The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects

When every other day brings a headline detailing some unprecedented and unfathomable event of earth-shaking import, it's easy enough to miss notice of the lesser revolutions.  Thus, ultramodern citizens who focus exclusively on electronic means of communication might have failed to note the recent epoch-shattering news that the British government intends to sell off its Royal Mail Service.  A government institution since 1516, when Henry VIII established the office of "Master of the Posts," the vaunted and legendary service will now become a branch of Wal-Mart perhaps, or an arm of the Murdoch Empire.  And of course the US Postal System is plainly headed for an identical severance from Federal sponsorship.


This is very sad news for those of us—myself included—who continue to employ the mails for the whimsical purpose of committing art.  Decorating our envelopes and posting bizarre objects, we get a kick out of utilizing a sober-sided, far-flung governmental system for something other than delivering tax bills and jury-duty notices.  Always a tiny, eccentric group, we are the bright daisies in a field of soybeans.  So to speak.


One outstanding member of our clan, the Englishman W. R. Bray (1879-1939), who is in all likelihood the founder of the discipline of mailart, is surely spinning in his grave at these changes.  But his spirit may be assuaged by the loving attention given to him and his career by erudite philatelist John Tingey, who has delivered a handsomely designed and illustrated biography.


Like some un-sleazy Henry Darger, Bray was a superficially normal and unexceptional individual with a weird artistic hobby.  Bray found his bliss in testing the limits of the Royal Mail, addressing his postcards and letters with rebuses, and mailing ungainly, unpackaged items such as onions and live animals and even himself!  Gradually exhausting all such creative postal avenues, he eventually settled on collecting autographs by mail, amassing a repository of over thirty thousand signatures.  He achieved a slight fame while alive, then passed into utter obscurity, his vast collection dispersed.  Tingey's chance encounter with some collectible samples of Bray's oeuvre, followed by prodigious research and contact with Bray's descendants, have resulted in a volume which will surely fascinate any fans of quirky social history, any admirers of the unpredictable human spirit, and any curators of the odder corners of the art world.  The book is simply a delight.


Fantasy author James Blaylock once wrote a story, "Thirteen Phantasms," in which the protagonist succeeds in mailing himself back in time, to his beloved 1930s.  Surely Blaylock was unknowingly channeling the spirit of Bray, who would have endorsed such a whimsical conceit.






The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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