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Royal Mail - Innovator or Greedy Marketer? (Or, philatelyannoyance.com) Part 2

Why is this page labeled philatelyannoyance.com? When Michael Johnson, the originator and designer of the “Fun Fruit and Veg” stamps, was asked about people who criticized those stamps, he linked to my essay and called it “philatelyannoyance.com.” The interview is here. My further thoughts on the matter will be posted soon.

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Royal Mail’s caissons go rolling along

(Posted January 6, 2008. Updated March 14, 2008.)

'Lest We Forget' Souvenir Sheet

Have you noticed how many military-themed issues are coming from Royal Mail these days? While I was doing some research, it struck me that there seemed to be many issues with a military or war-related subject. A quick look at the catalog yielded this list:

Month Subject
October, 2004 150th Anniversary of the Crimean War
June, 2005 The Trooping of the Colour
July, 2005 60th Anniversary of the End of World War II
October, 2005 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar
September, 2006 150th Anniversary of the Victoria Cross
November, 2006 “Lest We Forget” 90thAnniversary of the Battle of The Somme  (shown above)
September, 2007 British Army Uniforms
November, 2007 “Lest We Forget” 90thAnniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele
April, 2008 Centenary of the Territorial Army  (commemorative sheet, see update below)
September, 2008 RAF Uniforms
November, 2008 90th Anniversary of the End of World War I

Here’s what Royal Mail is doing:

Surely there must be more relevant subjects that can be honored, rather than picking odd anniversaries or repeating subjects. Royal Mail is issuing more stamps than ever, but there are many worthy persons and events that have never been shown on stamps.

My first thought was that the government was pressuring Royal Mail to subtlely drum up support for Britain’s participation in the Iraq War. It wouldn’t be the first time that stamps were used for such a purpose. A second, and more likely possibility, is that stamps with military themes sell well, and maximizing revenue is, after all, the name of the game. Finally, this could just be a coincidence, but I think the list of subjects above belies that.

Royal Mail does what it wants to do, but I think they would serve collectors better with a broader variety of topics. Perhaps I’m just shouting into the wind.

Update: Royal Mail is introducing a new philatelic product (just what we need!) called a “Commemorative Sheet.” It is a sheet of ten previously-issued commemorative stamps with adjacent labels and an overall image. They will be used to honor anniversaries that “never quite made it into the stamp programme.” The sheet will sell for £13.50 (face value of the stamps is £3.40). The first sheet will be issued on April 1, 2008 and honors the centenary of the Territorial Army, the volunteer reserve force of the British Army.

Note: “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” is a field artillary march that became very popular during World War I. (What, no stamp for it?) A caisson, by the way, is a two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart used for carrying artillery.

Times have changed

(Posted January 6, 2008. Updated January 19, 2008.)

How things used to be

We [the British Post Office] have never sought to hide that, in common with any other business enterprise, we welcome the revenue which accrues from the sale of our goods. That does not mean that we deliberately set out to produce stamps exclusively to attract money from collectors. — Unnamed editor in the British Philatelic Bulletin, February, 1978.

How things are today

These are sheets of stamps purely for collectors. They are not designed for people to put on mail. — Richard Hall, Royal Mail spokesman, quoted in Linn’s Stamp News, May 14, 2007, minimizing the concern about a pane of 20 stamps with attached pictorial labels. Royal Mail had to recall the pane just before the issue date because on one of the labels, the Isle of Wight had been misspelled “Isle of White.”

And on the other side of the Atlantic

Once again, as in 2006, the number of U.S. stamps and postal cards depicting fictional characters greatly outnumber those honoring real people. — George Amick in Linn's Stamp News, December 17, 2007 in a column reviewing U.S. 2007 issues, referring to (among others) Marvel Comics characters, characters from the Star Wars films, and Walt Disney characters.
Entertainment can work as a stamp subject if it is intrinsically American and kept in small doses to prevent the U.S. stamp program from looking like an exploitative sticker machine. — Michael Baadke, Editor, Linn’s Stamp News, January 14, 2008.

Why this is important

Designs connected with postage stamps and coinage may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors on national taste.W. B. Yeats (Irish poet, 1865-1939) quoted in Queen Elizabeth II, A Portrait in Stamps, published by Royal Mail and the British Library, 2007.

Speaking of national taste

A US online opinion poll conducted at www.postalnews.com recently asked whether Colonel Sanders should appear on a postage stamp, because KFC [formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken] Corp. had apparently put in a request to the USPS for such an issue. At the time of viewing the poll, the results from 801 votes were 56% in favor ... and 44% opposed. — Noted in the British Philatelic Bulletin, December, 2007.

Royal Mail gets it (almost) right

(Posted February 10, 2006)

My earlier comments are rather critical of Royal Mail’s recent stamp issuing policy. It occurred to me while reading about an upcoming issue that I ought to point out that Royal Mail is still producing some (perhaps many) good sets of stamps.

The issue that got me thinking this way is the February 23, 2006 set of six stamps noting the work of Victorian civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He accomplished so much during his life that Dave Warriner, writing in The British Philatelic Bulletin notes, “The problem with writing any article about Isambard Kingdom Brunel is not what to put in, but what to leave out.”

Brunel, whose name was derived from those of his parents, Marc Isambard Brunel (also an engineer of note, knighted for his design of a tunnel under the Thames that is still used today by the London Underground) and Sophia Kingdom, was born in 1806. He died at the relatively young age of 53, apparently from a combination of overwork, on-the-job injuries, and prodigious cigar-smoking. He was never knighted.

