The Lambton Worm and First Australians: Tom Murray at the IAS

Aug 2, 2020 | Fellows, Projects, Transformations (Issue 1)

Written by Tom Murray

Tom Murray and Balang Tom E. Lewis

In late 2017, the Michaelmas Term, I was an IAS Fellow at Durham University. I was working on a project about the famous Lambton Worm that once haunted the townships of the River Wear in County Durham. It was a frightening beast that reared its head during some of the most dangerous and unsettling periods for the collective North-East: Saxon raids, Viking assaults, the crusades, industrialisation. Essentially then, my project was about narratives of conflict and turmoil where the human fear of ‘others’ begins to haunt our collective and individual psyche: a story as old as our earliest days. In 2017, then, as the UK approached peak BREXIT-paralysis, a narrative concerning a great reptilian figure of tremendous fear-inducing destructive capacity seemed particularly apt. 

An illustration of the Lambton Worm featured in J Jacob’s More English Fairly Tales (Supplied: NY:C.P Putnam, 1894, Wikimedia Commons)

I am not sure why or where my interest in narratives of ‘otherness’ first sprung. Perhaps it is as mundane a story as growing up in Australia with migrant parents, and the banal knowledge that you don’t yet belong. Nor am I sure where my interest in Australian Aboriginal culture derived, except to say that we learned almost nothing about it at school. Perhaps these facts are related, but in any case I have spent more than two decades trying to understand what Aboriginal culture can teach non-Aboriginal Australia about living in a country they have occupied for more than 60,000 years. I have also spent the same amount of time pondering why and how our national histories and debates have elided the violent truth of colonial occupation of the Australian continent. Even now, culture-warriors remain at the media-trigger, ready to decry as un-patriotic the recent Aboriginal calls for ‘truth-telling about our history’. And, despite vast evidence of violence during colonial settlement – a period now known as the ‘Frontier Wars’ – there is still a toxic debate in Australia about the nature of this colonisation and its impact on Aboriginal Nations. No doubt this is a sign of our national infancy, and of the historical nearness of these events. The Lambton Worm had probably been raging for a few millennia before British colonisation of Australia in 1788, a mere 232 years ago.

Douglas Grant in The Skin of Others, played by Balang Tom E. Lewis

The film The Skin of Others was an attempt to explore some of this tangled social, cultural, and political territory. A review in the Guardian called it “part essay, part detective story, part historical and cultural treatise”, which seems appropriately interdisciplinary. As I discussed in various lectures at the IAS in 2017, I wanted to look at how historical narratives both obscure and explain the assumptions and power dynamics that animate them. To give these lectures in Durham, with scholars from South Africa, Sweden, France, Germany, Italy and the US joining those from the UK, facilitated an illuminating international perspective to my own questions. It was additionally helpful that a number of us were looking broadly at language, power, narratives, and some of the urgent issues of today: environmental degradation and climate change, and understanding the impacts of race, class, gender and colonisation on diverse societies. 

The convivial surroundings of Durham castle seemed an appropriate environment in which to question the nature of power and the palpable global necessity for environmental and social change. Discussions with other IAS Fellows and Directors, and with College Masters and cohorts, were always valuable and enlightening – and several long-term exchanges, collaborations and publications have sprung from these conversations. Most recently I have published in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Research (at the suggestion of IAS Fellow, Dennis Beach, from the University of Gothenburg) a chapter derived from a presentation that I gave to Durham’s Centre for Visual Arts and Culture. In this published chapter, and implicit in my screen productions, is the idea that non-written scholarship (such as films, audio productions, and other creative arts productions) can offer new ways of exploring questions that scholars have long been pursuing. 

I certainly hope that The Skin of Others adds to the work of other researchers currently delivering knowledge in forms other than writing in discursive text. In my own case I would like to posit that The Skin of Others employs multisensory, emotional, embodied, and locomotive forms of knowledge through its use of performance and re-enactment-based approaches to history, and through animations and song. The aim, ultimately, is to foster new understandings of the past, and to extend knowledge concerned with experience of the present. This is not new, and aligns with what the anthropologists Anna Grimshaw & Amanda Ravetz (2005) have called ‘phenomenologically inflected’ and ‘sensuous scholarship’. Yet despite the use of film-making in fieldwork since Alfred Court Haddon’s expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands (1888-1899), Ryuzo Torii in China, Korea and Taiwan (1895-1911), and Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s pioneering use of photography in Bali in the 1930s, there is still a great deal of scholarly innovation yet to come as researchers begin to apply new audio-visual and performance-based methods of data-gathering, and deliver their findings in forms that access previously latent knowledge about the subject of their enquiry.

In my next project (COVID-willing) I hope to work on another little-known Australian history that demonstrates that Indigenous Australia was in a dynamic trading and cultural connection to SE Asia in pre-colonial times. It is also a project about intercultural and international agreement making and fair trade, both subjects in need of further investigation at a time of rising global nationalism and unilateralism. It would be great to present this new project to the Durham IAS community at some point!

Film synopsis

The Skin of Others is a story of race in modern Australia. It is told through two extraordinary lives: Aboriginal WW1 soldier Douglas Grant (c.1885-1951) and renowned Indigenous actor Balang Tom E. Lewis (1958 -2018). Featuring Lewis in his final performance (as Douglas Grant), and with guest appearances from Max Cullen and Archie Roach, this film movingly interweaves the lives of Grant and Lewis. It is the story of Australia, its violent past and its future potential. Not least it is the story of two heroic individuals who challenged and sought a more reconciled and inclusive future for all.

Watch the trailer below:


See The Skin of Others in competition here.

Tom Murray’s IAS web page.


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