I am not sure whether it was just a boys’ thing or whether girls were the same, but when I was growing up in the primary school years there was a common thread of collecting. When I was little, it was Dinky cars and toy soldiers, but soon I became interested in stamps. I think my Mum bought me the first stamp album, packet of stamps and hinges and started me on an intense, but relatively short journey.
The mystery of stamps for me was that they were from faraway places and some quite old. There were names of countries that I had never heard of, and some had pictures that were intriguing. Each page of the album was for a specific country, or in some cases more than one. Some of the stamp packets came with stamps still stuck on a bit of the envelope and you had to go through the process of either soaking them off, or when old enough, steaming them off with the kettle, which was difficult to do without scalding yourself. I know that now stamps are more valuable still on the original envelopes, but then we removed the stamps and laid them flat on blotting paper to dry.
I was aided in my stamp collecting by my Uncle Ernest, who went to Russia in the mid-sixties to help set up a synthetic fibre plant, and he brought back some large Russian stamps that showed Sputnik, the first satellite in 1957; Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in 1961; Laika, a dog they put in space in 1954 and another that I can’t remember. I became quite proud of my collection and bit by bit I bought a loose-leaf stamp album that allowed stamps to be slotted into place. I even saved up to buy a Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue in either 1966 or 1967. The covers are the same and so I can’t be sure. The album listed all the stamps known at the time and the price that Stanley Gibbons would sell them at. It gave background information and was the authoritative text for philatelists. I can’t say that I really fell in love with the hobby, and when high school started I found more things to interest me.
Possibly a little earlier, my collecting habit was helped by Brooke Bond tea cards. With each packet of tea there was a card that had a picture of whatever set was current and you could buy the album to collect them. Some cards were more common and so it was quite difficult to get a full set. I did manage to collect one full set and that was the British Butterflies set that was out in 1963. I was quite proud of the full set and I did learn a bit about butterflies, but the real pleasure was the opening of the packet and finding what card was inside. We would trade spare cards at Harehills County Primary School and they became an interesting way to learn about trading. Some younger boys had rarer cards taken by older boys and there were some arguments. The Brooke Bond cards started in 1954, and mimicked cigarette cards and ran until 1999.
There was one activity that was common in the 1950s, but has now been totally banned, and that is the collecting of birds’ eggs. I even remember watching, I believe, Blue Peter and they showed you how to blow an egg to remove the contents so that the egg shell could be saved. At the time, they suggested that you only took one egg and left the others, but clearly this had an impact on bird species, some of which were close to extinction.
Another element to collecting was fostered by the I-Spy book series. These books started in the 1950s and lasted to the 1960s before they were modernised. The books had themes and the first one was I-Spy at the Seaside. Within the books there were lists of objects and children would tick them off when they spotted them. The children were known as the I-Spy Tribe and the organisation was run by Big Chief I-Spy who initially was Charles Warrell, a retired headmaster. The first books cost sixpence and I loved them. There was something about ticking off items that suited me and many other children. I suppose it was the same attraction that some people got with collecting train numbers. I only once went train spotting and I can’t say that it was ever my cup of tea. I found that standing near railway lines, looking at mostly diesel trains, cold and dull, but I know many people love it.
The collecting habit was picked up by various retailers through the Green Shield Stamp phenomenon. This was first started in 1958, but it was in the 1960s and 70s that it was remarkably successful. Stamps were provided when people bought petrol, or shopped at a range of stores and these stamps were collected and could be swapped for items in a catalogue. The purpose of this was to encourage people to shop in certain stores or businesses that were part of the scheme. This proved very popular and my mother would collect stamps from all her shopping and my dad from the petrol he bought. A friend of the family, Mr Waites, ran a driving school and he collected vast numbers of stamps and gave them to my mum. I remember her having to stick them into books and then swap them for a range of gifts, either through the catalogues or through the shops. I seem to remember one in the centre of Leeds on the Headrow. This means of creating brand loyalty was good for the stores, seemed to build on the collecting habit and fostered the idea of getting something for free. Similar marketing ploys were created in the 1960s and one that I remember clearly was the ‘Put a Tiger In Your Tank’ adverts and promotions. It is strange, and on the whole has ceased to be the case, that petrol which is identical, regardless of manufacturer, and is often produced in the same refineries, was sold in competition. The idea that Esso’s fuel was better than the opposition, and made you a different and more powerful motorist, took off. To help with their promotion they had little tiger tails that you could fit to your car, on the aerial, the fuel cap or the bumper. I remember well scooter riders having lots of them adorning their scooters. Badges and a whole range of merchandising were created, and again, people wanted to collect them and would buy their fuel at the Esso stations.
