How we launched CA
When we reached issue 300 of Current Archaeology, I was persuaded to write my memoirs of the early days. In the event, my memoirs were considerably too long, so they were considerably cut down, but here I hope it is worth recording my original fuller version.
I still remember the day I invented Current Archaeology. I was studying accountancy at the time; after the excitement of Oxford, where I devoted all my time to archaeology and became president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society, I decided there was no future for me in archaeology and that I should learn how the real world worked, and become a Chartered Accountant. I signed my articles, became an articled clerk, and was over halfway through my articles when inspiration struck. I was on study leave, preparing for part one of the Finals, but before getting down to my books, I thought I should read the Financial Times and keep up to date.
There I found a fascinating article about a new form of publishing involving the newfangled offset litho printing press where anyone could set up their own magazine from home. Suddenly inspiration struck. Why not set up my own magazine devoted to archaeology? There was already a magazine devoted to archaeology – the Archaeological Newsletter, but this, instead of coming out monthly , was dwindling until it had only come out once a year for the previous three years: there was a gap in the market: why not fill that gap?
I was already learning a lot about magazines. When I signed my articles, I automatically joined the Chartered Accountants Students Society of London and I learned a lot from them. I learnt to debate: at school and university I had been to the debating society, but never dared stand up on my hind legs and actually speak. But here I was successful. I was older than the rest; I was a graduate and had done my National Service and found that public speaking had lost its terrors. And there was a student magazine called Contra. I joined and began to contribute. Then the editor was suddenly thrown out: he had included a leaflet saying Say No to Nationalisation, Yes to Free Enterprise – which was not the sort of thing that a politically neutral body like the Institute of Chartered Accountants could allow. So he was out, and suddenly I found myself promoted to being editor.
I rather liked it. What is more, I thought I was rather good at it; at least, I was better at editing magazines than I was at doing accountancy. I edited two issues, and in the second I had a hit: I put together the first list of the top 20 firms of chartered accountants, compiling a database of 5000 names in the process. It went well. Should I perhaps think of becoming a journalist, a financial journalist? And then, on that wonderful day, inspiration struck. Why not put together my love – and knowledge – of archaeology with journalism, and launch an archaeological magazine?
I wanted to share my inspiration with my friends. And that evening a young lady with whom I had become very friendly was coming round. I told her with great enthusiasm about my wonderful new idea, but to my surprise she burst into tears. What’s wrong? I asked. Well, what about me? she said. I had to think quickly. It was all very well to dream of launching a magazine, but I would need help. Well, I said, of course I need you. I can’t do the magazine all by myself – I will need someone to help, and I was hoping you would be that person. Well, she said, does that mean we’re going to get married? I was nonplussed. I was nowhere near mature enough to get married – I thought marriage was something for grown-ups and I was only 26, nowhere near ready for marriage yet. But would it not be a good idea? Was she not the perfect partner?
But if we are to get married, she said, you must buy me a ring, to show we are engaged. My flatmate, she said, has just got engaged and she knows a very good jeweller. So that weekend, we went down to Hatton Gardens, and we chose a ring. It was an antique ring and didn’t quite fit, so we went down a week later to collect it. And that was how we got engaged. Suddenly, not only did I have my life’s work planned out, but I had also acquired a wife.
It took year or so for me to finish my articles, but in the summer of 1966, we began work on our new magazine. If we were to be a news gathering organisation, I felt it important to go round and visit as many excavations as possible. We acquired a camper van: this was something of a family tradition as my parents had a Bedford Dormobile and we bought a rather inferior Commer in which we travelled round the country. We have had a succession of camper vans, mostly Volkswagen Dormobiles, indeed I still have one today, though now little used for camping. We have been all over the country many times, but I have never stayed in an official camping site, but have found gateways and wide verges where one could stay the night unseen. I have a series of Ordnance Survey maps marked with good camping places!
Excavations in those days were very different from the excavations of today. Today excavations are very professional, they are all boarded up and if you want to visit you must make arrangements in advance, and basically visitors are not encouraged except on special open days. But for most of my career I simply went round the country trying to see as many excavations as I could. Usually two a day, sometimes three a day and then in the evening I would cook a meal in my camper van – big soups are very quick and easy – and then write up the reports of the day’s discoveries.
I was almost always welcome and I used to take photos as I went around – archaeologists rarely take general photos of their sites – and the photos I wanted were always general photos showing the horizon, giving an impression of the position of the site and where it lay in the landscape.
