In The Spotlight
GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews Tom Current,
Founder of the Great Britain Collectors Club
Published in the April, 2000 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.
Milne: Tom, thank you for agreeing to be the subject of “In the Spotlight” for this issue. Without wishing to appear too sycophantic at the outset, I have to tell you that your popularity among the GBCC membership remains — rightly so, remind you! — at the stratospheric level. This is borne out by the responses we’ve been receiving to the questionnaire we sent out with the January issue asking for feedback on various Club activities and features. You should feel both proud and, I hope, re-energized to hear that “Bent Corner” remains the favorite column of so many. I just don’t know how, in your retirement, you’re able to afford to keep making all those bribery payments! Seriously, nobody — but nobody — listed your column as a least favorite feature of the newsletter — an achievement that most of the other regulars, myself included, can but envy! So, after that somewhat belabored intro, my first question is: Why “Bent Corner”? What inspired you to come up with that name for your column? And what prompted your former column name, “Hisself”?
Current: Gordon, I’ve been an admirer of your restrained [!! — Gordon] prose, but I thought you ought to try letting yourself go a little more. Rather than “stratospheric,” what might you use? Maybe “Universalic.” “Hisself” is an example of unrestrained Cockney, or Irish, or Appalachian? Nobody asked. But I was the entrepreneur when I used that title so I got very little flack. Larry Rosenblum [uh, oh, my past returns to haunt me — Larry] wondered if it was in good taste, but he must have thought so because he didn’t bring it up again. When the Club came to be run by the membership and I was just the editor, I needed another name. I thought “Bent Corner” would refer to less than very fine condition, or maybe just a little dishonest, and I thought that was the tone I would enjoy.
Milne: Your recent three-parter on the 20+ year history of the GBCC was a “knockout” … in that it was so comprehensive that it knocked out a lot of the questions that I and other members had lined up for you on how and why you founded the GBCC. For example, it’s now common knowledge that you didn’t start collecting these “little pieces of sticky paper” until you were in your mid- to late-forties. Before that, on what pursuits/hobbies did you spend your time and money?
Current: Whatever my hobby of the moment, it was also rather intensively pursued. There was my stock market period when I read everything I could find and then sold my total portfolio before the Dow reached 1,000. Then I went after a Master’s degree for 6-7 years (got it at age 50, too late to make any difference in my career path or level). Then I concentrated on my golf swing and got it down pat, until I took a pro lesson and learned I had a bad swing.
Milne: I know you’ve documented that the trip you made to England in 1969 when, impulsively, you bought that first Gibbons catalog, helped make you “even more of an Anglophile.” What is that made/makes you love the “Old Country” so much?
Current: Having bought a very modest house built personally by an auto mechanic without benefit of plumb bob, I came to really enjoy the old, stately houses of Britain and a 350-year old thatched roof cottage that we stayed in. I loved anything that went back beyond my grandfather’s memory, including 100 year old stamps that I bought in bulk lots. Britain meant more to me than the Continent because I’m a klutz at learning languages. Understanding the words of Scottish, Welsh and Irish folks songs is my limit.
Milne: I know, from having done exhaustive prep work for this interview, that you are a great lover of music; but why, specifically, the Irish harp? (And, by the way, congrats from all on the Silver Medal you won at the recent APS show held in your own back yard for your exhibit, “The Harp — From Cradle to Cloud.”)
Current: I heard a performance and was intrigued. I liked music but had been an inept piano student in elementary school and couldn’t carry a tune with voice, so it was a wild departure to take up the harp at about age 60. I couldn’t read music, but I was so sincere that I was tolerated by the teacher until I could play a little. Doing the harp exhibit was my first topical, and it has been great fun, but I don’t expect to do better than a silver.
Milne: On the subject of exhibiting, many readers are probably aware that one of your first ones — maybe, in fact, it was THE first — featured the Post Office Numerals and won the Grand Award at PIPEX in ’75. In the 25 or so years since then, have you exhibited extensively? How many different exhibits have you put together? And which is your personal favorite?
Current: Asking me how many exhibits I’ve put together is closely akin to asking me how many stamps I have. I dunno! Maybe the harp thing was the most relaxing fun. The Bath postal history was by far the most difficult in acquiring really good material. The registered letters have been very satisfying because of the variety of markings, and the postal stationery registered letters have been the least enjoyable or challenging but not without merit.
