Sunday, 23 October 2011

How I sleep at night

I have a couple of little notepads that I sometimes carry around with me in order to jot things down in. They often go missing for months on end only to turn up in obscure pockets in lesser used jackets. Anyway, a few weeks ago one reappeared and flipping through it I found the scrawl: O. G. S. Crawford Wessex From The Air. I can't remember how or when this came to my attention but decided it was time to follow it up.

Unfortunately a quick search of the usual internet places revealed a staggering price tag of around £300. So that was that. Not to be completely stymied I ordered instead a copy ofBloody Old Britain a biography of Crawford by Kitty Hauser. If you haven't already scuttled off to check I'll mention now that Crawford was first and foremost an archaeologist, and his day job was ensuring that ancient monuments were included on ordnance survey maps.

At first glance he probably looks just like you'd expect him to look, old school. And he was really, in his notion that, if enough evidence were gathered, we'd eventually know in full what actually happened in the past. I studied archaeology for a bit and loved the scientific side of it, like carbon dating and dendrochronology etc.(not that I actually did any of that kind of thing, but it was very interesting to read about). I remember though that the overwhelming attitude was that we couldn't possibly, really, ever know the past. I found that frustrating and packed it in.

I hadn't really thought about all this for a long time but there's a line in the book, "In their more extreme formulations post modern thinkers see historians as little more than glorified story tellers" . It took me back to an evening visit I paid to a friend some time shortly after I'd finished at college. My friend was still studying and his degree was in media studies. While he was off making us cups of tea I had a read through some of his notes. Very thought-provoking stuff, I remember thinking. And it struck me then that my own degree (in ancient history) was, by comparison, just...a load of old stories. I don't mean to knock it too much, it comes in handy sometimes when I'm doing the crossword (example in today's Observer, "The Queen of Carthage, accomplished nothing").

Anyway, back to O. G. S. Crawford. One of the first things that I noticed was what a close contemporary he was of my old favourite Wyndham Lewis (Crawford 1886 - 1957, Lewis 1882 - 1957). They were similar characters to an extent, bullishly convinced of their own rightness and doomed to suffer for their forcefulness. I wondered if they'd ever encountered one another and a scan of the index did turn up an entry for Lewis. Sadly, it deals not with a meeting between them but an amusing aside detailing Lewis' hatred for the scourge of advertising and his hope that fascism might do away with some of the many nonsenses that offended him, instigating, for a start, a single brand of state soap. I can't decide whether I'm for or against this stance on soap. The fact that it makes me laugh means, I suppose, that I find it ridiculous. It reminds me a bit of Arthur J. Evil's rant against god in Time Bandits ("Forty-three species of parrot...Are we or are we not in the hands of a lunatic?").

So far so not very much on Crawford. Already a competent field archaeologist a stint as an aerial observer in WW1 revealed to Crawford the clear outlines of ancient buildings and earthworks visible from the air, but which at best were only vaguely apparent at ground level. (Later, spreading the word, he would illustrate his point with two photographs of a patterned carpet, one from above, a man's view, and one from a few inches high, a cat's view.) Obviously the archaeological stuff is important and very interesting but the big deal in this book, I think, is that Crawford was a communist.

Parallel to his highly practical application of technology to his field of study he was a massively utopian idealist. His faith in communism staggered on until the end of the Forties but collapsed under the onslaught of revelations of persecutions. Without nailing my colours to the mast as far as communism's concerned (I don't know enough about the details) I certainly go along with his belief in the desirability of a single world government and the pre-eminence of science and rational thought as the basis for solving the world's problems.

The only thing that's missing are details of his personal life, on which his autobiography is apparently silent and so, consequently, is the biography. I'm not sure how important it is to have such details, however having come this far I'm sure I'll pick his autobiography up, just to hear what's been covered in Bloody Old Britain in his own words.

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