I will not bore you (oh yes, sez you!) with the more mundane disasters: printers going bankrupt or actually dying while printing your cover, works burning down, covers successfully printed and then sent to the wrong address. These you have to live with. No, first let’s start at the beginning...
Printing The Envelope
If you are working with an organisation, there is always the chance that someone will change their minds, often after you’ve already printed the envelope. The covers are meticulously checked for errors, but of course if the organisation misses something we have the fun job of reprinting and swallowing the loss. Last year, we printed a cover, made them all up into envelopes (the next stage: they come flat-packed from the printer and our homeworkers fold them into envelopes using Pritt and put the cards inside) and then had to destroy them all because the artist decided against the cover. To make it even better he was our signature!
Even when you are perfect, there is always the "Sword of Damocles" in the name of Royal Mail hanging over you. It was not amusing to have an extra £1.12 stamp added last Christmas. We had to add a second cover and signature to our signed cover as we had already used the space for an earlier relevant date.
Miniature Sheets are fun as so often they will not fit on the cover you’ve already designed so Cath has to design an emergency second version. Even better is when they give you the wrong size details (sometimes you don’t find this out until the miniature sheets arrive).
You get the picture! Just organising an envelope is not a straightforward as it might seem...
Sticking The Stamps
In theory, all you have to do is stick the stamps on to the envelope - a doddle - anyone can do it... or so you might think. Years ago, we were pushed for time and some friends wanted to help. It would have been better if the mechanic had washed his oily hands first, but even that was preferable to his spacing and layout. There were, alas, 12 small stamps to stick and nobody wanted any of his ruining their collections. What could I say? They thought they were doing us a favour.
Organising The Postmark
Sometimes, covers end up in the wrong place. There is a great story of when the boss of Royal Mail visited Brighton. He saw a red Royal Mail van drive past with the advertisement "Post your parcel here and it could end up in Timbuktu" (the advertisement gurus obviously thought this gave a taste of the exotic to Royal Mail). The boss saw red. "That's exactly what people are afraid will happen to their letters!" he yelled, "Get that advert stopped immediately!"
Well, that advert can be prophetic. I was phoned up one March by the then postmaster at Bethlehem (the real one) wanting to know why I had sent him a box of Christmas covers. It turned out they were another dealers covers that had been sent to Bethlehem, Wales the previous November ready for Christmas. He had a dreadful problem getting compensation.
As most people in the cover world know, complexity is my middle name. I like carrying covers on maiden voyages (QM2) flying in Concorde, Spitfires, Lancasters etc and getting interesting extras like taking the Entente cover to Paris for genuine Paris postmarks as opposed to Scottish "French" postmarks offered elsewhere. But my wild schemes give all kind of occasion for more disasters.
Now here is your riddle for today. One time, I arranged for covers to be carried on a ferry to Boulogne for a European issue. My idea was to get a French paquebot postmark on British stamps on the first day - something really special. The French however thought they would leave them to do the following day, which would have been fine except someone efficiently changed the date. There is not the same interest in second day covers!
Then there are just the usual potential postmark problems: We have had our covers postmarked upside down, so badly done you couldn’t do anything with them and of course regularly with the wrong postmark altogether. When you have been involved in covers as long as I have nothing surprises you.
Judging by some of letters and comments, all we have to do is ask the Queen, the Pope, Tom Hanks, David Beckham etc and they will jump to it. Regrettably this is not the case. I have raised over £500,000 for good causes through signed covers, of which £100,000 is since I started Buckingham Covers.
I am extremely fortunate that so many celebrities have helped, but there are so many charlatans claiming to raise money for charity that understandably celebrities have become suspicious. It gets harder and harder to get a letter read.
Even if you are successful, there are still many snakes left on the board and few ladders. In the last eighteen months, three of our covers already signed have gone AWOL. In one case, we couldn't get replacements as the window of opportunity had gone. Luckily working so far in advance means we can usually correct the situation.
It can be worse. I organised a well-known star to sign 250 covers and then went to New Zealand happy that Emma was sending them to be autographed. The next thing I hear about it is one very upset Emma. The husband of the star had received the parcel of covers, obviously decided we were trying it on and was exceptionally rude and nasty to Emma on the ’phone. The covers were returned, unsigned. When I got back to the UK, I checked the correspondence and there it was in black and white: "yes, I'll be delighted to sign". I had already written an apology from New Zealand and followed it up by sending copies of the correspondence, but never got a reply.
Years ago when I was working with Granada and the Sherlock Holmes TV series, a batch of 500 covers were sent to actor Jeremy Brett to sign. He was in hospital and perhaps a little confused, so he generously signed them and gave them all away to his nurses (try explaining that to your angry waiting customers)! Luckily, we had anticipated big orders and had done some spares so we eventually managed to replace the 500 signed covers already sold.
We can have the reverse problem. Recently we sent a celebrity some covers but they came back with apologies that they wouldn't have time after all. I found an alternative signature instead and forgot all about it until to my amazement, the original ones turned up, signed! It was really kind of both signers but left us with more covers than expected and to the collector, it may look like we were trying to sell more.
You would be startled to know how long things can take. I have known celebrities take two years to sign 100 covers! Although admittedly nothing was as long a Jamaican railway issue that took three years! Also, you cannot rely on getting back the number of covers you sent. Shrinkage can be very costly.
What A Carry On
Getting covers to the right place at the right time is also a nightmare. I spent weeks at Heathrow with the Concorde project and hours at Southampton waiting to get the QM2 covers so I could rush them back for the new stamps the day before the issue date! Trains have broken down, mail coaches have got lost, a fishing boat sunk (luckily before our covers were aboard), fog has caused havoc with helicopters, boxes of covers have fallen off a train and, once, at an RAF station, our covers were almost blown up as suspicious parcels.
We Are Not Perfect Ourselves
We have excellent outworkers who make up the envelopes, stick on the stamps and add any cachets etc. But sometimes we need new blood and the results can be horrifying. Tearing lots of stamps can prove exceptionally difficult, spotting the various values can be confusing, recognising damage and sticking while eating and watching television can prove disastrous. Obviously such a helper would not be asked again but can cost a fortune...
Getting Hold Of Older Stamps
It's great with commemorative covers to use appropriate stamps. Most of my large rivals use easy stamps that they can buy straight from Royal Mail. I, on the other hand, buy older stamps and of course if the demand grows, like it did with Concorde, things get frightening. At the moment, I would love to buy more VC stamps but the cupboard seems bare. Years ago I spent days on the phone trying to buy Queen Mother stamps. I was offering twice retail but most only had one or two sets. For me, each set meant four more covers and four covers was better than nothing as we had sold thousands more than we had stamps for! I bought in hundreds of sets and scraped through but it was hard work. You would have thought I had learned my lesson but I suppose I am a cover lover and want the best even if it causes so many problems.
This is just an overview of the pitfalls of cover producing. It is fun, scary and stressful and at the end of the day, I love it so much that even when I got a chance to retire, I couldn't resist starting up again. Sometimes the problems may mean that you don’t get the cover you hoped for but more often, I hope, the effort and love that goes into our covers means you get something really special in your collection.