We enter the study by an oak door, solid with quality, fitted in brass, and lined by a heavy crimson velvet
curtain. The lighting is low but warm, giving the discreet suggestion of candlelight. The walls are mostly in shadow,
but a desk lamp casts a central pool of reflected yellow, streaked with smoke. The overall impression is of good
furniture polished to a rich patina, dark curtains, modest watercolours or engravings of traditional subjects but of
indisputable quality, heavy rugs on dark parquet, walls lined with leather-spined books, and a great deal of oak
As we move hesitantly towards the softly lit desk, the seated figure of the Expertiser leans forward out of the
shadow and looks up to greet us with a slight but knowing smile. With an economical gesture of his right hand,
surprisingly heavy with rings, he proffers a chair, and we sit to face him across the desk. With a well manicured left
hand he lowers his briar pipe, setting it down gently into a hefty marble ashtray as a sign of deference. Of
indeterminate but patrician late middle age, his greyed hair is brushed neatly back, and shrewd but cruel eyes
look out over tortoiseshell rims. A modest russet-flecked tie is worn with a good but soft shirt (perhaps Austin
Reed), which, together with the Barbour cardigan, signal that he is at leisure. He might pass for a retired
politician, a senior civil servant, or the chairman of some established corporate concern, and indeed in his
other life he may be any or all of these. But here in the warm, chocolatey seclusion of the study, the proper
pursuit is philately, and other things are not spoken of.
Besides the lamp, ashtray and pipe, the broad desk top bears an array of items in more or less orderly confusion,
comprising a wallet of dark tobacco with a Bond Street imprint; a number of brass-rimmed magnifying glasses of
various strengths; philatelic handbooks, reference volumes and ancient auction catalogues, open awkwardly at
pertinent pages; a spiral-bound notebook; a little boxy gizmo that we recognise as an electric watermark detector;
three pairs of well sprung silver tweezers with spade or rounded ends; an antique Parker fountain pen; scattered
envelopes and transparent wallets; a well-thumbed “Instanta” perforation gauge; a Thirkell Position Finder (a
square slip of transparent plastic printed with a grid, half enclosed in its printed brown card case); an expensive
ultra violet light box, and a small paper bag containing a few mint imperials.
For the moment, the Expertiser says nothing. It would not be at all proper for him to voice his deepest thoughts,
but in any case, as we sit in silence to meet the scrutiny of his expert gaze, we know that we can
understand without the need for conversation. We can read it all in his eyes.
We understand that his signature on a committee’s certificate of genuineness can add tens of thousands to the
value of a disputed scrap of paper. Alternatively, we know that with a stroke of his pen he can eliminate the
equivalent of a small man’s lifetime savings, and not infrequently does. It is true that the Expertiser’s immediate
concern is with money, but it would be unworthy of us to assume that this is the limit of his interest. At heart
his concern is with that for which money is merely leverage – namely, power. But not personal power, for the
expertiser is driven by duty, and the power he is able to exert is entirely at the service of his paramount principle,
which is Order.
And what is that Order?
Any tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector who strays beyond the tidy taxonomies of his familiar catalogue pages
inevitably finds himself staring into the formless void of swirling phenomena that is philatelic reality. Confronted by
this chaotic flux of paper scraps that defy proper pattern and category, of postmarks that aren’t what the book
says they are, of things-that-don’t-quite-fit and things-that-shouldn’t-be, he knows that he is peering into the pit
of hell, and that this is his punishment for the pigmy arrogance that led him to consider, in an unguarded moment,
that he might like to conduct a little “original research” of his own.
At this moment the tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector passes painfully from innocence into experience, and
becomes – a philatelist. But if it is the function of the philatelist to create order from the chaos that he uncovers,
he is no different in that respect to all those who, in their own various ways, regulate their own various corners
of the Great Chaos with their own various theories, ideologies or scientific models. And among the fraternity of
philatelists, the Expertiser is simply the final arbiter. The Expertiser believes sincerely that because there is no God,
it is necessary to act for Him.
However, the methods of scientific enquiry that he employs can prove ambiguous, and it is therefore his axiom
that their results must never be allowed to damage the coherence of the current totality of philatelic
knowledge, which may be enlarged, reordered or otherwise modified, but must never be put in a position of
self-contradiction. So it is the Expertiser’s role to consider judiciously which particular slivers of an uncooperative
reality should be permitted to re-shape the whole. And it follows that on certain occasions, he is obliged, for
reasons of ethics, to leave a particular boat unrocked. There exists, for example, a “forgery”, declared as such by
the Expertiser’s considered signature, that, unknown to its disappointed owner, could have halved the market
price of its “unique” and undoubtedly genuine counterpart, creating a chain-effect of disturbance, had not the
Expertiser, with moral heroism, set aside his initial verdict in favour of the greater good. All quite different to
the simple notions of his work entertained by ignorant layfolk. But we may forgive the layfolk their ignorance,
for the Expertiser’s judgements are always made invisibly, in the oaken privacy of this study. He is, absolutely,
a wheel within wheels.
In everything his conscience is entirely clear. And, in this regard also, he might pass for a senior statesman, a
Whitehall mandarin, an organised crime boss or a captain of industry.
All this is understood between us in the space, at most, of a few seconds, in a pause between gestures. At last,
the Expertiser settles back, with a faintly audible scrunch of leather upholstery, poises his fingertips artfully but
without effort in a neat steeple just below his chin, raises his gaze a little above our eye level, as if in fond recall,
and starts to speak:
“Of course, I’m flattered by your interest. But you know, if truth be told, the actual details of my work are
technical and tedious to an extreme, and I doubt that they would be of interest to any save a minority of fellow
fanatics, those of us who spend our spare time embroidering our anoraks, so to speak …”
He chuckles. We join in, politely.
“But I imagine that you are primarily concerned with what they call ‘the human angle’, and on reflection I suppose
that a good many cases worthy of examination in this respect have come to my knowledge over the years,
though in some of them my personal involvement has been considerably, ah um, oblique. But I shall be more than
happy to share them with you.
Where shall we begin?”
From Perforations. Tales from the dark side of philately, a never-to-be-finished novel.
“Perforations is a portmanteau novel, a collection of intertwined short stories.
It is about: addiction, death, karma, metaphysical dread, redemption, Third World development, revolution, forgery and stamps.”