The world’s most expensive piece of paper

Long before I was born, my dad worked briefly for a firm of a stamp auctioneers in London. Apparently he helped, in some small way, to sell King Farouk of Egypt‘s stamp collection! He had a small collection of his own and he used to take me to stamp fairs, mostly I think to catch up with old friends. For me, it wasn’t so much the stamps I found appealing as the people who collected them, who seemed an unusually obsessive bunch with their own arcane rules, jargon, and preoccupations that appeared baffling from the outside.

Cover of The one cent magenta by James BarronI was therefore delighted to discover, in the Library’s catalogue, a book called “The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World” by James Barron, which is full of stories of people like those I remember.

This book tells the extraordinary tale of a single stamp, the only one of its kind, as it changed hands and rapidly increased in value with each new owner over it’s 150 year history. (The title of each chapter reflects the stamp’s value at that point in the story.)

The stamp in question is really just a tiny scrap of coloured paper bearing an almost indiscernible design. It was printed quickly in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) to replace some stamps that had gone missing on their way from London. As stamps of this value (unlike the more common four-cent stamp that was also printed at the time) were mostly used for newspapers and magazines, almost all of the them were thrown away when they were finished with, but miraculously a single stamp survived and was rediscovered some years later in 1873 by a 12 year-old boy among papers in his uncle’s house.

After a number of changes of ownership, that stamp eventually sold at auction in 2014 for the astonishing sum of US$9.5 million (about NZ$13.5 million) – more than a billion times it’s original value! At just 2.5cm x 3.2 cm that means each square millimetre is worth nearly NZ$170, making it the world’s most valuable object for its size and weight.

British Guiana 1c stamp issued in 1856. Last sold for NZ$13.5 million. (Public Domain image from Wikipedia)

The reasons why someone would pay such an inordinate sum of money for something with no real material value, and why some very rich people find extreme rarity of this kind so irresistible, is the central question explored in this book. It would be tempting to consider these people crazy, but they all made excellent returns on their investments, and future owners will continue to do so as long as the stamp remains so highly sought after.

The book is a real page-turner, and there are lots of astonishing tales along the way about the people involved, such as the man who tried (unsuccessfully) to use the stamp as a bargaining chip to get out of a murder charge, or another who may (or may not – no one really knows) have found a second one cent-magenta and destroyed it to maintain the value of the first. These stories may sound incredible, but in the bizarre world of high-value stamp collecting this sort of behaviour is not out of the question.

This book reminded me of the 1936 novel “Antigua, Penny, Puce” by Robert Graves, about a brother and sister who fall out in spectacular fashion over a dispute concerning the ownership of a rare stamp with many similarities to the one-cent magenta, which is well worth reading too if you find this sort of thing as fascinating as I do. The Library doesn’t have a copy, but as it’s out of copyright, it is available as an e-book from the Internet Archive, where you can also find the audio of a 1995 BBC Radio dramatic adaptation of the book.

Enjoy!

Try not to lose your head over this series

Murder, history, politics, religious reformation. Watching Queens come and go. Good Catholics  having their saints and idols removed from churches, their monasteries dissolved and monks thrown out into the streets. And all because your Monarch, who you are fast going off, wanted a divorce and it wasn’t granted by the Pope. Oh, and murders and the solving of them of course.

It’s all here in this fabulous series of chunky reads, The Shardlake series.

We join Matthew Shardlake, barrister at Lincolns Inn. It’s 1547. Henry VIII is on the throne and has, with the help of Thomas Cromwell his right hand man, divorced his first Queen and broken away from the Church of Rome.  Matthew is clever, honourable, reliable, a reformer… and a hunchback. Cromwell knows of Shardlake’s reputation as man who can be trusted with confidential matters and who doesn’t give up until he’s sorted it, and has approached Matthew to solve a murder in a monastery that is about to be dissolved. The King’s man has been killed and he wants to know who and why. The times are extremely tenuous; there are spies everywhere. No one is safe. Anyone outspoken on religious matters is likely to end up on the rack. Shardlake just wants a quiet life. Cromwell wants answers. So starts the first book Dissolution.

