Friday, June 20, 2014

The British Guiana One Cent Magenta: so who, then, was E.D.W.?

Article Published in

"Back in 1856, my great-great-grandfather, a postal clerk named Edmund Dalziel Wight, signed his initials to a cheap little postage stamp in British Guiana, South America, a measure taken to ensure its authenticity. Last Tuesday, over 150 years later, that tiny scrap of paper with the innocuous “EDW” squiggle went under the hammer at Sotheby’s, raising £5.6 million for its previous owner.
 Which, unfortunately, is not me. E.D.Wight turned out to have a Midas touch, albeit unwittingly and posthumously. That postage stamp, known as the British Guiana One Cent Magenta, went on to become the Holy Grail of postage stamps, to become not only the most expensive stamp in the world but also, by weight, the most expensive object ever made.    
 But for philatelists the value of the British Guiana One Cent Magenta is of a spiritual nature: it really is one-of-a-kind, a freak, unlike any other stamp in any other collection. And it’s quite literally the human touch, those initials, that creates this uniqueness and breathes life into it. The story of E.D.Wight’s role in the creation of the British Guiana One Cent Magenta is a family legend. it fueled my imagination and inspired me to write a novel around the most exclusive stamp in the world."

So who, then, was the man whose innocent initials, over a century later, upgraded the little stamp now worth a big fortune?

Mary Elizabeth Wight with her son Carl
Unfortunately, even we, his descendants, know very little about him, and no photo survives. According to the research of one of my far-flung cousins, Philip Wight, he was white, of English ancestry; he married twice, and with and his second wife, Gertrude, had ten children. One of these was Edward Mar Wight, who married Mary Elizabeth, who was half Amerindian; we do have a photo of her.

Edward and Mary Elizabeth had ten children: nine sons and one daughter,  Mirriam, known as Mirri. Mirri was my grandmother, the mother of my mother, Eileen Cox, who became a legend in her own right in Guyana, more famous even than the great-grandfather known to the world as E.D.W., the signatory of the BG BoM.

Edward's other descendants spread out over the world; they live in Australia and Scotland, England, Germany and the USA, and one or two even remain in Guyana. For all of us, the story of the BG BoM lifts E.D.W. out of the anonymity of shadowy ancestry. He's our family legend.

Very often as a child my mother told me the story of her great-grandfather signing the stamp that was to become the most famous in the world. He was Chief Clerk at the Georgetown Post Office, and, apparently, later ran our local branch at the corner of Lamaha and
Lamaha and Carmichael St Post Office
Carmichael Streets—we lived just a block away in Lamaha St, and Mum would point out the building. Was it here that the stamp was signed? We don't know, and she can't remember.

The story of the innocent signing of a stamp that would go on to earn a fortune has always fueled my imagination. What if another one of those stamps survived within the family, I asked myself; what if great-grandad Edmund had kept one as a souvenir, and it turned up in one of those drawers packed with old junk I used to burrow through as a child? Hardly likely. The following extract from Sotheby's website paints a picture of a man heartily indifferent to the stamp he made famous:

Wight had little tolerance for the philatelic celebrity achieved by British Guiana’s early stamps. In 1889, Edward Denny Bacon, one of the first philatelists to write about the stamps of the colony, reported that E. C. Luard had told him that “Mr. Wight is still alive and living in the colony but he is in his dotage and either cannot or will not remember anything about these old stamps except that he initialed them. He has been so pestered on the subject that the mention of old stamps to him is like a red rag to a bull.

The Georgetown Main Post Office in EDW's day

This makes him sound like my sort sort of man; down-to-earth and modest and not given to the kind of publicity-seeking attention-hunger we see so much of today. He saw no need to be famous just for the mundane act of signing an ordinary postage-stamp, and he wasn't interested in five minutes of fame, or, as history would have it, centuries of the same. He did not try to capitalise on the kerfuffle being made of that "old stamp"; in fact, it annoyed him. He probably wasn't impressed with the huge amounts on money spent on a little scrap of paper (think of the starving children those millions could feed!) 

