Megan Baynes, Jessica Frank-Keyes and Caitlin Doherty spoke to UEA’s 2016 honorary graduates
Ali Smith is appalled. Wearing the navy and peach robes of a UEA honorary Literature graduate, she’s frowning at me from underneath her tasselled cap. My mistake? Asking her thoughts on the University’s plans to increase tuition fees by £250 a year.
The dark-haired, diminutive Scottish author studied at the University of Aberdeen, before beginning a PhD at Cambridge, and describes her university years as “the days in which I was lucky enough to pass through education, regardless of money.”
“I’m longing for those days to come back because education and money are not bedfellows. They do not meet on equal terms and education is nothing to do with money.”
Her advice to the UEA graduates of today with literary aspirations is equally pithy. “Keep going,” she says: “nobody else will write your book except you.” Short and succinct. Smith famously loathes being interviewed, and it’s clearly a question she’s been asked and answered many times before.
In addition to her multiple award wins, Smith recently received an honorary doctorate from Goldsmiths University: excellent preparation for today’s (equally star-studded, I’m sure) ceremony. But cap, gown and interviews aside, she’s clearly most excited to speak to the graduates, describing them as a “sea of potential that passes before your eyes as you sit up on the stage.”
“It’s so exciting to see them, and to feel every single person’s achievement and to know that they did it against the odds. It’s really moving, actually.”
Being back at UEA is also a “delight.” Smith has a long relationship with the university, beginning with her first junior creative writing fellowship, and more recently from her time as a visiting UNESCO City of Literature professor and she remembers her time here fondly, as “a place of complete generosity.”
“I’ve always loved the ethos that means that the writing that comes out of UEA does so well. I’m honoured. It’s like having an old pal wrap an arm around my shoulder!”
We finish up by discussing Brexit – which she describes as a “dip-cycle” in the country’s energy, and I have time to squeeze in one last question. Is she working on anything at the moment?
Smith’s eyes sparkle. “It’s nearly finished and, no, I’m not telling you!” she says gleefully. “Another novel, yes.” Something to look forward to, as UEA’s press office chase me away. Ali has a ceremony to get to. JFK
Esther Mujawayo, born in Rwanda in 1958, is a world-known expert in the field of refugee trauma-therapy and received an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law. She first came to UEA in 1996 after she escaped the Rwandan Genocide. She lost many of her relatives in the 1994 conflict, which resulted in over a million lives lost.
She said that UEA helped her find peace after the events of the Genocide. She said, “What happened in Rwanda, it was really something that will break all of your beliefs. I saw total destruction. It was just killing, killing, killing.”
After moving to Norwich she explained how she struggled to trust people, after the Genocide saw friends, relatives and neighbours turn on each other. She said, “You have to see who is killing, who is the killer, who is doing this. It is people you would never believe could do that; they are your neighbours, they are normal people. They are teachers, they are priests, they are women.
“But there are also those who are not killing you, but they abandon you, so have you face that. I didn’t trust anymore. I didn’t trust anybody.”
After gaining a Graduate Diploma in Psychology, Esther returned to Rwanda to work with widows. She has gone on to author several books in addition to founding the Association of Widows of the Rwandan Genocide. She was also a speaker at the Geneva summit for Human Rights and Democracy. She has since worked with refugees in Germany.
For her though, UEA will always be a special place. She said, “Here, it was really great, it was a luxury to have this year where I could really have peace, and work with such a nice group. We are still in touch today. I was able to regain trust, trust in human beings. And be a human being again myself”. MB
Debra Hayward can lay claim to an impressive number of blockbuster movies. Prior to launching her own production company, she worked as head of film at Working Title Films UK, and was creatively responsible for a number of feature hits, including About a Body, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually.
In 2011 Hayward became an independent producer, producing the Oscar award-winning musical Les Miserables. She then partnered with Alison Own (who produced Suffragette) to form Monumental Pictures. The pair have been friends since they worked together on Elizabeth in 2007.
She said her decision to leave Working Title came at the same she decided to move to Norfolk: “At that point, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew that I needed a break from running that creative side of that company”.
“At the time, I made the decision to produce Les Miserables as an independent producer. I did that, I moved to Norfolk and I began this big second chapter which I hadn’t quite expected, and so I am much busier than I anticipated.”
Most recently, she has just finished producing Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third in the multi-award winning franchise. The film has been widely lauded as an example of a successful follow-up to a franchise, and as a cinema goer, I can confirm that it’s hilarious, warm and moving, despite the notable lack of an appearance from Hugh Grant. Debra is currently shooting a new TV series, Harlots, about two rival brothels in Georgian London. She expects to shortly begin work on Will, a programme about the lost years of young William Shakespeare.
She remains remarkably humble about her success as she offered her advice to the class of 2016. She said, “In some ways, I am not a fantastic example of a distinguished or a remarkable education, and yet I think that education is incredibly important”.
“I knew what I wanted to do from a young age, so just do something that you love and that makes you happy (and that affords you a nice lifestyle!). But do something that makes you happy, because you’re going to have to do it for a long time. Work hard and do something that you loveî. MB
While UEA’s reputation for creative writing draws candidates for the Masters and PhD programs from far and wide, it’s not every day that a bona fide Game of Thrones actor moves behind the camera and dons a graduation cap ñ a real one, amidst a sea of celebrity honorees. Roger Ashton-Griffiths plays Mace Tyrell on the hit show, and graduated with a PhD in in Creative Writing, after studying part-time since 2010.
He spoke of his career as a series of ongoing creative processes. “It’s just that business of waking up every morning and being a professional creative, as opposed to just hanging around and waiting for your agent to call”, he quipped, adding that he “carried on acting throughout this entire process (of postgraduate study) and I always wrote before I even began. They’ve both been a part of my life forever”.