Airfix models were another hobby that I was particularly interested in during the early 1960s and I had lots of the plastic construction sets. I think the first I ever had was a very simple model of the Mayflower and this ship had very few pieces, but it stoked my interest and I think a Spitfire kit was next. Many models later, some I tried to finish by painting, I realised that I just wasn’t very good at it. Glue got everywhere, including my fingers and I developed a taste for it. But mainly the glue got onto the clear plastic windscreens on the cockpits and spoilt them, got onto the propeller axles so that they wouldn’t turn and was a bit of a nightmare. The old glue tubes were no good for new kits as they tended to set once you had opened them, but I still built up quite a number. I was interested in balsa kits, with tissue paper used to cover the frame. Some of these were quite big and had proper petrol engines, but I never got the opportunity to have one. Some of my friends did, and I looked lovingly at their handiwork, which put my mess to shame.
As I got to high school and was a teenager, then there was another form of collecting that had high status and kudos, and this was record collecting. I am not sure that originally it was seen as a collection, but if you wanted to buy music then you had to buy vinyl records. To buy records you had to go to a record store. My older brother bought his first record, the Animals, House of the Rising Sun, from Varleys at Harehills. I remember going down with him. I loved the shop as it was full of toys, model kits, bikes and for a while, records. They had the single and he bought it. I can’t remember if he listened to it first as they had a little booth, but he carried the prized possession in its paper sleeve all the way home and played it on the Dansette record player. The first record that I remember buying was the single, Young Girl, by Garry Puckett and the Union Gap in 1968. Nowadays the lyrics would certainly raise some eyebrows, but at the time no one seemed to care. It was a pleasant, melodious song and I bought an ex-jukebox copy.
Bit by bit, my taste developed and my favourites were the Small Faces. I collected a lot of their singles, and again they were ex-jukebox, with the middle of the records missing. You could buy an adapter and this filled the gap and allowed them to be played on the record player. I believe I bought most of these from the record department in Vallances, in Leeds and I built up quite a collection for a while, but then albums became the thing to own. My brother Andrew got the Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd and I borrowed it, I think I still have it, and that was something you could carry around with pride. Albums were large enough, and had covers that were easily recognisable, and there were some artists that gave you street credibility. I used to take albums to friends’ houses and to parties where they were not shown the care or attention they deserved. Some I never saw again, some were thrown like frisbies and scratched, and some got warped by leaving near anything hot or had cigarettes stubbed out on them. I started to buy albums and I think they were thirty-seven shillings and sixpence for quite a while. Ummagumma, by Pink Floyd, The Who Sell Out, Sticky Fingers by the Stones, Tapestry by Carol King, this one for a girlfriend, In the Wake of Poseidon, King Crimson’s second album and many others joined my collection. The greatest achievement was having sufficient so that you couldn’t pick them all up. I kept buying albums until I left for college, where I bought cassettes, but they were never a great choice, but when I returned to Yorkshire in 1976, I carried on buying albums until the middle 1980s, when CDs appeared and I went to Papua New Guinea. CDs were lighter, better quality; I know many don’t agree, but they had good booklets of information and I liked them. The collecting bug was still there until the arrival of the IPod and mp3s. This was the end really for collecting, as yes, you had the music, but it wasn’t a tangible thing that you could show anyone. At one time I had over 18000 tracks on my IPod, but I didn’t have the same sense of ownership. I have read how many bands formed because one of the members saw someone else carrying albums that they loved, they shared the same tastes and became The Rolling Stones, Yes or one of the many others. The albums under your arm said a lot about you, and could impress girls or turn them off. This seemed to work better than the pipe smoking, morose fellow in the corner, which never resulted in anyone finding me attractive. However, the album could start up a conversation, a bit like walking a dog can.
The other major collection that I had for many years was books. I must have bought hundreds over the years, but moving house, having children, moving countries has meant that they have been discarded on the way. I still have a garage full, in plastic boxes, but now I mainly read on my IPad or Kindle. The Ebook does not have the same tactile joy in it that the paper version does, but it is so manageable. As a writer of books, particularly novels, then it is the story that is important and I do not often have the time to reread books. It is much like the video tape collection, the DVD collection and the Blueray collection that fills boxes under the bed, mostly my sons’ collections. The need to collect things seems to be part of us, maybe a link to history where hoarding was necessary to survive, and a display of wealth. I can only surmise, but I have got it as part of my DNA, and clearly many others have.