How stamp collecting came unstuck | Hunter Davies

The Royal Mail's desperation to sell stamps is killing off my cheap and therapeutic hobby

This will be a bumper year for commemorative stamps, with the Royal Mail shoving out loads of new issues for the Queen's jubilee, the Olympics, sheep, pigs, anything at all really. It has become the perfect definition of a licence to print money.

People in the philatelic world are up in arms about it, realising it is doing their hobby no good. There are just so many new issues each year that children and new collectors will be priced out of the market, should they try to keep up with the output. Though in its defence the Royal Mail said this week that it has deliberately reduced the number of new commemorative issues this year, as a response to complaints.

One of my rules for collecting is never collect stuff that was made for collecting. I predict that this time next year, if you visit the stamp stalls under the arches at Charing Cross station in central London any Saturday morning, you will see boxes of recent first-day covers – originally selling at around £5-£10 – lying in bargain boxes at £1 each.

I do break my own rule all the time. And I collect commemorative stamps – as long as they are very old. The first ones appeared in 1924 to celebrate the British Empire Exhibition. They were not produced cynically, as they are now, to make a quick and easy buck. There were only two values – the 1d and 1 1/2d – so there was not exactly overkill. Once it was all over, our stamps reverted to their normal size and design, as they had been since 1840 when it all began with the Penny Black. These are known in the trade as definitives: little stamps with the monarch's head on.

Now and again we were treated to the odd special stamp, usually for a royal or national occasion, such as George V's silver jubilee in 1935, or the Olympics in London in 1948. But the flood of commemorative stamps began in the 1960s when the Post Office got wise to the commercial possibilities. In recent years, we have had 14-15 new issues every year.

One of the reasons for their success was the rise of what are known as thematics. Thematic collectors only go for stamps showing birds, for example, or railways, or famous painting – or, in my case, football. It is fascinating to see all the special issues that have been produced around the world for a World Cup, many of them beautifully designed. My faves include the Italian set for the 1934 World Cup, and the GB set for 1966, when England won. So that makes them pretty special. But I draw the line at any football stamps after 1966, or any commemorative ones after the 60s. There are just so many, so gaudy, so nasty, so manipulative.

This, of course, is hard cheese for the philatelic trade. When I became a born-again stamp collector 30 years ago – a normal human process, whereby we regress to our childhood interests – there were around 20 different stamp shops centred on the Strand in London. Oh, it was rapture on a Saturday morning. Now, I can only think of two. Stamp collecting has taken a battering.

Which is a shame. Stamps are portable, easy to sort and arrange, and cheap to buy (in fact free, if you steam them off envelopes). They are terribly educational and informative – and also therapeutic. When I was in bed as a child, racked with asthma, I would turn over the pages of my stamp album – and in half an hour my wheezing would have stopped.

I bought albums, packets of stamps and tweezers for my own children, and now my grandchildren. And are they interested? Are they heckers. Not when they have smartphones and iPads and computers to play with. I do fear that the Royal Mail, with its greed, is likely to kill off a humble, harmless childhood hobby, once and for all.

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Hunter Davies

The GuardianTramp

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