“It’s like a muscle, creativity, and you need to keep it in good order”. He can’t be too out of shape ñ as his debut novel has already been snapped up by a London agency. He tells us two things drew him to UEA for his degree: the reputation of the university, in addition to his conveniently nearby house. His advice to fellow students considering postgraduate study is charmingly vague, saying: “I read a great quote, can’t remember who said it! A writer is someone who finds it more difficult to write than other people”. He pauses to urge us to google it. (Thomas Mann, if you were wondering.)
His career has seen him on film and TV sets since the 1980s, after leaving Lancaster University. He’s by far best known for his role on Thrones, though, and we can’t pass up the chance to ask him about his equally illustrious costars. Any favourites? “Professionally or in the bar afterwards?! Peter Dinklage is an extraordinary man; it’s been a great privilege working with him. Ian Gelder has become a good friend of mine. There’s very few that are not pleasant and I’m not going to name them”. He won’t be drawn out further and insists that he’ll be very happy to get back to writing and woodwork after the summer, despite a TV series in the pipeline with “Tom – can’t quite recall the name. A hunky star? “Hiddleston?” I prompt. “No, no.” Hardy? “Yes, yes!”
Finally, did he have to pull any all-nighters to get his PhD finished? “Oh good heavens no! I don’t know how many you’d have to do but it would probably kill you”. And on that note, we leave Mace Tyrell to enjoy his champagne. JFK
I’m quite nervous about meeting Professor Abraham Peck. An eminent academic, the son of two Holocaust survivors and an expert on genocide studies and refugee affairs, I’m expecting a serious, if not stern and severe, individual.
However, I’m pleasantly surprised to be introduced to a man with the most beaming smile I think I’ve ever encountered. Accompanied by his wife Jean, Peck is here to receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters, but it’s not his first visit to UEA. He studied for his Masters in Philosophy here in 1977 before going on to work as advisor to Elie Wiesel, the human rights activist and founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It’s an amazing career for a man born in a displaced persons camp in post-war Germany and I ask him, as the director of Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies at the University of Maine, amongst other things, how he would say these disciplines have evolved in the years since the end of the Second World War? He tells me that, initially, “scholars who were pioneers in the field were also very much products of the event itself, either as refugees or as survivors of the Holocaust. And I think their traumatised vision of what they understood to be genocide was very much focused on the Holocaust, there wasn’t any room for other genocides”.
The topic is an intensely personal one for him, and he quickly brings our conversation around to his parents, saying with urgency: “I must tell you, my father, both my parents were survivors, my father was a prisoner in Buchenwald, the same place that Elie Wiesel was a prisoner”.
“He would tell me about prisoners wearing a pink triangle (he gestures to his left hand shoulder) a purple triangle, a green triangle, in a sense saying ‘I don’t know what these mean.’ He knew what his yellow star meant”.
“I knew from very early on that this event that we call the Holocaust or The War against the Jews, was also a much bigger and broader event: namely, a war against human values. Seeing gay men, seeing Jehovah’s Witnesses, seeing Polish prisoners, all of that, and of course the disabled who didn’t even live to get to the camps because there were the euthanasia programs.”
His voice trails away, but that beaming smile doesn’t fade. You get the sense that Peck is someone full of joy at being alive.
You get the sense that Peck is someone full of joy at being alive. He’s emphatic about the problem of statelessness as one of the biggest human rights issues in today’s migratory world, saying: “I don’t see anybody who has to live in a refugee camp, who has to live under those conditions to be any less deserving of the opportunities that I had, when at the age of three-and-a-half, three and a half years in this displaced person’s camp, my parents and I were able to come to a safe country”.
Finally, his advice for UEA graduates suggests a wealth of life experience in an often unforgiving world.
“Don’t look at the world as a just place. Understand it as an unjust place because that’s the only way you’ll be able to move forward and change what you need to change.”
Born in 1979 and one of the first UEA graduates of the new millennium, Wayne Barnes ñ barrister and Rugby Union referee ñ became one of the sport’s most respected officials after graduation: after becoming a professional referee in 2005, Barnes has since officiated games in the English Premier League, the Six Nations Championships and on the global stage during the Rugby World Cup.
After the (inter)national mayhem that has consumed the previous four months, it’s easy to forget that summer 2016 was predicted by many to be a phenomenal summer of sport. The European football championships, the Olympics and the Paralympics alongside the usual cricket, tennis, Formula One and football fixtures meant that many were looking forward to a summer of big screens and Union Jacks.
However, following extensive doping allegations surrounding the Russian Olympic and Paralympic teams and incidents of violence across France during the European football championships, I asked Barnes if he was sceptical towards the integrity of international sport.
‘Of course there are concerns at the moment, but that doesn’t stop people wanting to play sport: to play rugby, to play football, to play all of those fantastic sports.”
“We’re all going to be sitting engrossed with the Olympics, it’s going to be very exciting. I was sitting watching the [Rugby] World Cup last year as excited as a fan! I think that we all get, sport brings us together.”
“It’s brought me together with my wife, it’s brought me together with some of my best friends, and I think that’s what we should remember about what sport does. Of course there are concerns at the moment, but strip it back to what sport actually does and I think that’s really, really essential.”
“Sport for me isn’t about the world class, The European Championships and the Olympics, it’s about the friends that you meet.”
Nonetheless, my sporting questions couldn’t distract him from the enormity of the day and a nostalgia for his UEA days.
“When you leave UEA, you leave with some fantastic memories; I left 16 years ago now and I didn’t ever envisage that I would be coming back to get an honorary doctorate. When you’re sitting there as a graduate, you look up on stage thinking ‘who is that old man talking’, and now it’s my turn to be the old man, I suppose. I’m really privileged.” CD