Milne: As part of the extensive homework I did for this interview — did I mention that already?!! — I read an issue of the Chronicle of some years back that you then liked the idea of trying to persuade award-winning exhibitors of G.B. material to allow photocopies of their work to be made available for the education and enjoyment of GBCC members not able to attend the big shows. Do you still embrace that idea (because I do!)? And you would you suggest it be implemented?
Current: I didn’t get many offers of photocopied exhibits, and very few requests to see the ones I did get. Sorry ’bout that, Gordon! I believe the APS has solicited such exhibit copies and may have had better success than I did. You might check on that.
Milne: For the specific benefit of the member who lashed me and this feature because he “collects stamps, not people,” can we talk stamps and, specifically, as you called it then, “the heart and soul of your collecting and publishing — the Post Office Numerals”? I think you know it’s a “grand passion” (to use your words) of mine, too; you have only to flick through the collecting interests in the latest directory [of GBCC members] to recognize its appeal to many, many GBCC members. To read your wonderful work on these, which constitutes a large chunk of the GBCC Handbook, is a great way for beginners to learn about this collecting pursuit. But what I, personally, would love to have you educate everybody on is how you arrange, display and house your collection(s) of this type of material. For example, do you try to collect one example of each cancel, irrespective of the stamp? Or do you go beyond that and attempt to get each cancel on as many different stamps as possible?
Current: What I do is not ideal, and I confess that up front. Ideally, I would like to collect the numerals (and other cancels) on cover, but that was too expensive a goal for me. So I tried to get enough covers to illustrate my collection of cancels on stamps — far from one cover per cancel or number. I was attracted occasionally to a cancel on piece, but I hate the shabby appearance they give a page, so I don’t do much more than accumulate those. And when I collect cancels, I don’t collect the stamps under them. In fact, I don’t have any expensive stamps in my cancels collections. That was a totally separate kind of collecting. I arrange cancels on single or multiple stamps in as uninteresting a way as possible, one number after another, chronologically, on loose-leaf paper that looks like an 8.5 x 11″ circuit book. That’s my storage mode, other than envelopes of as yet unmounted stamps. For exhibit I do try to be selective and make them more interesting by the write-up, or the geography involved, and the population in the Victorian period, a rough indication of scarcity. But in all truth, my collections are like the children only a mother could love.
Milne: What is your opinion of the appeal — or lack thereof, maybe! — of the recent issues of the Elizabethan era? And do you consider yourself in any way a “Machin Maniac”?
Current: I consider myself a “MachinHead MuttonHead.” I began collecting them in the eighties and made a little progress, but not enough to try to write about them, so I got John White, a Portland friend, to do that part of the Handbook. That took the pressure off me, and I was busy with other things philatelic, while I travelled for a living and had little more time than weekends for GBCC. So I never kept up with them and my collecting stopped by the 1990s. I can see that I missed an absorbing task.
Milne: Are you still an active buyer of G.B. material? Where do you pick up most of your best buys — at stamps shows, through auctions, or from dealers around the country or abroad?
Current: I buy very little in the U.S. (a few dealers that I see at the few shows I got to), except I get most of my harp material stateside. I don’t buy for any G.B. except my specialties, Bath and registered letters, and as I have most of the common material I have to get most new stuff at auctions in Dublin, London and elsewhere in the U.K. I get some postal stationery from a U.S. dealer or two, and that’s about it.
Milne: Have you got yourself caught up yet on eBay or any of the other online auctions as a buyer or seller?
Current: I found just learning to use a word processor, with one or two programs for record keeping, about all I could handle. I’ve never felt enough curiosity to get into the internet thing, and really didn’t want to give up any of my pleasure time allocations in order to add it to my life. I even flaunted my ignorance in a letterhead line I used for a while: No email, no net, no modem, no compulateral diseases.
Milne: Do you think this medium is healthily bringing new people into the hobby?
Current: Yes, and I applaud, but I plan on being dead before life is totally turned over to the techtronic.
Milne: Is Lord Byron Stamps still an active entity? If not, did you enjoy being a dealer, and do you miss the pleasures it brought?
Current: Lord Byron is kaput! I did not enjoy dealing in stamps, although I enjoyed most of the people I came in contact with. My real love was dealing in books. In fact, I should have answered a previous question by saying that collecting philatelic books has been very satisfying. Curiously, and unrelated, the only major category of collecting that ever turned out to be a good investment was books relating to British philately. But now that the books have mostly been sold, I find that not enough knowledge stuck in my memory.
Milne: For someone starting to collect G.B., what would be the one book that you would most recommend he or she first acquire/read?