Cover of Sovereign

I’m not a big fan of mucked about history, so love the way C. J. Sansom weaves his stories around the events of the time. His descriptions of the filth in the streets, the fear of the common people, the conniving of wealthy families, both Protestants and Catholics, manoeuvring their daughters and nieces into the King’s circle in the hope that their family/beliefs will benefit, the buildings, the rubbish rotting on the banks of the Thames when the tide is out, the heads on spikes outside the Tower.  That’s not even accounting for the murders Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak, are called on to solve.

For Tudor history its hard to go past Hilary Mantel, author of  Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, who presents us a view from inside the Royal Court and the life of Thomas Cromwell, who started life as a blacksmith’s son and achieved greatness as Henry VIII’s Chancellor. Not forgetting Susanna Gregory who also writes historical mysteries with the protaganist of Matthew Bartholomew.

Having recently sung the praises of these books to my brother (he promptly read one after the other until there were no more) and to several library customers their  response was the same, “read that one, where’s the next?” The Shardlake covers are not enticing but don’t be put off. My colleague Roberta Smith is also a fan as you can see from her blog on Serial killers.

Do you like history? A good murder mystery? Being gripped by a good story? The Shardlake series could be to your taste, methinks.

Already a fan?  What is it that got you reading the series?

Find out more

 

Gordon Ogilvie 1934 – 2017

Cover of Place names of Banks Peninsula and the port hillsCanterbury and New Zealand lost a well-known and much-loved son with the recent death of notable historian Gordon Ogilvie. Author, biographer, teacher and one of nature’s gentlemen, he was a man who wore his learning lightly. The deep knowledge of our part of New Zealand displayed in his books helped many of us with our school projects, settled arguments over the origins of place names and provided hours of browsing pleasure.

Ogilvie’s last book, Place Names of Banks Peninsula and the Port Hills, was launched in August when he was very ill but able to be present as family and friends gathered to pay tribute to his life-long dedication to telling the stories of the land we look at and walk on every day.

The room was full of love and respect for a man who said “My life’s ambition has been to write on the hills and peninsula because I love them so much and wanted to share the love and knowledge with others. I’ve done that now and hope readers take what I took from it – the excitement of discovery.”

This ambition was well and truly realised. Ogilvie’s works The Riddle of Richard Pearse, and Denis Glover: His Life, were Book of the Year finalists and The Port Hills of Christchurch, and Banks Peninsula: Cradle of Canterbury won the JM Sherrard Award for New Zealand Regional History. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Canterbury and received the New Zealand Order of Merit for his service to historical research and writing.

The books and the awards are achievements enough but there was so much more to Gordon Ogilvie’s career. His research skills and historical knowledge, his energy and boundless enthusiasm and above all his great writing connect us with the people who were here before us.

By reading the books by the boy from the Horotane Valley who loved to walk the land of Banks Peninsula, Lyttelton Harbour and the Port Hills we can remember and honour his work and his legacy and feel the ‘excitement of discovery’ for ourselves.

Further reading

Hamilton aims for the sky

Hamilton The Revolution coverThere’s a song by the comedy band Tripod with a line that goes: “I always get into stuff/ Just as it’s finishing being cool...”, and embarrassingly this often applies to me. A couple of years ago I listened to the first song of the (Alexander) Hamilton musical and thought it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. I figured I’d try it again another time.

A few weeks ago I put it on as something to listen to while cleaning the house, and this time I stuck with it; halfway through listening to “Satisfied” I was a firm fan. I kept cleaning just so that I could finish the musical (which never happens, believe me). The house was spotless by the time the last refrains of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” faded out, and I may have cried a few times while folding the washing. How did a story about another country’s history affect me (and millions of others) so deeply?

