Visiting Academic Interview – Martin Thomas

Our Surgeries have been greatly enriched by our occasional academic visitors. Those that I have had the opportunity to meet have been fascinating people, and yet few of us get the chance to chat to them much. So it occurred to Katy and I that it would be a good idea to interview them for this blog while they’re here. We have developed ten questions and our first volunteer is Martin Thomas from Australian National University – many thanks Martin!

Surgeons and readers may remember that in May, Martin, with Béatrice Bijon, shared Etched in Bone, their documentary film, a work in progress, with us; you can read more about that here.

So, on to our first interview, which I’m sure you’ll find very engaging.

  1. What was your thesis about, and why did you choose the subject?

My PhD was about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. They’re called ‘mountains’ but they are in fact an extensive labyrinth of sandstone plateaus, now classified as World Heritage by Unesco for their ecological significance. From the time of early European settlement, the Blue Mountains acquired a mythological status: as a barrier to colonial expansion; as a place of escape for convicts; and later as a retreat and pleasure ground for the growing metropolis of Sydney. My thesis, titled The Artificial Horizon, involved an in-depth reading of the cultural landscape and the myths concerning it. In particular, I was interested in how Aboriginal presence was acknowledged or denied in the ways settler society had responded imaginatively to this environment.

In terms of choice of topic, it’s one of those cases where the topic chose me. I’d holidayed in the Blue Mountains as a child; rock climbed and hiked there as a teenager. As my interest in cultural history developed, it seemed an obvious subject to explore. I began working on this in the 1990s, a time when ideas about place, landscape, and cultural geography were being debated in very interesting ways. So my desire to understand a landscape from my childhood seemed to connect with wider conversations.


  1. Can you remember the most important ‘comfort’ when working on your thesis? (e.g. chocolate, cake, sport, wine, films, walking…)

The epigraph for my thesis comes from Nietzsche: ‘Only ideas won by walking have any value!’ So yes, getting outside was utterly essential. When I’d half-written my thesis, I moved to the Blue Mountains (and to my surprise ended up staying there almost twenty years). Close to the house there were tracks through the forest that became favoured circuits. The birdsong and smell of the bush were important antidotes to the monotony of writing. And they flavoured the text in ways that are subtle but I think important.


  1. When did you realise or imagine that you might develop an academic career?

It was never an ambition. Initially I wanted to be an independent writer, but that’s especially difficult in Australia where even the finest authors find it almost impossible to live from the pen alone. After finishing my PhD, I published The Artificial Horizon as a book and this opened post-doctoral opportunities. I won some grant money from the Australian Research Council and the Australian National University ended up offering me a tenured position. I found that I really enjoyed the teaching. It’s a way of giving something back. You could say I’m an accidental academic.


  1. What’s the biggest barrier, hurdle or difficulty that you have overcome in your academic career so far?

In recent years my historical research has led me to become more closely involved with several Aboriginal communities in the far north of Australia. I work collaboratively, sharing the results of my archival investigations, especially historic film and sound recordings that were made in the region. I interview older people about their historical experiences. Ethically, this is important. It brings voices that would not otherwise be heard to the historical narrative and it provides a whole new perspective on the data found in books and archives. In the process, I’ve made a foray into filmmaking, with a documentary in production about the theft of human remains by an Australian-American expedition from one of the communities where I work. It’s been very exciting, and it’s allowed a deeper level of political engagement. But it takes me well outside my comfort zone.

Cultural difference is always the great hurdle, and I don’t claim to have ‘overcome’ it. Has anyone?! It’s a subject which is endlessly theorised, but much of the theory becomes utterly nonsensical when you experience it personally and make it part of your research practice. I’ve spent a lot of time in those communities and made some great friends. I’ve also had to deal with the very confronting social reality of those places, with their rampant substance addiction and poverty on an almost third-world scale. There is the challenge of witnessing this injustice and the misery that accompanies it. That brings the challenge of bearing witness to what I’ve seen, which I’m grappling with in writing projects at the moment.

  1. Have you had any particularly happy surprises in your career?

I have had some book awards, which made me happy indeed! The main one is the National Biography Award of Australia, which I received for The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews, a book about an early Australian anthropologist. Books are greedy beasts: voracious consumers of blood, sweat and tears. Recognition is wonderful when it happens. I’ve also had some charming, appreciative letters from readers. They are always delightful surprises – like prizes in miniature!

  1. What advice would you give to a primary school pupil asking about an academic career?

Read! Read! Read!

  1. What is your current research focus, and why is it important to you?

I’m presently part of a team studying the history of magic lantern entertainments. For those who don’t know, the magic lantern is an earlier version of the slide projector. I became involved because I’m fascinated by photography and the performances around it. Also, the subject dovetails with my longstanding interest in expeditions and exploration. While based at Royal Holloway, I have been looking at the work of Herbert Ponting, the official photographer on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. It’s intriguing that not only did Ponting create extraordinary photos in the most challenging conditions, but that he took a magic lantern and provided entertainment for his colleagues during the long winter months when they were confined to barracks. The internal culture of expeditions is something that fascinates me. It’s a theme I explored at length in Expedition into Empire (2015) and a new co-edited volume, Expeditionary Anthropology (Berghahn Books, in press), which I’ve been seeing through production while in London.

  1. Do you see any significant moments or trends for the future of the academy?

Digitisation is having huge impact on history and the humanities more generally. This is exciting, and already it is beginning to re-define the notion of what it means to be a scholar. I hope it will open the door to greater creativity in academia, especially in the way we communicate and publish.

The most depressing trend is the corporatisation of higher education. When will the captains of universities learn that education is a process not a ‘product’? I was a beneficiary of free tertiary education in Australia in the 1980s. I am deeply thankful for it, and I greatly resent the debts being incurred by the students I teach today. That Jeremy Corbyn is calling for this to be rectified gives cause for hope. Fantastic to see the support he has rallied for this position.

  1. If you had to choose three ‘Desert Island Discs’ what would they be?
  1. A disc with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 on one side and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 on the other.
  2. Little Girl Blue by Nina Simone.
  3. As Day Follows Night by Sarah Blasko.
  1. Who has been the most inspirational figure in your academic career?

The Australian ethno-historian Greg Dening was a great inspiration and he ended up examining my PhD, writing a short but favourable report. His book Mr Bligh’s Bad Language is a must-read in my view, and one that has greatly influenced my thinking about expeditions. For the first time in my life, I wrote him a fan letter about the book. I’m sure I was not the only one, but I like to think it came as a ‘happy surprise’ nonetheless. I received a reply which said: ‘Writing is like dropping a stone down a deep well. It’s a long time until you hear the noise at the bottom.’

Martin was interviewed by Huw Rowlands

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