Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

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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

Seemingly Silly Books about a Serious Subject: Protecting the Past with Cairo Jim

In May this year, the Our Mythical Childhood project will host its second major conference: Our Mythical History.

I’ve signed up to talk about some exuberantly silly books about a very serious subject (history). I’m starting with the classical adventures in the Cairo Jim series of archaeological comedies by Australian author, Geoffrey McSkimming. I’ve ordered a pile of them through interlibrary loan, and am getting increasingly cheery emails from the wonderful librarians of UNE’s Dixson Library, as they let me know a new one has arrived. I’ve ordered all the ones with classical titles, and am only sorry that I didn’t have time to visit Sydney this summer to see Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten on stage.

There are currently 19 Cairo Jim novels, each one action packed, full of silly jokes and slapstick, and a lot of fun.

They feature the eponymous Cairo Jim, ‘that well-known archaeologist and little-known poet,’ a dreamy type who lives in the fictional ‘Valley of the Hairdressers’ in Cairo, and whose mission in life is to ‘protect the past.’ He travels the world with his helpers, Doris the Macaw and Brenda the Wondercamel, helping fight the nefarious Dr Neptune Flannelbottom Bones, a no-good scoundrel who is continually trying to get hold of powerful ancient artefacts, in company with his wicked raven helper, Desdemona. There are puns galore, secret societies, and amazing settings, reminding me of the interest I felt in seeing the scenery of other archeological adventures, such as the Indiana Jones or Mummy series.

I only know about Cairo Jim because of a recommendation a couple of years ago from the son of a colleague. I’m enjoying reading them, finding in them the occasional wonderful chuckle or vivid scene that makes me remember that jewels of literary insight are to be found in all sorts of curious places.

I’m currently reading  Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis. It’s set in Turkey, among the underground cities of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, Kaymakli. I write these names as if I know all about them, but in fact I don’t, I’ve heard the odd snippet, but really I’m wonderfully ignorant, and so reading this book takes me travelling with Jim, Brenda, and Doris, to a fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

It also takes us travelling to the past. The past, in the Cairo Jim novels, is in need of protection. From the predations of Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, and also from the neglect of the present. And as the villains and heroes enter the past, through important archaeological sites, they find the magic of ancient gods and rulers still alive, though often buried, covered in dust, hidden, or scattered to the winds. In this book, it’s the petticoats of Artemis that have the power, magic garments that, if united with the ‘belt of bountaeity,’ can cause mayhem and destruction, especially if they fall into Neptune Bone’s greedy hands. Even though they have been carefully hidden by a priest named Caius Vibius Salutaris, and protected by the green-fanged Belligerent Serpent of Antiocheia, the adventurers chase one another, drawn by the lure of the past, the desire for knowledge, and (in Bone’s case, greed). I won’t tell you how it ends. You can probably guess. The action comes thick and fast, and involves underground tunnels, rolling stone discs, lightning bolts, and the realisation that the magic of the mythical past is still alive, and not for mortals to handle.

There are a great many Cairo Jim novels, and McSkimming has written many other over-the-top adventures, including the Jocelyn Osgood, and Phyllis Wong series, and his book of poetry, Ogre in a Toga (which should win a prize for the title alone). McSkimming has a flair for the ridiculous, and for a turn of phrase, and it’s possible to read the books in one hilarious gulp.

Froth is not always enough, though, and I’ve been thinking about this as I work on my paper for Warsaw. What’s the difference between laughing at something serious and reflecting solemnly upon it? What’s the point? I’ll try to get there in time for my presentation.

One hint for me is in the depiction of Cairo Jim’s sidekick, the reflective and telepathic ‘wonder-camel,’ Brenda. Brenda is prone to snorting her thoughts, and exclaiming ‘quaooo,’ and at first, reading too quickly for plot, I missed how delightful a character she is. But all of a sudden, the pace slowed (or I did), and here she is at twilight while her companions chat around a campfire, quietly searching through the rubble of Aphrodisias, using her super-sensitive nose to seek for clues.

 
What I am looking for, Brenda thought deeply, is a single Latin letter.  That was the alphabet in which Caius Vibius Salutaris would have written his message, because that was the language used in Ephesus in Roman times. 
 
She didn’t know what that letter would be . . .  maybe a D or a V or a C.  Maybe not even one of those.  But she knew that once she found a single letter of the type used in the ancient Roman script, then she would probably find other letters.  Maybe they would be right next to the first letter she would find, or maybe, if the slab containing the first letter had smashed, the other letters would be on nearby fragments of marle in the grass.  If that was the case, then Jim and Doris and she would have an ancient jigsaw puzzle to piece together. 
 
As her sensitive nostrils moved across the marble, she concentrated—as hard as she had concentrated on anything before—and in her mind she began to see the curves and straight lines that made up the letters of the Latin alphabet. 
 
Carefully, with her unique Wonder Camel precision of mind, muscle and minutiae, she transferred the images in her head to the muscles of her nostrils.  (Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, 130-131)

You don’t need me to tell you that she is successful, finding first a cool smooth slab of marble, then identifying a D, then a G, then a full inscription (in English !?), exhorting the reader to ‘Dig Beneath.’

It’s a lovely scene–a moment of needed rest in the midst of a busy plot. And what I like so much about it is the way that McSkimming captures the joy of working with material from the past: the puzzling, the shifting things about, the trying things from different angles, the patiences, the ‘precision of mind, muscle, and minutiae.’ There’s a quietness to that work, even when urgent plotlines clamour all around.

Moments of seriousness like this offer a counterbalance to the excitement, showing the research side of archaeological adventuring, the knowledge and skill (and sensitive nostrils) to find and solve the clues. They slow the reader down, and encourage them to think a little before getting caught up in the next stage of the adventure, helping with context and exposition, and giving clues to the humanity of the past–the leaver of the clue, the carver of the marble.

As part of their mission to protect the past, Brenda, Jim and Doris are part of a society of scholars. When they are on the trail of a mysterious artefact, it is for the sake of knowledge and beauty and understanding, good things to keep in mind for readers young and old. So perhaps one way into thinking about seemingly silly or frothy books is to look for moments where the narrative digs beneath the surface, pauses for reflection, before taking a breath and the action, fun, and excitement begin again.

—Elizabeth Hale

**Three of the Cairo Jim novels have been reviewed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey: Cairo Jim and the Chaos from CreteCairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheusand Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods.