I grew up in Stockport and was the first in my family to go to university. I studied English and Related Literature at the University of York, which afforded me the opportunity to study linguistics and languages as well. I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards, and had a pretty tough time at university, not least because my father died in the first week of my second year. (As hard has it was, it’s helped me gain perspective when helping others.) I decided to carry on studying and moved to the University of Birmingham to undertake an MA in Editing and Textual Transmission. This I loved and I managed to get a post assisting the Managing Editor of Parliamentary Brief. I think this may have been the moment when I realised I was really interested in politics, and how political narratives are formed.
Like most graduates who still don’t quite know what they want to do, I tended bar for some time afterwards, waitressed, had a spell of being really rather poorly, but then was persuaded that a PhD would be a good idea (yes, it was a discussion down the pub). So I applied to York, my alma mater, and was accepted.
Now grappling with volatile health, I nonetheless completed a PhD in Book History: I researched the foundation of the printing industry in London, and focused in on the first English ‘spin doctor’, a man who helped the English government manipulate public opinion via printed text. (The printer’s name was John Day, and he was active during the reigns of the Tudors.)
I was fortunate to receive some good advice and support from an established academic (thank you, Prof. John Guy!) who suggested I apply for a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. This proved successful, and took me to the University of Cambridge to start my career. Having spent so many years tending bar, I still sat at High Table thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ Imposter syndrome has never really left me…
Brunel University and Harvard University: research and outreach tackling hate speech and promoting social cohesion
After my time at Cambridge, I moved on to teach at Brunel University. This is the point where my commitment both to the students and the area really took hold, in terms of my community outreach work with students. I was at Brunel for 10 years and loved every minute of my teaching in the English Department. I’m proud to say I remain in touch with so many of my students, and it’s wonderful to see them move on and become active and honourable citizens.
And that was always my mission in teaching in Uxbridge: to create modules that provide students with transferrable skills they can utilise for the greater good, whilst helping them believe in themselves. (I am so grateful to Dr Sid Bradley for taking me under his wing as a rather broken undergraduate at York, and I’ve always tried to repay that kindness.) I taught courses on Shakespeare, which enabled us to collaborate with the Education team at Shakespeare’s Globe, and courses about the history of Christo-Islamic relations, which revealed that it has not always been antagonistic – far from it: there have always been individuals and groups prepared to counter hate speech and advocate for better understanding of different communities, and promoting a cosmopolitan outlook. And there has always been a press prepared to manipulate public thought… Sadly, some things never change. (I’ve published extensively on these topics.)
It was during my time with Brunel that I applied to the European Commission for funding via the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. To my amazement, they accepted my project (entitled Conflict, Coalition and the Press in Early Modern Europe), and this enabled me to take the fellowship to Harvard University for two years, with a returning year back at Brunel. This was where I began to understand more intimately the benefits of membership of the European Union. Not just because it benefited me personally but because the European Commission actively encouraged my work on social cohesion and inter-faith relations in the present day, as part of the project. Their framework for promoting active citizenship and social cohesion is superb, and an ongoing, impressive, process.
I’ve since moved on from Brunel but remain committed to supporting the local community, in all its wonderful diversity. I am now an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and the Director of a media watchdog, but much of my heart remains in my constituency. I have the skills and connections to call out those who promote hate speech and what we all now call ‘fake news’, and I’m never afraid to do so.
Brexit has torn communities and families apart. I stand with the Liberal Democrats in demanding a People’s Vote and an #ExitfromBrexit. Boris Johnson has fuelled the flames of racism and xenophobia, and I will not stand by and do nothing. In my next post, I’ll take his rhetoric to task…
EU Science & InnovationPublished on 30 Jan 2017