Meet an Old Friend of Mine: Alan Cadbury

Like with all old friends, it’s difficult to recall when precisely I first met Alan. I think it may have been on one of those interminable trans-Atlantic flights, back in the 1970s, when I used to make regular trips to Canada. In those days I had a job at the wonderful Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto – a place for which I still have a very soft spot. But like most expats, I used to dream of home, and it must have been ‘round about then that Alan first crossed my path.  I suppose I must have admired him from afar, because it was a very long time before I learned his name. In fact, for several years I thought he was called Chris, but eventually I discovered the truth.

One of the things that appealed to me about Alan was where he came from. In case you haven’t already guessed, he was a Lincolnshire Fenman, born and bred. In those days, we’d often discuss England and Canada, and as we chatted away, the similarities between the two places grew and grew. It was something about the wide-open spaces, the vast flat fields of wheat and the intermittent towering grain silos, that dominated the scene, like so many Ely Cathedrals. Peoples’ attitudes, too, were similar: Canadians have acquired a dry and usually gentle sense of humour, which maybe reflects their strong Scottish roots. Fenman, too, have a wonderfully laid-back sense of humour: verging, I sometimes think, on a developed sense of the absurd.

Alan is more obsessive than me. I tend to be impatient. My idea of hell (which is probably what I’ll be condemned to do throughout Eternity) is to uncover two articulated toe bones, knowing full well that they’ll be attached to a foot, a leg and a complete skeleton, which will take a good three days to expose. Alan would relish such a revelation, as I discovered when I met somebody very similar to him when working on a Christian Anglo-Saxon churchyard at North Elmham, in Norfolk, back in 1970. Having said that, Christian burials are a yawn to excavate: at least those Pagan Saxons had the imagination to bury nice things with their stiffs…

Alan had had some interesting adventures in his life, and I well remember jotting a few of them down in a notebook, intending, one day, to work them up into a sort of collaborative memoire. But then we discovered Flag Fen. And that happened in the nick of time. In fact Maisie and I were even contemplating getting out of archaeology, altogether. In our blacker moments we’d come up with a scheme to brew home-made ‘country’ wines (elderflower, apple, parsnip etc.) on a commercial scale. We’d refer to the potential wine enterprise as the ‘OP’, or Other Project.  She didn’t know about it then, but I had Alan’s memoirs in mind as the other Other Project (or OOP?), which I’d write-up in the evening and on weekends. We’d almost arranged the initial finance for the OP, when Flag popped out of that dyke, and both the OP and OOP were placed on the back-burner.

I didn’t see much of Alan until about 2009, when I read a wonderful detective story by Elly Griffiths, called The Crossing Places. Elly had kindly noted in her Acknowledgements that the story was based around the discovery and excavation of Seahenge, the Holme-next-the-Sea timber circle, and my book: Seahenge: a quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain. Alan had read Elly’s book, too, and phoned me up, late one evening, just as I was getting ready for bed. That was typical of him. I couldn’t get him off the phone. But, it would seem he’d loved it: said it was a real page-turner. Then he went on to tell me (at interminable length) that he’d met someone almost identical to Dr. Ruth Galloway, Elly’s forensic archaeologist heroine, when he was teaching on a course up north somewhere – I think near Bradford. He held forth about her and I almost had to remind him she was fictional. Anyhow, I’m not sure they’d ever have become close friends. Yes, they were similar, but Alan sometimes fails to connect – which is something I’ve observed in other very focussed archaeologists – and I don’t think that’s a very endearing trait.

By now, I’m thinking, you’re probably asking why on earth I’m blogging about an old friend from my past, who doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression out in the real world? If you Google ‘Alan Cadbury’ (which I admit I’ve never done), I bet you won’t find lists of archaeological books and publications, because the sort of sites he digs are commercial. They’re almost invariably subject to confidentiality agreements and only see the light of day as so-called ‘grey literature’: spiral-bound documents in the Historic Environment Record, buried deep in the archives at Town and County Halls. I suppose, in the eyes of the world, he is a bit of a nonentity. But that doesn’t seem to worry him. In fact I imagine he’ll be pretty pissed-off that I’ve written this post. And it’ll probably cost me half a dozen pints of bitter when next we meet. Still, I’m fairly certain he’ll have a higher profile soon, and then he’ll just have to learn how to deal with it. He’ll just have to bloody well cope. I admit, he can irritate me intensely at times.

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