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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Disco et Doceo–Classical Wisdom in the Australian Classroom

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Classical Languages Teachers Association conference in Sydney.  Its guiding words were ‘Disco et Doceo: Classical Wisdom K012 and Beyond.’  (For non-Australian readers, K-12 means from kindergarten to year 12, or throughout the years of primary and secondary school).

There, I spoke about the Our Mythical Childhood project to a dynamic and dedicated (and very well-dressed) group of classics teachers from around Australia, and beyond.  The CLTA is the leading body of school classics educators, and there were well over 60 teachers in attendance, including representatives from most States of Australia, and visitors from New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Eureka!  An introduction to Classical Greek for young Australians

Dr Emily Matters, who heads the Association, organised the conference, and put together a program of presentations about aspects of classics, and aspects of classics teaching. Emily is the brains behind the Eureka! Greek textbook, which may be unique in the world in uniting the study of Ancient Greek with the mythology and customs of Indigenous Australians.

Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag
Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag

ACARA, Pro Archia, and Rhetorical Flair

Dr Tracey McAllister from ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, shared the story of the development of the Australian Classical Languages Curriculum.  While its initial focus was on Classical Greek and Latin, significantly, it was set as a framework to assist the development of other Classical Languages–perhaps a world first in any educational authority.  Tracey is a convert to the cause of Classical Languages and stated that she believes all students would benefit from the study.

Other speakers included A/Prof Kathryn Welch (University of Sydney), fresh off a plane from Italy,  who talked about the background to Pro Archia, and Dr Alexander Bril (Sydney Grammar School), who took us through our rhetorical paces and shed light on some important Ciceronian dates.  And Dr Anne Rogerson, (University of Sydney) spoke about the Aeneid’s Book I, inspiring me to think more about the ways that classical narrative patterns map onto aspects of children’s literature storytelling. Do stories lead us homewards, or Romewards?  It depends, in children’s and classical literature alike.

Classicum–Contributions Welcome

Anne Rogerson is the incoming editor of Classicum, the journal of the CLTA and the Classical Association of New South Wales. She writes:

We welcome articles of various lengths on Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history, philosophy, archaeology and their reception, as well as essays on the teaching of Classical languages or other topics relating to ancient Greece and Rome, and reflective pieces from practitioners on performances and other artistic productions that present or respond to Classical material. We also publish review essays on books, exhibitions, performances and other art that relate explicitly or implicitly to the ancient world. Our aim is to make the Classical past and our modern engagements with it accessible to a broad audience while also publishing work of use and interest to scholars and teachers of the Classical world.

To read Classicum, or to be in touch with Anne, check out the link, here.

Classical Swag

Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey's pottery reconstructions
Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey’s pottery reconstructions

Those of us who received conference bags were lucky enough to take home one of Dorothy Healey’s wonderful recreations of Ancient Greek pottery, as well as other less ‘authentic’ goodies, including a gingerbread Roman Legionary duck (made by the Central Coast’s best bakery. ) And Anthony Gibbins of Legonium fame (and Sydney Grammar School) kindly donated a hard copy of his Latin lessons, and ‘Jessica,’ one of the minifigures who stars in the series.

Legionary Duck at Conference Dinner . . .
Disco et Ducky-o: Legionary Gingerbread at Conference Dinner . . .

 

Classical Inspirations

I went home, clutching my swag, but more importantly inspired, and educated, by the creativity and dedication of the teachers I met and heard from.  It may not yet be compulsory for students to study classics or classical languages in Australian high schools, but judging by the energy in the room, that day may well be on the way.  It was a privilege to be involved in this gathering of the people who introduce such wonderful material to the next generation of classical scholars.

–Liz Hale

 

 

 

 

Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.

 

Myths on the Move–Our Mythical Animation . . .

 

Our Mythical Childhood went to Greenwich University in June, to the Children and Youth on the Move conference, hosted by the Children’s History Society.  The theme was movement, and so we talked about the ways that animators mobilise classical myth in their work for children.

Sonya Nevin showed how she and Steve Simons move myth in their Panoply animations of Greek vases.  We were privileged to see their animation of the Sappho Vase for the National Museum of Poland.

Anna Mik showed us how Walt Disney played with mermaid myths in the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon, King Neptune.  You can read her Our Mythical Childhood survey entry on King Neptune here.

Hanna Paulouskaya showed us how Soviet animators such as Aleksandra Shezhko-Blotskaya used classical myth to move around the land as part of a national narrative.

And I talked about how the Australian animation, The Deepmoves myth underwater, using classical myths to appeal to an international audience.

Questions and discussion took us around the world, showing once again how myth functions both locally and universally, and to what ends  We talked about the rights of the mermaid, about what a siren really looks like, and what they really get up to.  We talked about how myth is put to use, encouraging Soviet schoolchildren to travel, for instance, or connecting Australian viewers to a wider world of mystery and story.  Sonya showed us how children move myth to their own ends, through the activities she and Steve give them–making their own shields and vases, for instance, and incorporating them in their own stories and mythology.  