And very likely he wasn't "in his dotage" at all; after all, he had married his second wife Gertrude just five years previously, so it was probably more a case of "will not" remember rather than "cannot remember".
Postman in British Guiana

But the “what if” never left me. There's a wonderful story in there somewhere. And so, after the publication of two of my first three novels, it became the inspiration for a story in which just such a stamp turns up: a family heirloom worth millions. What if someone's cantankerous grandmother was in possession of such a stamp? What if...? So many what ifs followed. Greed, possessiveness, sentimentality: the stuff of human interaction. The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q was the result. 

When I first wrote it in 2008 it did not find a  publisher, but early this year I pulled it out, dusted it off, repaired and polished it, and prepared it for late summer publication with my present publisher, Bookouture. It seems my timing was perfect; the original stamp is now hot news, my novel timely.

I hope that E.D.W. would approve; he might not have saved us a stamp, but he has given me a story.

Recent Articles on the Sotheby's Auction:

Red-letter day for most expensive stamp  Telegraph
The ‘Mona Lisa’ of Stamps to Be Auctioned at Sotheby’s New York Times
Sotheby's to auction rare stamp British Guiana One-Cent  BBC
'Holy Grail' of stamps, British Guiana 1c Magenta, to fetch Daily Mail
British Guiana stamp could fetch $20m, says Sotheby's Economic Times/India Times
Rare stamp from murderer's estate may set record at auction ... Chicago Tribune
Remarkable story of the £12m stamp owned by a millionaire murderer that is about to become one of the most expensive objects ever sold... The Independent

Lamaha and Carmichael Street Post Office photo: © Amanda Richards
Old photos of Main Post Office and Postman with thanks to Dmitri Allicock.

Monday, June 16, 2014

LIES at Poznan: a Writerly Weekend in Poland, Part II

After all that walking we drove to Liliana's home, which she shares with her husband and nine cats. One of those cats actually believes she is paper, as you can see here:
Cat, pretending to be Paper
Liliana has the most magnificent personal library I have ever seen anywhere. The room takes up almost half of the upper story of her beautiful home, and three if the walls are like this:

Liliana's magnificent library -- wall one, with Marta

Liliana's magnificent library: Wall Two, with me signing books
Liliana's magnificent library: Wall Three, with Husband

A study to die for...

Library, with Ladder

After signing books we all went down for a delicious dinner, and I signed the guest book. I was honoured to write a few words before comments by Pauline Melville (possibly the most well-known Guyanese author, having won the Whitbread Prize) and David Dabydeen.


The next morning was the LIES conference.

I spoke a few words....

And then, the last supper at another trendy (and fabulous!) Poznan restaurant.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

LIES: A Writerly Weekend in Poland, Part I

Last December, I received an email from Professor Liliana Sikorska, Head Department of English Literature and Literary Linguistics of the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.

She said that she had loved my book, The Speech of Angels, and had talked about it with a friend, who had fallen in love with another book of mine. Professor Sikorska is an editor of Studies in Literature in English published by Lang Verlag in Germany and the US, which, apart from scholarly articles connected with a given topic, also contains an interview with a writer in each volume. She asked if I would give her such an interview.

I said yes; the interview took place; and led to an invitation to be the University's guest author at the University's yearly LIES event -- LIES being an acronym for Literature in English Symposium. It would mean visiting Poznan for two days. Well, tell me -- are bunnies fluffy?

Long story short: LIES took place the week before Easter, and I was there. This was the programme.

The actual Symposium took place on Sunday, but I arrived on the Friday before that and was treated to the most wonderful Polish hospitality. Liliana and her friend and colleague Kasia picked me up at the airport and whisked me into Poznan, where I was brought to my hotel for a freshen-up. That evening we had a meal together in a cozy Polish restaurant, and I met some more lovely Polish women, whose mastery of English was truly impressive.

The next morning, Saturday, I roamed around Poznan a little on my own, after which I met up with Kasia and Martha; after lunch I was taken on a sightseeing walkabout of Poznan--a truly beautiful city, resulting in the following photos.
The Castle
The Poznań residence of the German Kaiser William II was designed by Franz Schwechten and erected in the years 1905-1910. It was the last imperial edifice built in Europe, modelled on mediaeval castles and meant to be the symbol of German domination of Wielkopolska. There is an interesting legend linked to the construction of the castle. Commenced in 1905, it attracted crowds of onlookers. The German president of the city took notice of a farmer from Górczyn who visited the building site every day and urged the workers to work hard. Amazed by seeing a Pole endorsing the building of a German castle, he asked him to state his reasons. The farmer answered: "the prediction says that when the imperial castle is erected, Poland will be resurrected". Indeed, soon World War I broke out and Poland regained its independence.

