On Tuesday 19th June I attended a ‘Show and Tell’ event at Roehampton University, held in association with the Our Mythical Childhood project. A group of interested parties (academics, graduate students, librarians) gathered in the Foyles Special Collections Room in the rather lovely Roehampton Library that opened last September (2017). We had all been invited to bring along a classical-themed object of children’s culture to share with the others. I’ll blogged about my own object separately, (a book called The Trojan Horse) so will focus on what everyone else brought to the table.
First up was a remote contributor, Rachel Bryant Davies of the University of Durham who had been unable to make the day in person; she presented to us, via the wonders of modern technology (skype). Her objects were colouring sheets for 19th century toy theatres – sheets that were designed to be coloured in, cut out and stuck on to cardboard or mounted and then used in the toy theatre. The characters were representations of equestrian burlesques that were performed at Astley’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth. These included the siege of Troy, and the trick rider Andrew Ducrow striking classical poses on horseback, such as a Roman gladiator. Children could engage with performances by recreating them at home. Discussion at the table involved the idea that the mash-up of cultures (classical, medieval, 19th century) enabled the physicality of play. By ‘modernising’ classical stories, they became less blasphemous and more playful. Although the theatres were probably owned by middle to upper class children, there are comments about poorer children pressing their faces to the publishers/booksellers windows to look at these theatres/character sheets – ‘consuming through the glass windows’. To find out more about these theatres see Rachel’s recent book – Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: the drama of classical ruins in the 19th century imagination (Cambridge, 2018).
After this excellent start to proceedings, Susan Deacy, University of Roehampton (and organiser of the day) talked about Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, originally published in 1958. She was given a copy of this book by her Grandad when she was a child, and it opened her eyes to the fascinating world of classics. Susan’s example was just the first of several, where contributors shared their early introductions to the classical world, and which book or object had a major impact on their early years. Susan also shared her treble recorder which, when she was reunited with it a few years ago, she found was labelled ‘Aulos’ and thus resonated with her research on Athena (and indeed the aulos). Although this was not a conscious ‘classical’ moment from her childhood, it resonated as a lovely synchonicity.
Liz Hale, University of New England (Australia) shared Once Upon a Time: Children’s Stories From the Classics by Blanche Winder (first published in the 1920s we think), which had some wonderful illustrations – although another contributor (Robin) commented that her Mum had hid the book in the attic as she thought some of the illustrations were really scary! Winder tells the basic myths very much as fairy tales, these were very ‘safe’ and sanitised versions of the stories.
Robin Diver, PhD Student at the University of Birmingham, brought A Visitors’ Guide to Ancient Rome (Usborne). Aimed at children it gives ideas about the reality of living in an ancient city, from markets to healthcare, chariot racing to public baths; with pictures, top tips and snippets of information. Robin admitted to writing ‘horrible’ novels about the ancient world when she was a child, inspiration coming from things like the visitors’ guide, and also a programme on Spartan women by Bettany Hughes that she watched when about 9. Her stories attempted to bring Greeks and Romans together but at the time she didn’t really understand how they really interacted. A few others also admitting writing books/stories when kids that were influenced by their interest in the classical world. Liz wrote a play for puppets ‘Scipio in Canterbury’, and Anwen wrote a story involving time travel and Pompei, where the protagonist had a moral dilemma about the idea of preventing the eruption of Vesuvius!
Next up was Anna Mik, University of Warsaw, who shared a gorgous children’s picture book, Pandora by Victoria Turnbull (2017). Pandora is a fox who lives alone in a world of broken things, a post apocalyptic world without nature, until the day a bird with a broken wing falls from the sky. The text can be interpreted psychologically, looking at ideas of rebirth, or looking at the environment, which lead people to talking about the mythical character of Pandora, of her courage in going back to the jar, of being a ‘risk taker’, of the ideas about women’s curiosity, whether it is perceived as a good or bad thing. Liz mentioned a YA trilogy, Pandora Jones by Barry Jonsberg that was worth looking at.
So far, aside from Susan’s recorder, all the ‘objects’ had been books, but Oliver Brookes, Roehampton graduate and trainee librarian, changed all that by introducing Lego Athena! His thesis topic had been centred round the iconography of Athena, so he was delighted when Lego brought out a version whilst he was writing up, she was perfect to watch over him. He was fascinated by which aspects of Athena had been chosen to be represented by Lego – although they themselves call her “Battle Goddess“. Oliver commented on the interesting experience in crafting your own figure or goddess out of all the pieces. Susan brought out her own Lego Athena, and playmobil Athena, and I followed soon after with my playmobil Helen and we talked again about choices made in deciding upon what objects/costumes are used to d
esignate these figures as who they are. Whether that matters more to adults/classicists in these examples, and whether the view of a child is more simplistic.
My offering was next but I will leave that for a separate post.
I will continue my write up of the day in Part 2, where more interesting objects are shared.