The conference in general was emotionally moving, looking at how children move (or are forced to move) around the world, and also about how children’s culture moves through social changes, and how children move culture on, transforming and reshaping adult ideas for new generations.   Putting animation and mythology into these contexts, it is clear that mythology moves as culture moves, offering useful ways to frame children’s experiences and the way that reception is framed in its turn.

— Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness and Classicists

View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw
View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw

This is a photo from my visit to Warsaw for the Present Meets the Past workshop of the OurMythicalChildhood project. It is taken from inside the Life is Cool café, during an experimental afternoon in which two of my colleagues, Susan Deacy and Edoardo Pecchini, talked about their work using classical mythology in relation to mental health and different abilities. We were all piled somewhat on top of one another, in a venue far different from the usual formality of a conference room, and as I listened, I watched the attentive faces of the audience, which comprised some of the Life is Cool community, as well as students and academics from around the world.

I was tucked away by the window, and occasionally looked out, over the pretty flowers on the sill, into a very rainy Warsaw afternoon, to watch (and photograph) the red-and-yellow trams pass in front of the orange apartment building.

Warsaw buildings are colourful: in shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, and more. But not obtrusively so: you don’t notice them at first, and they creep up on you later. Every day there is something more to like about this lovely city.

You can’t see the people of the cafe in this picture, but it encapsulates for me the warmth and comradeship that the project embodies. I think of it as Classics with Kindness: using knowledge of classical matters to do good in the world. Susan and Edoardo’s work is the most tangible aspect of that approach (see Susan’s blog post on her workshop) , but I think the work of the whole project is infused with kindness, and it’s an important theme within the subject of classical reception in children’s culture more generally.

Over an extraordinarily stimulating week, we heard talks about

  • what happens when children start to recognise classical signifiers in their books, and where it can take them (Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer);
  • how to classify the types of reception represented, and what to do with them next (Markus Janka, Raimund Fichtel);
  • how to mix things up and experiment (yours truly, with help from Tina Matthews and Sally Zwartz);
  • how to gather information about the good work done by classical educators the world over (Lisa Maurice, Ayelet Peer);
  • how to think about myth as a living force in diverse cultures (Daniel Nkemleke, Eleanor Dasi, Divine Che Neba);
  • how to think about, recover, and honour the lives of classicists in Communist countries (Jerzy Axer, David Movrin, Elzbieta Olechowska)
  • how to organise one’s thoughts about reception in productive ways (Helen Slaney);
  • how to move myths through animation, and to create your own ancient vase (Sonya Nevin & Steve Simons);
  • how to dance like an ancient Greek—or as a bird, a tree, a river, a wolf (Helen Slaney);
  • how to use myth to work with autistic children (Susan Deacy);
  • how to promote mental health through classics (Edoardo Pecchini);
  • how to think about museum guides for children (Katerina Volioti);
  • how to think about crossover texts for children and adults (Karoline Thaidigsmann);
  • how writers research classical material carefully in order to write well for child readers (Valentina Garulli);
  • the part mythical creatures play in early children’s literature (Sonja Schreiner);
  • how contemporary writers treat animals in fantasy literature (Anna Mik);
  • how Soviet animators drew on a wealth of classical material in their work for young people (Hanna Paulouskaya);
  • how space and time meet in particular ways in the relation of the present, the past, and children’s literature (Jan Kieniewicz);
  • how Siberian nationalism is represented in the resurrection of the myth of the Cold Bull at the end of winter (Kunnej Takaahaj);
  • the transmission of Buddhist ideas in Mongolic literature, through the genre surgaal and folk knowledge (Ayur Zhanaev).

I don’t want to give short shrift to the students who also presented excellent work, so I’ll write another post shortly. Suffice it to say that in their presentations, a similarly wide range of material and ideas was covered.

The themes of care (in both senses of caring, and of carefulness), of kindness, of contribution, hard work, thoughtfulness, and insight were powerfully present in these talks and workshops. And nowhere was it more evident than in the oversight of OurMythicalChildhood’s extraordinary leader, Katarzyna Marciniak. In one discussion I compared her and her colleagues to a shepherd and sheepdogs, leading, and tending to a flock of sheep—rounding us up, making sure we ate, moving us towards our destinations, but always, always caring: about the team and the individuals, about the conversation, about the vision. Sometimes sheep, like academics, pull in different directions, go astray, wander off, get a little lost, but with guides like Katarzyna, never for long; I know that we are all eager to return to Warsaw next year to look at History.

Kindness is not always a dominant value in academia, where the pressures can be significant, and the competition fierce.  I’m heartened by events like The Present Meets the Past, and by endeavours like The Sportula, which facilitates microgrants for classics students in need, and by being part of the community of kind and supportive scholarship that OurMythicalChildhood represents.  So I conclude this post with thanks to Katarzyna, to her team (Hanna Paulouskaya, Elzbieta Olechowska, Karolina Kulpa, Anna Mik, Agnieska Maciejweska), and to the Faculty of Artes Liberales which provides such a wonderful nurturing ground for the project.  The Polish for ‘thank you very much’ is Dziękuję bardzo, and so this Antipodean on her Odyssey, says Dziękuję bardzo!

–Elizabeth Hale