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Interview: Dr Katherine Cooper

Sometimes you don't win the lottery, but that doesn't mean you can't follow your dream of completing your PhD. Dr. Katherine Cooper of Newcastle University and the second of the AHRC's New Generation Thinkers to be interviewed delves into why she identifies with Storm Jameson and the thrill of discovering untold stories.


Katherine's research focuses on war, nation and Europe in the literature of the first half of the twentieth century. She is currently working on a project exploring the ways in which British writers including H.G.Wells, Graham Greene and Margaret Storm Jameson helped in the escape of fellow writers facing prosecution and imprisonment under fascist governments in the period between WW1 and WW2.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the role that British writers played in helping fellow writers escape from countries in mainland Europe under the grip of fascist regimes. Can you explain more about how and where your interest in this area of research developed?

KC: This latest project came directly out of my Ph.D. research on the British novelist and political campaigner Margaret Storm Jameson. I was at the University of Texas doing research on Jameson and her work with refugees when I came upon a letter written in 1939 from a leading Cambridge philologist to the PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists Club) Refugee Fund, which Jameson set up. In it he responds to an enquiry about a Czech translator by a saying that, in saving him from the Nazis, the Club would be ‘doing a service to letters’. This set me thinking. I felt that this was deeply problematic, to imply that someone might be “worth” saving from Nazi persecution and even death, based on their value or potential as a writer. It really aroused my curiosity and started me thinking about the value attributed to the writers who PEN and other organisations helped, the motivation of those doing the saving and the implications for how we might understand these outwardly humanitarian acts. I’ve found out since that numerous British writers were involved in helping refugee writers because, in many cases, they thought that in some way they were saving a shared European literary tradition and I’m starting to tie their activities and motivations together for my new book.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

KC: I can vividly remember being out for a drink with a friend when I was working as a newspaper reporter. She asked me what I would do if I won the lottery and almost immediately I responded that I would do my Ph.D., as I’d had a project in mind since I finished my degree. My friend pointed out that you could get funding to do your Ph.D. and after that I could not stop thinking about it.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

KC: I am just starting to write my next book on British writers and how and why they helped refugees. For me, this is a seriously exciting time as I start to weave together all of the narratives that I’ve found and all of the ideas that I’ve had and to realise that there really is a story to be told here. It’s all coming together rather well. I’ve even found out about a literary magazine for refugee writers which was started in London in 1941!

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your deep interest in literature and Europe between the First and Second World War?

KC: The obvious answer is one of Storm Jameson’s books, which were the first that I’d read that dealt with the idea of Europe during this period and which did so in a very explicit way. Europe to Let (1940) shows Jameson laying out her vision of the problems with Europe during the 1930s and her hopes that war might solve these by allowing the continent to start afresh. Another book which I’ve gone back to time and again has been Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (2009) which looks at discourses of decay and deterioration in British culture between the wars.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

KC: I think that it’s still Storm Jameson. I had to do a presentation on her work as an undergraduate and I really identified with her socialism and her sense of herself as a European but also as a Yorkshire woman. At the time, I was myself a Geordie in the South of England (at Sussex University) and I think her sense of herself as a Northerner really appealed to me at a time when I was probably feeling a bit homesick.

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

KC: I would say do it! It’s certainly something I feel very lucky to be able to do, especially as I enjoy both aspects of the job– teaching and research. There’s nothing better than finding previously untold stories, except perhaps sharing them with your students! I would caution that academia is very competitive and that you need to make sure that you are passionate about some element of the job in order to keep you going in what can be a volatile and unforgiving job market. I’m thrilled if I can just sit in a room with my books for a few hours and that has often got me through when other things haven’t been going so well.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

KC: I think that is what is so interesting about the research I’m doing now: Looking at ideas of Europe, culture and Britishness all help me to reflect on more contemporary issues. I think that there is an incredible amount we can learn from the way that Britain has historically perceived itself as a nation, the impact of regionalism on this perception and the ways in which our relationships to Europe and to other countries have changed and grown. Hopefully this can underpin how we choose to move forward now.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

KC: I have to be very predictable I’m afraid and say the 1930s/1940s! I would go to one of the PEN Dinners at Paganini’s on Great Portland Street. I hope I’d run into Jameson herself but I’d probably be too shy to speak to her. I’d love to talk to guests like E.M. Forster, Rebecca West (always a hoot apparently), Czechoslovakian minister-in-exile Jan Masaryk and perhaps, if I’m lucky, J.B. Priestley might make one of his rare appearances – he hated PEN dinners apparently! I’d certainly enjoy their French-inspired meals - I’ve seen the receipts and it sounds delicious.

AH: Do you have any top tips about early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

KC: I think that setting up an online presence can really help ECRs to get into radio and TV. I know that the first radio show I ever did was because a researcher had found my blog. It’s really a case of putting yourself and your research out there in a way that is accessible and easy to find.

AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

KC: I never have a problem with finding my voice! I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life when I haven’t been widely acknowledged as a chatterbox. Being on the radio brings different challenges for me in that respect: I get nervous which can make me talk more and in a very disjointed way, so I have to really check myself to stay calm and not get too excited! I also have to remember not to sit too close to the microphone, otherwise I deafen the producer and anyone else who is listening.

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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