In a previous life, or that’s how it seems, I played jazz drums behind such fine players as John Eacott, Ashley Slater, Mark Lockheart, Mark Bassey, Andy Robinson and Charles Alexander. Now, sadly, the drums are in the garage. When I moved north for that most romantic of reasons, falling in love with a local, the gigs dried up…
Never mind, I took to writing instead. My most recent book is about stamps. No, don’t click away – the book is really about history. Stamps, I found, are marvellous raconteurs, telling stories of their eras with an eloquence few artefacts can match. Music is, of course, a key part of national history, and I found it perpetually winding its way into my narrative.
Music often marches ahead of stamp design. In the Edwardian era, for example, stamps are formal and elegant – while people flocked to Music Halls to hear Marie Lloyd. The First World War did little to change this. In 1924, Empire was celebrated on stamps by a roaring lion – while the nation’s youth were discovering jazz, though the big dance orchestras or the great solo instrumentalists. It took stamp design till the 1930s to make a similar leap forward into the modern era.
Being the age I am, I can’t tell Britain’s story without discussing The Beatles. John Lennon, I discovered, had been a stamp collector as a boy. Even better, I found that his collection included a 1940 Penny Black centenary on which he had given Queen Victoria and King George VI beards and moustaches.
Later in the book I discuss the rise of multicultural Britain. The music of the new, diverse nation was probably best celebrated in stamps via a 2006 issue, Sounds of Britain. More generally, in the new millennium, popular music has found its way onto stamps via issues of album covers: the two narratives have finally got into some kind of step, though rock gets much more coverage than jazz.
Looking round the world, America and France lead the way in specifically jazz-themed stamp issues. A British jazz stamp issue? Why not? It’s part of our national story, after all.
First Class, a History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps by Chris West is published by Square Peg at £16.99. For the other books in our prize draw, check the LondonJazz Wednesday Morning Newsletter