I’m going to leave out most everything and just note that made a tremendous contribution to Britain’s industrialization by designing bridges, tunnels and stations for the railroads. He also contributed to Britain’s naval strength by designing steamships, docks and harbor facilities. He is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest engineers of all time.

To note just one of his achievements, he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon Gorge in Bristol. Although he submitted the design in 1830 and it was his first major commission, because of financial problems it was not completed until after his death. Although Brunel designed it only for pedestrians and a few horse-drawn wagons, today it carries 12,000 motor vehicles per day and is a landmark that is often used as a symbol of Bristol.

Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge
Brunel's Paddington Station

If, like me, you’ve never visited Bristol but have been to London, you might be interested to know that he also designed Paddington Station.

For more information about his achievements, read the Wikipedia and/or see Structurae for more links.

To note the 200th anniversary of Brunel’s birth, Royal Mail is issuing a set of six long stamps showing three bridges, a ship, a tunnel and Paddington Station. The the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Paddington Station stamps are shown on the left.

I think that this is a very appropriate subject, honoring a man who contributed much to his country. (He was born in England; his father Marc was French.) The stamps are well-designed and show off his accomplishments well.

But I said that Royal Mail got it “almost right.” Why almost?

None of the stamps pictures Brunel, and in fact only his last name is shown on the stamps. Undoubtedly he is better known in the U.K. than here in the US and elsewhere, but the 42p stamp is to be used for mail to Europe and the 68p to mail elsewhere in the world, so a little more information would have been nice. (On the other hand, the 1999 stamp in the Millennium issue that pictured his achievements didn’t even include his name, so perhaps we are making progress on this score.)

More importantly, though, the set of stamps is accompanied by the now-ubiquitous souvenir sheet and prestige booklet. These items exist simply to extract more money from collectors, and I can’t condone them.

Overall, though, a nice job by Royal Mail that proves there is still much value in Britain’s commemorative issues. We collectors simply have to be selective about what we buy. top

The deluge from Royal Mail continues

(Posted January 21, 2005)

Previously, I noted that “the future is here” with regards to Royal Mail’s new and excessive stamp issuing policy. As 2004 ends and 2005 begins, the future continues.

In recent years, the approach of a new year has always brought a spate of end-of-year marketing materials. The end of 2004 was no different.

Royal Mail Brochure I received a large (11 3/4" by 6") booklet with a cover picturing various British stamps ranging from a 1913 Seahorse to the 2004 Crimean War issue. In the corner, in a cutout window, is the phrase, “are you missing something?” (in lower case).

The booklet reviews the 2004 issues while exhorting readers “to fill any gaps in your 2004 collection” (lower case again). It also features related items such as the yearbook, coin covers and stamp ingots (expensive metallic reproductions of classic stamps).

With products pouring out of Royal Mail faster than water over Yosemite Falls, I guess they decided their customers couldn’t keep up with them during the year.

Soon after, I received a smaller (8" by 6") booklet titled “stamp calendar 2005” (also lower case.) It contains a page for each set to be issued with illustrations of the actual stamps. Also featured are miniature sheets, presentation packs, Smilers, and, of course, coin covers and stamp ingots.

Of note on both these booklets is a new tagline (or strapline) under the Royal Mail cruciform logo: “with us it’s personal.” (You guessed it - lower case.) This replaces the short-lived “The Real Network” that was added to booklets in 2003 and removed in 2004 when Royal Mail apparently ran out of capital letters. We’ll see if the new tagline shows up on booklets in 2005.

Now, about the deluge of stamps. As Royal Mail has increased the number of sets issued each year, they have also increased the number of stamps per set. Gone are the days of four and five stamp sets. Now six is norm with a few tens thrown in for good measure. (Okay, there are exceptions such as last year’s two-stamp Entente Cordiale set where they couldn’t find enough bad designs for six stamps.)

In 2005 we’ll see an “innovation”: the seven-stamp set. The first such set will be the September issue honoring the 50th anniversary of Independent Television (ITV). I expect that seven stamp sets will become the norm by 2007.

Reprinted high-value castle stamps I do have to comment about two of the upcoming issues for 2005. On March 22, there will be a miniature sheet with reprints of the four pre-decimal castle high-value stamp designs. These will be printed by intaglio, as were the originals. The stamps will be updated to current values, with the sheet costing a total of £3. This issue (shown at right) shouts PHILATELIC, but I’ll be buying this sheet as a complement to the original issues.

A five stamp set will be issued on March 15 to honor the centenary of the Magic Circle, an organization for magicians. This set will depict five classic magic tricks, such as pulling a rabbit out of a hat and selecting the right one of three fezzes (hats) to reveal a pyramid underneath. The stamps will actually allow the buyer to repeat the tricks — for example, thermochromic ink will be used for the fezzes so that touching them reveals which one hides the pyramid. Royal Mail calls this, “a trick before you lick.”

Yes, this is a gimmick, just like the “Fun Fruit and Veg” stamps discussed elsewhere. However, in this case, the gimmick is related to the topic, so the result is justified. Or is it? What do you think?

One final item about Royal Mail. I received a letter from them (if they only used stamps on all this mail, it might be worthwhile) explaining that in order to continue providing the “quality of service I expect” from the Philatelic Bureau, they could no longer waive the handling charges on certain items. Those items include albums and yearbooks. These would now incur charges that range up to £14 on shipments to destinations outside the UK and Europe.

Last year I decided to stop buying yearbooks because of the declining quality of the commemorative issues. At the current exchange rate, the £35 for the yearbook plus £14 handling charge is getting close to $100. Another good reason for my decision. top

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Last update: March 14, 2008   Macintosh!
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