50 Years of Current Archaeology
Was it really fifty years ago that we launched Current Archaeology? I remember those initial days very well. I had been dreaming of doing an archaeological magazine for nearly two years as a way of escaping from being an accountant, and it was a year since I had married a young lady who proved to be a very wonderful co-conspirator.
We had travelled round the country in our camper van collecting material, and had then assembled it into what we thought was a rather a good magazine, and we then sent it out free to 5,000 people who we thought might subscribe. We waited with baited breath: would it work? Then, 28 envelopes came through the letter box each with a cheque for £1. The next day the postman came with a bag containing 100 such envelopes. We breathed a sigh of relief and hugged each other: it looked as if it was going to work. From henceforth I was going to be able to spend my life as an archaeologist, not as an accountant. We were through!
In the next month we received over 1,000 subscriptions which was our target and within a couple of years we reached 5,000 subscriptions, which made us fully viable. We soon settled down to a routine: I did most of the writing while Wendy did the layout and the all important task of looking after our wonderful subscribers.
We were lucky to launch into what was in retrospect the golden age of archaeology. The concept of rescue archaeology was being born, but it was rescue archaeology within a research framework, and there were marvellous excavations being done: Martin Biddle excavating a complete town at Winchester, Barry Cunliffe was digging up a Roman palace at Fishbourne, Geoffrey Wainwright was revealing the background to Stonehenge at Durrington Walls, Peter Addyman was digging up Vikings at York, and Leslie Alcock was digging up King Arthur at South Cadbury. We were very lucky and each one of those early issues seemed to contain several stunning new excavations, waiting to be explored and divulged to our readers.
All too soon we reached our 100th issue, having in the meanwhile acquired three children. With issue 100 we celebrated by going into colour. A printing revolution was underway and colour was becoming cheaper and more affordable, so we had eight pages of colour, that is one side of a sheet of printing paper that was printed in colour. However the big change came with issue 120 which marked our 10th volume of Current Archaeology when we took the major step of changing the size of the magazine and going up to a larger format. When we began quarto, was the popular format, 10 inches by 8. This was the size of the Archaeological Newsletter, our predecessor, and also the size of Contra, the accountancy magazine I had edited. But quarto was going out of fashion, and the newfangled A4 size was coming in. Paper was being produced in the new format and printing machines were now built to this new size. I spent a long time pondering over this. The trouble is that A4 is too long and narrow: it is ideal for writing a letter with a letterhead, but not for a magazine, so I decided to compromise by making it slightly wider, but trim a little bit off the top to make it the size that it still is today. I still think it is a good shape.
Gradually we increased the number of colour pages: printing machines were coming along that would print full colour on one side and black and white on the other. We had to do elaborate calculations as to which pages were colour and which pages were black and white. I also learnt how to advertise. English Heritage had been formed and under the inspired leadership of Lord Montague, rapidly built up 200,000 members. They produced a quarterly magazine and we advertised in that quarterly magazine. I produced four different leaflets to see which one would pull the most. The winner turned out to be the leaflet proclaiming ‘Your first two issues FREE’ (Surprise, Surprise!) Every year we inserted a leaflet in the Christmas issue and for several years in the early 1990s we were overwhelmed. We received 2,000 new subscriptions every Christmas, and every day I was taking a dozen or more sackfulls of magazines to the Post Office to get them out before Christmas. Our circulation rose from 8,000 to 14,000 and then crept up more slowly to nearly 18,000. At last, after 30 years work, Current Archaeology was established, and we could begin to breathe a little more freely.
But another problem began to appear on the horizon: it is all very well starting up a magazine, but what do you do at the other end? How does one retire from a job that has been one’s whole life? A solution began to appear in the form of that most wonderful of concepts: nepotism. My youngest son, Robert was at Birmingham University where he had gone up to pursue business studies. His main activity however was outside. The University had its own radio station – BURN FM – which broadcast for two months in the year. Lots of people wanted to take part and become presenters. No-one wanted to run it. Several of his girl friends wanted to become presenters and Robert was dragged along to run the damned thing. Thus in his last year he found himself as ‘Station Manager’ with a ‘staff’ of 38. He had found his metier and a career in the media beckoned.
At this point I made the biggest sale of my life. “You’re in media” I said, “I’m in media, why not join up? We can split the job of running Current Archaeology. I know you are not keen on archaeology, (I had dragged him along to too many archaeological sites as a child) but I will do all the boring side – the editing, the writing and the archaeology, and you can do all the exciting side – the publishing, dealing with the printers, the advertising and the subscribers”. “Ok Dad” he said, “but how about launching a second magazine for me? A new magazine on World Archaeology?” This seemed a wonderful idea and so it has proved to be. Again we did a big initial launch. Robert had a wonderful fiancée who joined us to help with the marketing and this time we sent 100,000 copies free, and once again the system worked. We soon acquired our initial 5,000, though Robert went on to arrange for an American agent to sell the magazine in America where it has been an even bigger success, and we now sell 20,000 copies of World Archaeology in America.
Robert then got married to Libby who has also joined us to help with the marketing and they have now launched a third magazine on Military History, brilliantly edited by Neil Falkner. Libby has surpassed us by producing four wonderful grandchildren; and now we have three magazines, a staff of 20 and I have to pinch myself to believe that it is not all a dream.
In the meantime I have been kicked upstairs: I have been made Editor-in-Chief which is a polite way of saying retired. My main job is not to interfere – well not too much! And in my retirement I am looking at the past, and setting out to pull it all together. I have spent my life studying the past in little bits and pieces, jumping one week from the Palaeolithic down to the post Medieval the next, and from Britain to articles from around the world. How does it all fit together?
I have set out to write what I ambitiously called a History of the World, but which turns out to be an attempt to answer the question: why are Greece and Rome so important? Why are they different from the societies that came before? The answer is that the Greeks invented money and the market economy and with it a whole new way of enhanced choice for the individual – the foundation of the Greek miracle. The book revolves round five major sections: in the first three I look at three great palace-based economies of Egypt, the Minoans and China and see how they worked. Then I look at the two market based economies of Greece and Rome.
I have been writing hard and at the last count I have produced 175,000 words which is rather too many, so I am now half way through rewriting it all. But now it needs someone to read it through and give it a good haircut. It is a bit shaggy and needs to be pulled together and trimmed. Any offers?
In retrospect I cannot but help thinking how lucky I have been – very lucky. I was lucky in my parents and my brothers. I was lucky in my education, in going to Oxford and becoming the President of the OU Archaeological Society. I was lucky too in becoming faux de mieux a chartered accountant, where by chance I found myself editing an accountancy magazine and found I was rather good at it. And accountancy has always been a wonderful insurance policy — even if I have never been called upon to use it.
And I was lucky in meeting quite unexpectedly a wonderful girl to whom I have now been married for over fifty years and who is the real reason for the success of Current Archaeology. She is the one with her feet on the ground who has kept it firmly in control. I have been lucky that my dream of doing a magazine on archaeology has turned out so well and I am lucky to have three wonderful children and four gorgeous grandchildren.
Life has been good. I have been lucky. I am enjoying myself.