Jan 23 2018

Professor Helen Graham was recently awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for her project entitled; Franco’s Prisons, 1936-1976. We caught up with Helen to understand what the award means to her, and her recent publication that she is currently finalising.

1.   Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your role within the History Department?

I’m one of a cluster of modern Europeanists here at Royal Holloway – between us we cover all the main points of the continental geography – in fact you recently interviewed my Russianist colleague Daniel Beer about his prize-winning book on the Tsarist gulag.  In jobbing terms, we are all pretty much comparative Europeanists in our teaching and thinking. We all do the usual mix of teaching, student recruitment, admin and research. I now suddenly realise I’m the longest serving among us – which also means I’ve done most of the workaday departmental admin and teaching functions over my career here, both undergraduate and postgraduate-related.  Currently I have responsibility for overseeing our Postgraduate taught courses.  

2.   Congratulations on receiving a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for your project entitled; Franco’s Prisons, 1936-1976.What does this award mean to you?

Well, first and foremost it means the gift of time. The MRF award frees up a solid block of  it,  without which it’s hard to do sustained fieldwork or to have the energy and (again sustained) time to write it up and disseminate it in such a way that it can also reach an audience beyond fellow professionals. The subject may sound specialist, but it’s an attempt to do something quite big, to look at what the changes to Spain’s prison system can tell us about how a forty-year long dictatorship (i.e. Franco’s) saw itself as a kindred spirit to Nazism, and somehow managed the transition out of totalitarianism through a massive industrial revolution in the 1960’s. But many political ghosts of dictatorship remain ‘in the machine’ in Spain today. The country’s present political conflicts have been much in the news of late, and a collateral effect is certain difficulties around archival access. They aren’t insuperable ones, at least not yet, and I’ll relish the challenge. But it also does sometimes feel a bit peculiar, like I’ve fallen through a rift in time. 

 3.   Can you tell us a bit more about your latest publication and the motivation behind writing it?

I’m currently finishing a book which has been a long time in the making. It’s an interwoven set of biographies about five people of different European nationalities/origins who survived the political maelstrom of the 1930’s and 1940’s in Spain and across Europe– and who ended up strewn across the world, dealing with new battles thrown up both by the Cold War, but also by the traumas of the past which were both political and personal/psychological.  It’s often said that no one comes home from war, because those who do are already radically different people. So this is a book about all that – and because it’s also a book about political progressives, it does, I hope, also have things to offer a particular cohort of present- day readers, who may not initially be interested in the historical specifics, but yes in seeing what that different experience of living on the brink, or of living through dark times, might be able to offer them by way of strategies and a route map in the present. So as well as a history book, it’s also being written as a kind of ‘message in a bottle’.

 4.   What are your main research interests?

See above! In some ways what I’m interested in has followed an intellectual route out from the internationalised war of 1936-9 in Spain, which was then the heart of the coming continental conflagration across Europe (and then of course across the world in WW2). I’m currently interested in how Spain, apparently ‘peripheral’ to Europe remains in certain ways at the heart of its political unfinished business. This not least because of the paradox of how the Cold War West tolerated forty years of a Francoist dictatorship built on mass murder and which mirrored, and in some cases exceeded, Eastern bloc regimes in its sustained use of state violence and coercion as instruments of rule.   

5.   What does an average working week look like to you?

Well, as any colleague working in the UK university sector in these challenging times would say, ‘it’s very long and it’s getting longer’ - as we seek to manage the ever expanding new demands put on us in the teaching, student recruitment and administrative spheres. But let’s hope that will make us all more inventive in finding ways to defend and create the time for the knowledge-making at the heart of what we do, and without which there can be no research-led teaching to attract students, and then the whole basis of what a university is would start to founder.

6.   Do you have any interesting hobbies or interests?

In view of the previous answer I’m tempted to say ‘sleeping’, but let’s be optimistic, other answers are still (just about!) possible.  Like all of us I have a range of ordinary, but crucially restorative, pursuits – swimming, walking, film/cinema, recreational food!  But I’d have also to say that given the nature of the research for the book of interwoven biographies I refer to above, that means that a lot of my ‘free’ time has been taken up over the past several years in the private-detective-esque, laterally investigative historical research that such a book has demanded, across three continents. But at least I also got to travel widely.

7.   Who inspires you inside of the organisation? Who inspires you outside of the organisation?

Well, in professional terms, and on both counts I’d have to say I’m inspired by historians who try to think outside the box, as I have myself, although it’ll be for others to say how far I’ve succeeded there.  In terms of Royal Holloway History, my life here has been immeasurably improved over the years by having such an amazing range of diverse, creative and idiosyncratic colleagues, as well as some excellent and humane Heads of Department, most especially, the, recently Emeritus, Justin Champion, a leading historian of political ideas, a pioneer of Public History and recent, celebrated President of the Historical Association.  Justin remains an inspiration to me, as to so many of us. I feel immensely privileged to have worked with him.

8.   You may have seen our latest recruitment campaign, ‘Find your why’. We are interested to find out what Royal Holloway has helped you to discover about yourself…

Well, I’d say that life at Royal Holloway has been a constant learning curve – and for the most part positively. It keeps me on my toes, and challenged, again mostly in a good way.   What has kept me here, apart from the History Department’s environment, is, I suppose a loyalty to the University of London. Structurally and institutionally that is very much changed now. But I come from a cohort of historians which has felt a strong commitment to the University of London as an educational model, and which, in terms of its community of historians, once hosted what was the biggest single concentration on the planet.