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Licking History

Posted on 12 Oct 2017

Weird tales from forgotten nations fill a phantasmagorical stamp collection located in Norway.

Bjørn Berge treats his stamps as secret histories. His isolated home and architectural practise in Lista, Norway (‘a bit like the Orkneys,’ he says) contains a stamp collection which favours abandoned and provisional nations. To the despair of more conventional collectors, he likes roughly handled items, which he eagerly rubs himself, seeking resonant remnants of lost times and places.

Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 is a richly researched, sharp-witted compendium of 50 representative ex-nations. The Penny Black and full-scale imperialism began in tandem in 1840, and there are quirks and horrors on every page. In Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the absurdity of an actor-convict’s attempted escape disguised as a kangaroo collides with the genocide of its Aboriginal people. From the origins of Tsingtao beer to Rimbaud’s arms-dealing in Obock, all human life can be gleaned from Berge’s collection. For many of his book’s doomed cultures, only their stamps remain.

You travel on a very human scale, walking gradually around the coast of Europe each year. Do you travel more widely now in your imagination, by looking at these stamps?

Bjørn Berge: Yes, that’s right. I travel in my head, with the use of the stamps to transcend my surroundings. Stamps are like Harry Potter’s portals. You can just touch them, and then you travel in time and space. I smell them, and even lick them, just to get closer contact. There have been more than 1,100 countries which have issued stamps, so that’s a lot of potential for journeys. I have a lot myself – 800 I think.

You’ve got a very impish imagination. You write about an Eastern Karelian postmaster and the crackle of gunfire as invading Russians approach, and decide that your stamp must be a forgery, because the hand that stamped the postmark wasn’t shaking.

That’s an example of the intensity of that kind of fantasy travelling. You put yourself in the place, because you have this stamp, which is real, and has in a way experienced the whole thing. I just have to translate it into words.

1894 stamp from Labuan: Exotic wildlife in a malarial hellhole.

Did you discover quite consistent stories? These unknown states seem to give a truer, less pleasant picture of how the world works, and what nations mean.

Yes, that’s right. I’m very interested in international politics as well, and these are small stories that also contain large stories. There are lots of adventures that are too fantastic to believe – but they’re true! So I’ve been astonished several times about what really went on. Tangier International Zone was an extreme situation, in a way controlled by Western powers, but it was anarchy in the worst sense. You can see the anxiety on the Moor’s face on the Spanish stamp from Tangier in the book! Then there’s the Carolines, where the Irish Captain David O’Keefe went and became the chief of the whole islands, by using the naivety of the population and paying them in stone money. That’s the whole world in a small nutshell. It’s how it’s done quite often, still.

There’s a sense of the sort of adventure that was possible in those imperialist times. You also write about Charles-Marie David de Mayréna, who had himself crowned the king of a kingdom he created, Sedang [in modern Vietnam]. He’s like a Rudyard Kipling character.

I like the individual stories of these people taking quite often large chances, without hesitation, or ethics either. It’s quite interesting to read about it. But it’s also quite cruel. They’re not very kind people. They do the adventure at the expense of others. They’re ruthless.

A crane ignores the stench of the biological weapons factory below in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1940.

The contrast between the stamp and the nation of Manchukuo [Japanese-occupied Manchuria] is particularly extreme. The stamp shows a crane flying gracefully over the water, but the country was the site of murderous chemical warfare tests.

The stamp is pure propaganda, of course. It’s a cover-up, to show the nice side of things. That’s quite usual. The stamp is always a lie, that the Emperor or whatever wants the country to be seen as.

Is issuing a stamp the declaration of a national identity?

At least they mean that themselves, and that’s the most important thing. There’s no official definition of a country, but if they think they’re one, that’s good enough for me.

Do you intend to get stamps from all of these Nowherelands?

Yeah, before I die, I hope. Then the whole of the world’s modern history is collected, in a way. The world is inside my house, and reachable.

Nick Hasted

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An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 Bjørn Berge Out of stock