Skip to content

The Lost Works of OGS Crawford (and Others)

February 19, 2016

This week you have a huge treat – a guest post by Martyn Barber.

Dear Sir,

I listened with great interest to your broadcast and was quite impressed by your pronunciation. The only correction I should like to make is in your pronunciation of Eullullia. This should be a more caressing sound. I will be pleased to demonstrate this in person, and will be “at home” to visitors from next Tuesday. I am considered “not unattractive” in Berkshire.

(Letter, signed Miranda, to OGS Crawford, 8th April 1957)

HARN members will be no strangers to encounters with the unexpected within allegedly dry and dusty archives. Miranda’s letter, quoted above, was something I came across recently at the Bodleian while continuing my trawl through the personal documents that OGS Crawford chose not to destroy. Other gems included German archaeologist Gerhard Bersu’s considered opinion on some of Crawford’s contemporaries – for example, Richard Atkinson (‘dry as bones’); Glyn Daniel  (‘rather spoiled and apt to take any criticism with bad grace’); and Grahame Clark (‘an incarnation of evil’).

But back to the not-unattractive (in Berkshire) Miranda. The reason for my most recent trip to Oxford was to find out more about the books that Crawford didn’t publish, including those that he didn’t write. Anyone who has read Kitty Hauser’s book Bloody Old Britain: OGS Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life will be aware of two books written in the 1930s that he failed to find a publisher for – A Tour of Bolshevy, dealing with his trip to the Soviet Union in 1932, and the manuscript variously known as Bloody Old Britain or Bunk of England (although at times Misogyny and Modern Material Culture seems more apt), an occasionally tongue-in-cheek attempt to apply archaeological methods to the study of 1930s Britain.

During the last ten years of his life, there were many more books that failed to materialise. This was a particularly prolific period for him although little of what he published during that time receives much attention today. I’m sure many are aware of Archaeology in the Field, which first appeared in 1953, as well as his autobiography Said and Done (1955). Some may even have heard of Topography of Roman Scotland (1949). But what about all the books he wrote about North African archaeology (Ethiopian Itineraries c1400-1524…, The Fung Kingdom of Sennar, Castles and Churches in the Middle Nile Region, etc)? And how many have read the last book he published, The Eye Goddess (1957), which appeared just weeks before his death, and which was met mainly with private praise and public silence from friends and colleagues?

In 1947, Crawford was introduced by John Betjeman to John Baker, managing director of the publishing firm Phoenix House. Betjeman had suggested that Baker publish Bloody Old Britain. Obviously that was never going to happen, but Baker and Crawford seemed to hit it off, resulting not just in Archaeology in the Field and The Eye Goddess, but also numerous proposals – some suggested by Crawford, some by Baker – some of which got past the drawing board, but none of which resulted in an actual published book. At the same time, Crawford was consulted regularly about various book proposals and draft manuscripts, as well as books published elsewhere that Baker was thinking about acquiring the UK publishing rights for. Generally a yes or no from Crawford was enough – no second opinion was considered necessary. In other words, between 1947 and 1957 a number of archaeologists, anthropologists and historians failed to publish books about a wide range of topics because of Crawford.

Among the books Baker was keen on getting Crawford to write were a more popular version of Archaeology in the Field, possibly to be called Archaeology and Everyman; a book which “treated field archaeology as a sport…in not too serious a manner, though not losing sight of the instruction”, perhaps to be titled The Pleasures of Archaeology; a book on The Archaeology of Wessex (“NO! “ replied Crawford); another on Stonehenge “and similar monuments”; one on “Europe before History”; perhaps something on “Archaic Religion”; they also considered at least one book based on Crawford’s own photographs, while Crawford even forwarded copies of his plentiful but surely unpublishable (on both aesthetic and legal grounds) self-penned doggerel. Some ideas were quickly dismissed. Others Crawford suggested an alternative author for. The rest just seem to have been forgotten.