For a start it’s incredibly well written; it’s a musical but it’s sung-through, so you can hear the entire story by listening to the cast recording. While many of the songs are incredibly catchy the story is what compels you to continue listening to Alexander Hamilton as he drags himself up from nothing to something; he’s not always likeable, but you have to admire his incredible work ethic, and he was clearly charismatic to many.

Articulate, intelligent leaders are always interesting to read about, and he surrounded himself with articulate, intelligent men and women, including my favourite character — his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler — who sings my favourite song. Hamilton isn’t a musical that shies away from shades of grey, portraying both Hamilton and his frenemy Aaron Burr as complex rivals with a fundamental difference in character. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to pack all this complexity into two and a bit hours by using rapid-fire delivery and lyrics that seem throw-away on the surface but unpack to give multiple meanings and allusions to hip hop masters, Shakespeare, and historical events.

Cover of Washington: A Life, Ron ChernowThere is a lot more I could say on the topic, from how I love that it’s bringing verse back to stage performance as a great tool for compelling exposition, how it’s performing America then by America now with a diverse and talented cast, how I’ve managed to have seven different songs stuck in my head at once — and yes, if you listened to this back in 2015, you already know all this stuff. But for anyone else who’s heard about it but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet, or who loved the Kate Shepard musical (That Bloody Woman) last year, borrow the Hamilton cast recording today and give it a listen. If nothing else you’ll get a clean house out of it.

If you do already like Hamilton, I recommend Ron Chernow‘s biographies for some extra insights into Hamilton and Washington. I’ve also been reading the fantastically nerdy Hamilton The Revolution : Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, With A True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America and can thoroughly recommend it as it showcases the thought put into every single aspect of the show.

Canterbury Society of Arts formed in 1880 on the 8th of July

A group of community-minded men had an initial meeting in late June 1880 to discuss how to organise and promote art within Canterbury.

Canterbury Society of Arts exhibition [1906] CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0007
They felt that the rapidly growing centre of Christchurch needed some form of cultural organisation, and Auckland and Dunedin already had Art Societies.

A sub-committee of three was elected to draft up the proposed rules for a Canterbury Society of Arts. On the 8th of July a General meeting was held at the Christchurch Public Library and the Rules of the Canterbury Society of Arts were approved. The Society had the aim of “…spreading a love of artistic work through the community” and the first exhibition was organised and held in early 1881.

The Annual Exhibition opening nights soon became the highlight of the social calendar which included music and entertainment. You can view some of the early Canterbury Society of Arts catalogues that we have digitised.

Over the years the Society developed and built a permanent collection, held regular programmes and events, faced social and financial difficulties, courted controversy, expanded their mandate from just fine art to include arts and crafts and (eventually) accepted contemporary styles. They acquired permanent space and moved, and completely re-invented themselves.

1980 marked the 100th anniversary of the Canterbury Society of Arts which resulted in an exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery and a catalogue with a history of the society. The catalogue for the 100th anniversary exhibition of the Society in 1980 can be accessed online.

Cover of The radical, the reactionary and the Canterbury Society of Arts 1880 - 1996

For an in-depth and updated look at the development of the Canterbury Society of Arts, and its change into the Centre of Contemporary Art (COCA Gallery), see Warren Feeney’s 2011 book The Radical, The Reactionary and the Canterbury Society of Arts 1880 – 1996.

Further information

Christchurch floods – This week in history, 3 to 9 July

The 4th of July marks the 40th anniversary of the Christchurch floods in 1977, when hundreds of people were evacuated from their houses. Three days of torrential rain affected the whole of Christchurch and much of Banks Peninsula with water rising up and threats of slips from above.

Particularly affected were those along the Heathcote river with water levels reaching windowsills in some houses in Opawa. Jet boats were used on flooded roads to check houses and help evacuate residents. Slips affected some properties in Lyttelton with part of a road slipping down and hill slips onto properties in Redcliffs.

Thornton Street, 1975 by CCL Photo Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License. Kete Christchurch PH14-AlBu-Thornton-Street-1975
Thornton Street, 1975 by CCL Photo Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License. Kete Christchurch PH14-AlBu-Thornton-Street-1975

Being built on the flood plain of the Waimakariri River, Canterbury is no stranger to heavy flooding no matter the season. The first stopbanks were built in the 1860s but floods still regularly occurred. This week marks the anniversary of several of these events from the past. From 130 to 5 years ago, all have caused damage, fear and anger, but also given reason to help each other out.

Before QEII expressway work begain. Floods, winter 1986. by CCL Photo Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License. Kete Christchurch, PH14-010.
Before QEII expressway work begain. Floods, winter 1986. by CCL Photo Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License. Kete Christchurch, PH14-010.

1887 July 6. Heavy floods damaging roads and bridges. 3 young men drown in the Avon River as a result of a boating mishap.
1908 July 7. Widespread flooding in city and province causing the gasworks to shut down.
1977 July 4. Hundreds evacuated as serious flooding affects city.
1986 July 7. Heavy rain floods northern suburbs of city, badly affecting St Albans and surrounding areas as well as Spreydon.
2011 July 6. Flooding after the earthquake.

Flood 6 July 2011 Avon River NB 06 by Gina Hubert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License
Flood 6 July 2011 Avon River NB 06 by Gina Hubert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License. Kete Christchurch Flood 6 July 2011 Avon River NB 06

The Waimakariri River in high flood the stop banks have broken and inundated the countryside, the Main North Road is under water. [1926] CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0090
The Waimakariri River in high flood the stop banks have broken and inundated the countryside, the Main North Road is under water. [1926] CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0090
If you have any images of past floods, or any other events that you would like to contribute to a community repository to build on the shared memories of Christchurch, please visit Kete Christchurch.

More Christchurch history

To see more of what happened this week in the past, visit our Christchurch Chronology.

The new Canterbury College building opened 140 years ago – in 1877

Canterbury College was founded in 1873 and quickly gained 87 students. Despite the Canterbury College Board of Governors approving a Gothic Revival building design by Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort in 1874, delays occurred when it could not be decided where to build — land they owned on Worcester Street or adjacent to the Museum.

Professor A. W. Bickerton was appointed in 1875 as the Professor of Chemistry, and his imminent arrival forced the issue of at least having laboratory space. A temporary laboratory was designed by Mountfort and built of corrugated iron and wood in 1876 on the Worcester Street site.

This “temporary” solution continued to be used for 40 years, although it was never finished properly due to it being a temporary solution and several derogatory nicknames grew around it, including ‘the tin shed’ and ‘the realm of stinks’. A new, permanent Chemical Laboratory was officially opened in 1910 and ‘the tin shed’ was eventually demolished in 1916 to allow the new College Library to be built.

Canterbury University College Clocktower, n.d., MB 1448, reference no. 4770, Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury

In 1876, Mounfort was again engaged for the first formal building design for which he adapted a smaller version of his original design due to more restricted funds. This included the clock tower, the porters’ and registrars’ offices, the professors’ studies, a lecture room and a board room and was constructed for the cost of £6,370.

The College block, or Clock tower block, was built in front of the laboratory on Worcester Street and both were officially opened on the 7th of June, 1877, by the Governor of New Zealand, the Marquis of Normanby. As part of the evening celebrations that followed, an electric light display was produced by Professor Bickerton. However, the college classes were not held in the new building until the beginning of 1878, and from this time students were required to wear academic dress.

Canterbury College, Christchurch, showing clock tower and Great Hall [ca. 1882] Burton Bros. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0012
The Great Hall and clock tower, Canterbury College [ca. 1910], CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0066
The 77 students of 1877 grew to 97 in 1878, so it was immediately apparent that the stone building would not be large enough for the growing numbers of  students and variety of courses offered. The East wing extension, also designed by Mountfort, began in 1878 and completed in 1879 and provided five more rooms.

