The shadows where History is heaviest–Cairo Jim goes to Pompeii

Following on from my last post, where I paid tribute to Brenda the Wonder Camel’s brilliant scholarship in Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, I’m thinking more about humorous history books for kids in preparation for the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this May. I’ve been alternating between another Cairo Jim novel–Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, and British author Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra novels. I can’t decide which I like more, which is sillier, which is ruder, and also which offers a more interesting reflection on history. In fact, there’s no competition–they’re equally good in different ways. And I’ll talk about Julius Zebra next time. For the moment, I’ll carry on with Cairo Jim.

At the house of Phibius Whiffius

In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, the gang gathers in Pompeii. They meet a beautiful French archaeobotanist, called Bette Noir, who is trying to reconstruct an ancient perfume, Pardalium, which gives the possessor power over all things and everyone. She found the recipe at the House of the Garden of Hercules, owned by a perfumer, she says, who was resplendently named Phibius Whiffius. In order to complete her reconstruction, she needs the spittle of a panther, and has written off to the Dubbo Zoo in NSW, Australia to request some.

While Bette Noir, Doris and Jim are chatting over drinks in the Garden of Hercules, Brenda the Wonder Camel strikes again, quietly working in Bette’s lab. She has panther in her soul, at least that’s what I think she has, and she draws on it to extract the required spittle from the depths of her being, shooting it perfectly into a waiting pipette, sealing said pipette in an envelope, and writing a message from the Dubbo Zoo. What a camel. As a calf, Brenda has swallowed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which may account for her general brilliance.

Anyway, Bette Noir makes up the perfume, and then Neptune Flannelbottom gets hold of it, and uses it to bring the Telamons to life. Telamons are human-shaped columns, male caryatids, usually thought of as Atlas figures, support structures in other words. A telamon wandering around the streets of Pompeii could cause some damage. Luckily, Cairo Jim and his friends are equal to the challenge, and order is restored.

The evidence of time

This is all rather far-fetched. But it has a core of accuracy that provides a solid bedrock for a great deal of fun and games. There is indeed a House of the Garden of Hercules, and it is thought that the resident was involved in the perfume trade. McSkimming shares photographs of the house, and shots of different parts of Pompeii.

Cairo Jim, who early on reflects that as he walks through the streets of Pompeii, he is walking on the ‘evidence of time,’ is alert to every aspect of the city.

He observed the gentle sunlight, still not too bright at this time of day, and the way it was filtering down through the trees and the broken walls that he walked by. He listened to the birds as they sang their sweet, tiny songs all across the ruined city, and he thought how the birdsong seemed to be a balm . . . a soothing veil of sound cocooning Pompeii from the terrible memories of the past. He smelled the intoxicating aromas of ancient places–smells that he had come to recognise and love from his many years of being at sites such as this. The smells of old, old marble and terracotta, and the fragrances of shadows (he had discovered some time ago that the shadows where History is heaviest have a smell like no other), and the occasional whiff of rotting vegetation from fallen leaves all intermingled with each other, and drifted into his nostrils. (41-42).

This is just before Jim and the gang meet Bette Noir, learn about her plan to reconstruct the powerful scents of the past, and the mayhem and antics get going. Jim is moved by the scents he smells, to write a poem, which I quote below.

Pompeii had its yesterday

and yesterday before it,

but what took place, ‘neath skies of grey

and black–one can’t ignore it.

This pumice all around the town,

this litter of destruction

is testament to what went down:

Vesuvius’ interruption!

Yet now as boots with modern soles

tread quietly through the city,

we see despite the many holes

piled high with all the gritty

bits of Nature’s overflow

(these stones of igneous fury)

just what it is these ruins show:

that Time is judge and jury’ (43)

Well, it’s poetry of a sort. Doris the Macaw, one of Jim’s companions, objects: ‘There’s a time and place for poetry, and Pompeii is definitely not it!’ (43) Realism intrudes, until the preposterous plot gets going.

There’s a time and place for comedy

I’ve been mulling about the role of comedy in presenting history to young readers. Within the fun of Cairo Jim lurks a serious appreciation of ancient culture, and the novel gives a lot of information for those who seek it. With each novel I read, I learn a bit more about major archaeological sites, and with it, a bit more about ancient cultures. I’ve always preferred to glean my history from fiction: perhaps it’s the bit-by-bit approach I like, the puzzling things together, the finding things out, learning new things, being stimulated to look things up. For this post, I looked up the House of the Garden of Hercules, Telamons, and Pardalium, the ancient perfume that Bette Noir is trying to recreate. All of them are real things, though Pardalium may not possess the powers it has in this novel, and now they are things I know, as opposed to never having heard of (Pardalium), vaguely heard of (The House of the Garden of Hercules), or never really wondered about but should have (Telamons, or: what is a male Caryatid?).

Lightening the heaviness of history?

So, funny books can help you (or at least me) learn interesting facts. But can they lead you astray? This may be a worry for some guardians of scholarship, or of young minds: the danger that readers of The Crossroads of Orpheus may think that Phibius Whiffius is a real Pompeiian, that Pardalium has magic powers, that camels really can swallow the Encyclopedia Britannica and become psychic polymaths. Well, maybe not the last one (or … maybe they can . . consult your local camel to find out) . And indeed, that’s the clue: the comedy works because the funny bits are clearly of our own world, and that the real bits are clearly marked as real. Children encountering Phibius Whiffius may not instantly get the joke, but they will smell a literary rat, may ask a parent, or look things up. And they may have a discussion with parents or teachers or other children about Pompeii, what happened there, and be moved to find out more.

But having said that, Jim’s nostrils may quiver at the smells of time, and it is of course appropriate to reflect on the scale of the tragedy that Pompeii suffered, and to think with empathy about the difficulties of other parts of the world. But there is also space to reflect on how Romans (and others) lived: eating, drinking, making and smelling perfume. And sometimes, there’s simply the pure pleasure of laughter, the best medicine for all sorts of situations, past and present: lightening the heaviness, both of history and of the present.

Elizabeth Hale

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