income, not unlike Block’s gentleman burglar and antique bookstore owner, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Many famous people are listed in various publications and websites as stamp collectors. The collection does not have to be distinguished to command a price. Former Beatle John Lennon’s collection of 550 stamps from his childhood was bought by the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum in 2005 for about $A74, 000.

Which brings me to the best-selling commemorative stamp of all time – the Elvis stamp released in 1993, Perhaps the delay since the rock singer’s death in 1977 was due to persistent ‘sightings’ of the late Mr Presley. Even today you will find folk who will tell you he is still alive and living under an alias, like someone in witness protection. Elvis would be 83 if still alive today.

The US Postal Service printed 500 million commemorative stamps – three times the usual print run. It was the most highly publicised stamp issue in the USPS history. The people were asked to choose between two designs (1.2 million votes), the majority preferring the stylised image of the young rocker, microphone in hand.

Stamps can be highly controversial items. For instance, the first secular Christmas stamp in the US, with its pair of white candles and a wreath with a red bow, was released in 1962.

Critics said it crossed the line between church and state. The public was also unenthused about a 1963 design – an illuminated Christmas tree in front of the White House.

Public takes dim view of Surfing Santa

The most controversial Australian stamp was also a Christmas release.  The 1977 stamp featured a humorous depiction by Adelaide artist Roger Roberts of Santa Claus riding a surfboard. Some members of the public were affronted, saying the postal service was not taking Christmas seriously. Until 1975, all Christmas stamps featured religious themes, often based on the traditional nativity story. There was no such fuss about the mix of secular and Christian stamps released in 1976.

If you thought the popularity of email would adversely affect stamp collecting, the market is as robust and profitable as ever. As an extreme example, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, issued in 1856 and thought to be unique, sold at a New York auction in 2014 for a record $9.5 million.

In 2007, the Australian collection of Arthur Gray was sold through Shreves auction house in New York for more than $7 million. Among the spectacular results was the $265,000 paid for a block of four 1919 £1 brown and blue Kangaroos.

So did you collect stamps as a child? Did you, as I discovered, learn at some point in your cash-strapped adulthood that the collection was worthless?

We had a family friend who spent most of her younger years travelling to exotic climes and would write, with bundles of stamps included ‘for wee Bobby’.

I gave away stamp collecting and its fussy handling (gloves and tweezers and corners to mount the stamps rather than pasting them in the album), around about the time I realised girls were interesting.

I still have those two old albums tucked away somewhere – among Father’s Letters, I’m thinking.

Somewhat related reading:

Wikipedia and the 105-year-old blogger

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Dagny Carlsson (aka Bojan) image by Almega – https://www.flickr.com/photos/almega/9206567927/in/photolist-f2xXun-f2y4TM, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51725946

For reasons yet to be linked to Wikipedia, this week I ended up on the home page of a 105-year-old Swedish blogger who goes by the moniker Bojan. I know, it sounds like material for a Nordic noir series. When starting out with the online arts at the age of 100, Bojan starkly rejected comparisons with the ‘100-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared,’ (a popular Swedish novel by Jonas Jonasson).

Bojan’s invariably short pieces reflect on the wonders of daily life that people half her age take for granted. She comments often about the seasons, the weather, old age and being single and alone.

In one recent blog (I found one dated November 5, 2017), Bojan wrote about Swedes who live by themselves. The Google-translate app I suspect renders the English somewhat less fluent than it might be in, say, a Henning Mankell thriller. But you’ll get the drift.

“The other day I read the news that in Stockholm, there are thousands of single-family households, more specifically 380,000 or 40% of the population live by themselves. In the past, there was some suspicion of living alone, but now it is more tolerated. It’s also easier to be single when there are several of them. I myself have been single since 2004 and I think so, of course. It was obviously more enjoyable to be part of a flatness (sic?), but it is pointless to feel sorry for it. Single households are today Sweden’s most common housing form, and nobody thinks it’s something strange. At first, I thought it was pure sorrow to live by myself, but one must get together and live on.”

Bojan started getting together and living on at 100, after buying a computer and teaching herself how to use it. Some of her more recent posts suggest she has become a reluctant ‘cause celebre’ through the conventional media’s fascination with a centenarian who has mastered the online universe. She has done many interviews, appeared on TV chat shows and been the subject of a film, “Life Begins at 100”.

