None of the Above

05/11/23 19:38

Sunday was the first bright, clear day in Angus for a long, long time, so I went a few miles out the road to Ardestie.  The souterrain there, just off the A92, sits on a hillock that rises gently from the surrounding fields.  It's a place I like to visit during short days when the light slants low across the Firth. It can be peaceful there too, when the wind blows the noise from the dual carriageway away in the opposite direction towards Carnoustie.

At the entrance to the souterrain, a Pictish earth house built perhaps three millennia ago, is an interpretive board.  Often these boards are a cop-out, because we enjoy it better when we have to figure out for ourselves what we're looking at.  However, rather than an artist's impression of Picts with woad tattoos and Neil Oliver mullets, the board includes a photo of the RCAHMS team who excavated the earth house in 1950.

We learn that FT Wainwright led the dig, and there he is in an Indiana Jones canvas jacket and boots, with clay pipe and homburg hat both tilted at a jaunty angle.  Then there are the assistant diggers, keen young women in short sleeved blouses and sensible slacks, and young men in sweaters with strange, pre-Brylcreem hair piled up above their foreheads like a cream horn pastry.

But the interesting aspect is what you don't see, either in the exposed souterrain or on HES's board.  A while after the dig was complete, the archaeological findings were written up and published in a learned, peer-reviewed magazine.  In return for academic scrutiny and the certainty that experts had checked the 3000 year old facts to the extent that anyone can, the article was circulated among a coterie of specialists.

It would be left to someone else, perhaps writing in the Scots Magazine or Scottish Field, to write for a broader, interested public.  That article would likely be shorter, use little or no jargon, and would use hooks to pull ancient history towards the modern world. But in return, it reached tens of thousands of people, rather than a few hundred. That's the contradiction I've come across time and again during my career. 

Mostly I write for trade or specialist magazines like Urban Realm and Blueprint and Archive, and in parallel I've contributed to titles such as Leopard, and also ended up writing for Scottish Field a few years later. Their bag is cultural journalism with a more popular remit (definitely not "populist", now that word has been debased by far right politicians).

Occasionally I've been invited to contribute to academic titles, but that’s where the system falls down, at least for someone who maintains that research and publication are an important part of being an architect, yet doesn't have any ties to an institution.

Academic magazines generally don't pay contributors, because they can get away with it.  They know that academics with tenure have a stipend and receive grants for research and conference attending, and are mostly glad of the chance to publish – plus that keeps them in a job, indirectly.  Some academic careers rely on making a set amount of journal contributions each year.

As the late Charles Rattray told me ruefully, Architectural Research Quarterly or ARQ, where he was associate editor for many years, had keen contributors but a fairly small circulation.  He sometimes asked himself, what's the point of publishing if your ideas and hard work don't reach as wide an audience as possible? Sometimes you write for the love of architecture only, reaching a small audience of peers – but that isn’t quite the same as journalism.

Thankfully each piece of research eventually finds a home, hopefully including a 6000 word essay which I wrote last year during a difficult time in my life.  The research and writing helped to take my mind off life in the evenings.  The essay was short-listed in a competition, but didn't win: nonetheless the judges were keen that I should publish it somewhere.  It wasn't bound for the society's journal, nor for another they suggested which is based in the same city but not only doesn't pay for publication – it takes and retains copyright to your text and images, forever!

That practice should be outlawed, since it takes advantage of the young and keen but inexperienced. In the real world, an author or photographer always licences their work to a magazine for publication, normally first publication rights only. Anything else is exploitative.  Sometimes you have to set your ego aside, when trying to get your name into print, and be patient.  You consider your options then decide, "None of the Above”.

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