But in those early days Current Archaeology came to be an important part of the excavators’ armoury. The makeup of excavations was a curious mixture: the government in the form of the Ministry of Works, was taking an ever more important role in the financing of excavations. The director was paid at a minimal rate backed up by a subsistence allowance, and diggers, if they were lucky, were also paid a subsistence allowance of, if I remember rightly, 7/6p per day – that is 37 ½ p. But if you wanted to set up a dig, you had to recruit your ‘volunteers’ and an article in Current Archaeology would put your dig on the map, and you would get your volunteers. Today the diggers are part of the permanent staff, and to the directors Current Archaeology is an optional extra to communicate with the general public, rather than being an essential means of getting your diggers. But I am very grateful to all the excavators for all their help and the warm welcome and friendship they have extended to me.
Alongside the archaeology we were also house hunting, looking for somewhere to start the magazine: did we need a house? Or offices? Or perhaps a shop with accommodation above? We were persuaded that the best solution was just to take an ordinary house, but to keep a low profile, never letting out that we were running a business from our home: after all, this is how most small businesses actually operate. Eventually we bought a house in Islington at 128 Barnsbury Road where we launched the magazine. We were lucky; the derelict land opposite was made into a park, the area rose in the world, the price doubled in three years, and thanks to the generosity of my parents who were downsizing, we were able to move to our wonderful house in Hampstead where we still live with our marvellous views over London. Thanks to my parents, we have been very lucky to have spent forty years of our life in a wonderful house.
The summer came to an end and we managed to find a suitable house in Islington at a price we could afford at 128 Barnsbury Road. It was time to launch the magazine and here we had another great help from an unexpected source – John and Jackie Rotheroe the publishers of Shire Books. This came about through Wendy, who had a friend of a friend who put us in touch with Jackie, then John’s wife. They were already launched into the world of magazine publishing and were publishing a local magazine in Buckinghamshire called Bucks Life. John knew everything and everybody in publishing, and he took us in hand and showed us how to publish a magazine properly. He found us our original printers – the Bletchley Printers – a wonderful long established firm who were all Methodists and printed a Methodist newspaper, and they printed Current Archaeology for all those initial years. (They were later taken over by Robert Maxwell who renamed them European Printers, amalgamated them with a couple of poor printers in the belief that the good printers would infect the bad printers, but in fact the bad printers infected the good printers and they went bust – very sad!) But we learned an awful lot from them about printing a magazine and I am very grateful to them for their patience with us.
He also found us a designer – Reg Bass. I had never thought of having a proper designer, but John Rotheroe insisted that we must have the first magazine properly designed. And what good advice that was. The first magazine when it came out looked really good, and I think this was an important part of our initial success. Reg Bass was a newspaper designer: he designed the Daily Mirror – at the time the world’s best-selling newspaper, which he did twice a week as it was a twenty-four hour job, so he had time free to indulge in outside work. He was persuaded to take on our new magazine, and what a splendid job he did! The front cover had the big bold title Current Archaeology that occupied the top half of the cover and was very distinctive. It was set in a Sans Serif typeface , which at the time was very new and daring, and it meant that we could use a landscape picture for the bottom half. It also meant that we could have a different colour each time for the front cover which made the magazine very distinctive. We continued to use it for the next ninety-nine issues. Then there was a map on the back page which we still continue and which acts as a contents page for the whole magazine.
Eventually the whole magazine was ready and I had determined that the best way to launch it was to send out the first issue free to all the names we could think of. We managed to scrape together a list of 5,000 names thanks to help from Beatrice de Cardi (who has just celebrated her hundredth birthday). We sent the magazine out and held our breath. Would it succeed? Then suddenly, one morning, we had twenty-eight replies back each continuing a cheque for £1. Then it became a flood, and before we printed the second magazine we already had a thousand subscribers – we were on our way! We paid our printer’s bill from the income of those initial subscribers.
We put on circulation steadily. Our target was to get 5,000 subscribers at which point we would be financially viable. We got them within a couple of years: I remember that we actually passed the 5,000 mark when we made our first and only takeover bid. A rival magazine had made its appearance called Ago – an unfortunate title as no one knew how to pronounce it. But they did not quite make it – we had been first in the field. We offered to take it over for the princely sum of £1 for which we obtained their subscribers’ list but also the obligation to fulfil the outstanding parts of their subscriptions. It turned out that they had 800 subscribers of whom 500 were duplicates. But the other 300 were sufficient to take us part the magic 5,000 mark. We were viable!
15th January 2016