Filmmaker Asa Blanck tracked Dagny Carlsson down and persuaded her to participate in a project which even he admitted was likely to be thwarted by the subject’s death. But no, Dagny turned 105 in May and continues to amuse readers, day by day. (A sequel is planned – the very definition of optimism).

Dagny’s blog is as Blanck found her – “a brusque old lady – all gallows humour”. She promised readers she would not be intentionally nasty but if she ‘trod on toes’, she did not really give a damn, or det kvittar mig, as they say in Sweden. Dagny dreamed of being a teacher when she was young but ended up working as a seamstress. She escaped an abusive first marriage and found love with her second husband, who died when she was in her 90s.

As Blanck observed: “She had managed to rise above her strenuous, grey existence and she had decided she would finally do what she had wanted to do all her life: write.”

Sweden’s blog-readers soon caught up with Bojan’s racey, funny insights and seemingly outrageous behaviour for ‘someone of her age’. For example, she writes about women wearing jeans and how they never did in her day. At 101 she went out and bought a pair of denims.

Ah yes, now I remember how I ended up on Bojan’s blog. I’d been deeply delving into the Wikipedia universe – a free community encyclopedia we writers tend to take for granted. Anyone can contribute, edit or update ‘Wikis’ within Wikipedia. You just need to register as an editor and then be mindful your input will be monitored by a legion of truly vigilant Wikipedia editors. Your input could be as simple as correcting a typo to contributing a new biography of someone you think should have a Wikipedia entry.

One of the things that fascinate me about Wikipedia is the community vigilance which results in entries being updated very quickly. Within hours, it seemed, of the news of Tom Petty’s death, someone had updated his Wikipedia bio, including the premature announcements on social media and the controversy surrounding the timing of Petty’s fatal cardiac arrest.

Wikipedia is essentially a collection of some five million articles in English and another 40 million in 293 languages, all contributed pro-bono by people who care about history, accuracy and detail.

I asked my blogger friend Franky’s Dad if he had ever edited items for Wikipedia. Yes, said FD, a few hundred since 2006. He’d even created a piece about a singer, Bob Wilson. I was momentarily aghast until discovering the latter is a singer, guitarist and songwriter from Pleasant Valley California. Franky’s Dad, aka Lyn Nuttall, maintains a music trivia website www.poparchives.com.au, which aims to find out ‘Where Did They get That Song?’

FD reckons editing Wikipedia is one thing but creating a new entry can be hard yacka, what with their exacting standards for formatting and referencing.

The Listener’s technology correspondent Peter Griffin confessed he was a Wikipedia ‘freeloader’ until deciding to attend an edit-a-thon in Wellington. Events like this were attended by 70,000 people worldwide last year. The main idea is to pick a neglected subject and add to the body of work. There is also a push to correct what is seen as a gender imbalance. Griffin was not confident until encouraged by a veteran Wikipedia editor to “get stuck in and break things”.

The key intention is to keep it factual – not easy in the Trumpian world of fake news and flat-out fabrication. Griffin’s group were on safe enough ground, however, collating biographies of female scientists.

“The seasoned editors smiled knowingly as we fumbled along,” Griffin wrote in The Listener’s September 16 print edition.

“But after a full day, we’d created about 20 biographies of women in science and extensively edited 30 more.

“I’d like to think we increased the sum total of the world’s knowledge.”

Even famous racehorses have a Wikipedia entry. Australian racing’s latest super-horse, Winx, has won 22 races in succession, amassing more than $7 million in prizemoney for her owners. A few weeks back she won the country’s premier race (The Cox Plate), for the third time. No such profile for Regal Monarch, a racehorse with just four wins to its name, put down after falling in race four on Melbourne Cup day.

You’d think tragedies like this (remember Dulcify, 1979), would prompt connections to retire Winx to lush green pastures and make another fortune at stud. But there is an ambitious program in 2018 to race the mare again in Australia and against the best in Europe.

There was even talk she might contest the Emirates Stakes in Melbourne this weekend. But trainers know. Chris Waller last week said Winx would go to the spelling paddock. At least someone other than me could see that Humidor’s fast-finishing second in the Cox Plate did her in.

As Peter Griffin found at the edit-a-thon, only facts are allowed in Wikipedia, and each fact must be backed by a rigorous reference. So seriously is this edict taken, editors this year banned the UK Daily Mail as a source, citing poor fact checking, sensationalism and fabrication.

Additionally, bots continually crawl the Wikipedia site for signs of vandalism (intentional corruption).

So I guess I’ll keep my opinions about Winx to myself, then.