The Great Hall was designed by Mountfort and built between 1881-82, but again, due to budgeting requirements, to a scaled down version of his original design.

The Observatory at Canterbury College [ca. 1910], CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0097
Buildings continued to be added to the central city location as the student roll grew, until the University announced their decision to move to Ilam in 1949. Their roll had reached over 2500 the year before. Building began at the Ilam site in 1956 and the move occurred between 1957 and 1975. The Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust was formed to take over the buildings in 1978.

The Clock tower and other buildings were badly damaged in the 2011 earthquakes, but have recently re-opened after repairs.

Find out more: Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873-1973

Resolution and revolutionaries: A. N. Wilson, eminent biographer

There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.

As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
20170515_193148

Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.

One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:

he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.

Cover of ResolutionAndrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.

An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being

deeply strange and complicated.

He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!

Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.

A N Wilson, photo by Andrew London

 

Treaty of Waitangi – Do you want to know more?

BWB Treaty of WaitangiWe all know the how important Waitangi Day is to New Zealand, but what do you really know about the Treaty of Waitangi?

This is the question I asked myself this year. I decided to investigate further, and Christchurch City Libraries has an excellent eResource The Treaty of Waitangi Collection from Bridget Williams Books. This platform contains some key texts on the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal. There a texts of all different sizes so you can –

  • have a quick read,
  • do some in depth research
  • or search all the texts for the key points you are interested in.

The one grey area for me was translation of the Treaty from English into Māori and reading about how this was translated gave me a greater understanding of why controversy still surrounds the Treaty today. I found it fascinating to read descriptions of what actually happened at Waitangi in 1840 during the signing of the Treaty.

If you are studying and need to cite any of the texts, there is a citation tool. You can choose your citation style and it provides the correct citation for you.

Check out this collection as it is something every New Zealander should know more about.

CoverCoverCoverCover

Find out more

A magnificent disaster, or a really good read?

Cover of Crinoline: Fashion's most magnificent disasterI’m a sucker for Victorian fashion, the sillier the better – and it’s hard to beat the Victorian crinoline for ingenuity, ridiculousness, and sheer presence. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on a shiny new copy of Crinoline: fashion’s most magnificent disaster.

Co-authored by Denis Pellerin and Dr Brian May (yes, that Brian May – no stranger to extreme fashion himself), Crinoline documents the rise and fall (metaphorically!) of this most capacious of undergarments through a rather unexpected record – stereoscopic images. It’s a sumptuous boxed set, containing a richly illustrated history and a stereoscopic viewer (designed by May, patent pending). This nifty little fold-up apparatus allows you to see the images in the book in 3D, as they should be viewed.

Victorian crinoline
Crinoline, circa 1869, United Kingdom, by W.S. & E.H. Thomson. Gift of Elizabeth Ridder, 2000. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH007988)

The second work by the pair on this subject, the book is meticulously researched and very readable. Through 3D images and other documentary history, we get a real sense of the outrage, amusement, and titillation the undergarment caused in Victorian “social media” – cartoons, pamphlets, periodicals, and that hugely popular parlour entertainment, the stereoscopic viewer.

The crinoline was actually a huge (sorry!) improvement on previous womenswear fashions, replacing the layers of heavy petticoats needed to achieve fashionably bell-shaped skirts. Its lightness and ease of movement was a liberation (and also an excellent personal space generator – I can attest to this, having worn a couple to fancy dress events). However it also had its hazards: there were many cases of women being horrifically injured, or even killed, when their crinolines caught fire, became caught in trams, or suffered other wince-inducing vehicular mishaps.

When I first came across mention of Crinoline, I thought the combination of topics could be a little forced or gimmicky, but this really isn’t the case. Pellerin and May have actually hit upon a very real convergence of two tremendously popular coexisting technologies that, when looked at together, provide a vivid and altogether fascinating glimpse of Victorian fashion and attitudes.

More information