Easter Market

Stary Rynek (the Old Market Square) and its surroundings are among the most interesting places to see in Poznań. The Renaissance town hall, old houses, charming side streets, numerous museums, monuments, cafes and people walking about - all of them create the unique atmosphere of the place. Stary Rynek is the heart of Poznań.

Pre-Easter Fair at the Old Market

Artists at the Pre-Easter Fair

Located to the south of the town hall, the houses were once used for trade purposes. In the Middle Ages makeshift wooden stalls were erected there where herring, salt, binders, torches, candles and other commodities were sold. In the 16th century the stalls were replaced with narrow houses with Renaissance arcades supported by sandstone columns. The houses featured stalls on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. House no. 17 boasts the coat of arms of the merchants' guild consisting of a herring and three palm trees and House no. 24 has the owner's emblem on the capital of the column. The work must have been finished around 1535 judging from the date carved on the capital of the column of House no. 11. The edifice adjoining the merchant houses to the south was built in 1538 and is called the Municipal Chancellery or the House of Scribes. Until the 18th century it was the residence of municipal scribes and presently it houses the Society for the Friends of Poznań founded by Mayor Cyryl Ratajski. The arcades are a popular spot where local artists sell their cityscapes. Kurzanoga [Chicken Leg] Street behind the merchant houses presumably owes its name to a house that once stood there.

Town Hall

The town hall in Poznań is undoubtedly the most magnificent Renaissance building in Wielkopolska and one of the finest in Poland. The earliest mention of it is from 1310 but it must have been built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries judging by the keystone in the cellar decorated with the coat of arms of the Czech dynasty of the Premyslids (Weneclaus II Premyslid was King of Poland in the years 1300-06). The Gothic town hall was a small one-storey building without a tower that was not added until the early sixteenth century. In the mid-sixteenth century a fire swept through the city and the town hall was partly destroyed. Giovanni Battista Quadro, an Italian architect from Lugano, enlarged the town hall westwards in order to strengthen the tower which was on the verge of collapsing.

In front of the town hall in the Old Market Square. This Baroque fountain is embellished with the crest of Poznań and bas-reliefs representing the four elements. The sculpture in the basin depicts a mythological scene: the abduction of Proserpine by Pluto. The fountain was designed by Augustyn Schöps in the years 1758-66.

The Synagogue – Wroniecka Street, near Stawna Street, Małe Garbary and the extension of Żydowska Street. The construction plans were made in 1902. The corner stone was set on 6th May 1906. The construction was completed on 5th May 1907. The last service was conducted on 9th September 1939. In 1941 the Nazis transformed the synagogue into a swimming pool for Wehrmacht soldiers and it is still used for that purpose nowadays. In 2003 the Jewish community took over the property right to the building

Having established the first archbishopric (968) near the ducal palatium and the rotunda founded in 965 on the island of Ostrów Tumski, Mieszko I built a pre-Romanesque three-aisled basilica. The shrine was damaged in the years 1038-39 and rebuilt in the following years (until 1058) in the Romanesque style. In the 13th c. an early Gothic presbytery was erected and in the mid-fourteenth century a new Gothic nave was built. The reconstruction of the church in the Gothic style continued in the 14th and 15th century, during which a new presbytery with a chevet and a row of chapels was added. In the 17th c. the church was extensively rebuilt in the Baroque style (most probably by Krzysztof Bonadura the Old, and later in accordance with a design by Pompeo and Antoni Ferrari). The church was damaged in a fire in 1772 and given a Baroque interior that survived until 1945.

The Black Madonna
The original is here.

Marta and Yours Truly... front of a statue of the Polish Pope John-Paul II! Outside the Cathedral.

Actually, it's a new castle -- recently rebuild in a bizarre architecture of its own!