Current: I don’t have an answer to that. I think a new collector should try to acquire the Stanley Gibbons Specialised Catalogues (five volumes, Queen Victoria through Decimal Special Issues) and use the Gibbons Concise as their everyday catalogue. Try for used copies via literature auctions or dealers. I would also recommend a Gibbons album that has the SG numbers in it. It will be awkward to buy and sell in the U.S., so you’ll have to learn the characteristics well enough to be able to find your stamps in Scott when needed. But Scott as the principal catalog just doesn’t have enough varieties in it.
Milne: I would hazard a fairly confident guess that, in general, you’re a pretty avid reader. Apart from philatelic books, from which other literary areas do you get enjoyment?
Current: I like mysteries, espionage and somewhat wicked books. For heavier stuff I do some biographies and political subject matter books, but prefer the acknowledged fiction.
Milne: I read way back in the January, 1983 newsletter that, in the early days, you were equally interested in Greek and British stamps. What inspired/prompted the Greek connection?
Current: In the same way as I got started on British numerals, I bought a fairly large Greek collection that had lots of dot cancels and early heads, and I was off and running. When time constraints forced me to make a choice, I chose British.
Milne: I also recall reading way back sometime somewhere in the past that your state of birth was Wisconsin. Specifically where? And how long did you live there?
Current: I was born and raised in Green Bay, where I used the same dressing rooms as the Packers when I played fourth string center on the freshman high school football team. In fact, the Packers used the East High School dressing rooms and stadium before they built the new and existing pro football stadium. My wife and I moved as soon as I was released by the University at Madison to Portland [Oregon], where the snow melts into rain before it clogs everything up.
Milne: What did your work with the U.S. government entail? How long were you in that field of work? And was your whole working life spent in that field?
Current: I had lots of career starts over about 12 years before I became one of Uncle’s wards. I was a union organizer (office workers), salesman (several kinds, none of them rich), and Assistant Commissioner of Labor (Oregon) for 6-7 years. I went to the Area Redevelopment Administration, later named Economic Development Administration, in the U.S. Department of Commerce, where I helped communities organize to improve their local economies, and I worked with state and federal agencies and business groups towards that end (1961-1983, when I retired).
Milne: I know you are an active member of the Oregon Stamp Society. Tell us, if you would, a bit about that organization, and, on a more general plane, where you see the future of stamp clubs.
Current: OSS is unique in several ways, chiefly because we have our own building and library. It was a fire station that the city surplused, and the club bought it at a minor price. It was absolutely a breakthrough for a local club, and membership peaked at 350-400, as I recall. It is down some now (290, I think), as are most local clubs, but it is still the biggest of its genre in the Northwest. We are doubling the size of the library space now. We meet the second Tuesday evening of each month, have a dealer bourse on the second Saturday of each month, a major auction once a year, etc. I also belong to a small Portland club, the Beaver Stamp Club, which does a great job with a convivial membership and no luxury facilities of any kind. I think both clubs will survive for a long time, as will many other local clubs. Maybe we won’t have as many members in the future.
Milne: Now that you’re, I think, officially retired, how many hours a week do you spend “stamping”?
Current: Counting OSS and GBCC activity and my collecting, probably ten hours a week on average, maybe a little more. What I buy doesn’t take much time, except when I decide to reorganize and remount something.
Milne: I know that one of the other passions that keeps you so young is golf. How’s your game right now? How frequently do you play on average throughout the year? And what handicap are you playing to these days?
Current: My handicap is my swing, but I’m used to it. My strength is that I’m realistic in my expectations. I play nine holes three times a week, rain or shine or freezing weather.
Milne: For my final question, I feel obliged to return to stamps and, specifically, the GBCC and its future. As the Club’s founder and still happily ever-present spiritual leader, what would you most like to see the Club achieve/pursue in the year(s) ahead?
Current: I have no pie in the sky goals in mind. I like the friendly feeling that you [Gordon] and some other leaders have generated in the Club and think there is greater potential for generating communication among members and between members and officers and the editor. I like the kind of writing that isn’t too stilted and attempts to humanize the Club and the technicalities of British philately.
I do still harbor the hope that somebody (or several somebodies collaborating) would provide an index for the years 1994 to date. I published them through 1993, although they need to be revised into a single index rather than by years. I could help on such a project, but the club leadership needs to set it up and recruit people to get it done.
I’m sorry that I don’t have more of philatelic worth to say, but it was nice of you, Gordon, to let [this] old geezer ramble on for a bit. Thanks to everybody for making the GBCC much, much more than I ever dreamed it could be.