The book that Crawford put most effort into was to be called Time Past, the title lifted from a line in Milton’s Samson Agonistes. A chapter synopsis survives, as does correspondence about the contents, but no draft text exists. Some idea of the intended approach can be gleaned from Crawford’s insistence that the two key historic events of the last 3 millennia were ‘the rise of Mahomet’ and the Industrial Revolution, while Baker pointed to Jacquetta HawkesMan on Earth as the most likely rival publication. Crawford’s preparation was, however, interrupted by the discovery of prehistoric carvings on the sarsens at Stonehenge; Time Past was abandoned and The Eye Goddess was born.

The Eye Goddess wasn’t the last book he worked on, however. As it began its slow crawl through the editorial and printing process in early 1957, he started another book, with considerable progress being made before his death in November of that year. It was about cats. Now – I’m going to tread carefully here, as I am fully aware of just how many cat lovers use the internet. Crawford was fond of cats. He wrote letters to friends about their antics and adventures. Friends wrote to him about their cats or cats they had seen on their travels. They sent him photographs and postcards of cats. He photographed his cats. He had cats as pets pretty much his whole life. He lived alone and he liked cats. He spent a lot of time with cats. Just him and cats. Lots of cats.

In April 1957 the BBC Home Service broadcast a radio talk by Crawford entitled The Language of Cats, in which he explained just that – how cats communicated with other cats and with humans. And, of course, how he had learned to talk to cats. “It’s not a difficult language”, he insisted; “the vocabulary’s limited and the grammar easy, and the verbs have only two moods – present and imperative”. The public response to the programme led to a prompt repeat. There are a lot of letters from listeners in the Crawford archive. I’ve read them so you don’t have to. Crawford had written about cats before, of course – I’m referring here to his oft-quoted comparison of the aerial view of a cropmark with the ground-based view, which he likened to a comparison between a cat’s-eye view of a patterned carpet with a human’s-eye view. I’ve been unable to find any record of that particular conversation.

An accompanying article in The Listener attracted the attention of an American publisher. Helen King, Associate Editor at William Morrow & Company, Inc, wrote to Crawford proposing a book on cats. She was looking for a successor to American modernist writer/photographer Carl von Vechten’s (1922) The Tiger In The House (I’m not making this up), and recognised the appeal of a book that could take a scholarly and authoritative look at cats in world history and prehistory, as well as a scientific appraisal of their behaviour and linguistics, all told with Crawford’s own distinctive brand of humour (and politics, which for the most part King seems not to have noticed – for example, not being aware of his Marxist leanings, she missed a ‘dialectical’ pun in the article on language).

Surviving notes include lists of potential chapter titles and sub-headings. For some there is draft text (e.g. ‘Office Cats’, which allowed him to indulge in Bloody Old Britain-style complaints about government and bureaucracy); for others there is, sadly, nothing (e.g. ‘Cats in Catholic Countries’).

But what has this all to do with Miranda? If you haven’t guessed by now, Miranda was, of course, a cat, a notably promiscuous (by Berkshire standards) tortoise-shell. Her letter, presumably dictated, is on Antiquity-headed notepaper, which suggests that she and OGS were already well acquainted. But straying beyond Miranda and her caressing sounds, there is the matter of all those books that never appeared. Obviously there’s a lot more work to be done here, but it’s difficult to disagree with Baker’s evident enthusiasm for Time Past and his disappointment that it never materialised. It’s also easy to sympathise with his obvious frustration and puzzlement at the reception of The Eye Goddess. But what if the success that was Archaeology in the Field had been followed by Time Past? What if old Crawford’s book of ululating cats had actually appeared? What about Archaic Religion? What if the Archaeology of Wessex had been written by Crawford rather than Leslie Grinsell? And what about the others whose writing careers stumbled as a result of Crawford’s intervention (and yes, I realise I haven’t named any of them or their books – they’re my secret for the time being). I’d be interested to know if anyone else is dealing with this problem of unpublished, unwritten, or rejected books, although it’s obviously a potentially vast subject, so let’s stick to archaeology for now. Unless of course those books are about cats (or any other archaeologists’ pets). I’ve been through Crawford’s stuff. I’ve even read about Margaret Murray’s moggies. That’s enough for anyone. “FITZEXIT!” as Crawford’s tabby Tiger would have snorted, dismissively turning his back and shaking each paw in turn.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: