Feb 2015 — Prologue
On a dark, cold evening last February I was walking my two terriers (see photo) along the beach at Emsworth in Hampshire (UK) after a hard day revising navigation skills for my upcoming day skipper sailing course, when I received an unexpected email. It was from the European Commission:
“Please log on at the Participant Portal, go to My Area > My Project(s) and click the Manage Project (MP) button to access an important request for providing additional data necessary to prepare your grant agreement.”
I wondered what this meant. I had spent most of 2014 preparing a grant application under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Framework Programme in the “Excellent Science” section, which includes the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions. These aim to “encourage transnational, intersectoral and interdisciplinary mobility. The MSCA enable research-focused organisations (universities, research centres, and companies) to host talented foreign researchers and to create strategic partnerships with leading institutions worldwide”.
I was invited to apply after I gave a paper at NESAT XXII in Hallstatt, Austria in May 2014 (see photo) with Hilary Davidson (former curator of fashion & decorative art at the Museum of London). It was about c16th knitted caps which we’d been working with on and off for the previous five years. Ninya Mikhaila and I were planning to include knitting instructions in future publications as The Tudor Tailor. My MSCA application proposed further and much more scientific study of these caps and broadened the scope beyond UK collections.
About 20 minutes later, I received another email which said:
This message was from Professor Marie-Louise Nosch, director of the Centre for Textile Research (CTR), at the University of Copenhagen, and henceforth to be known as The Fairy Godmother (TFG). I’d asked her for details about post-doctoral opportunities at CTR immediately after the Hallstatt conference and her swift reply said there was a masterclass on applying for MSCAs happening that week. Her email said “Come!! We have a spare seat!” The Lovely German (TLG) to whom I am married said he could take the dogs to my sister’s after dropping me at Gatwick the next morning before 5am. So I went — even though it was half-term and I had a pile of essays on entrepreneurship to mark for Farnborough Business School, where I was currently lecturing.
I stayed in a hotel around the corner from the central police station which features in The Bridge, the first series of which I had just watched (see photo). That was a bit weird. Something that seemed so foreign was now next door to me. This became something of a theme …
I participated in a series of workshops and field trips including a behind-the-scenes tour at the National Museum’s store in Brede (see photo). I met a current MSCA fellow, Dr Paula Hohti, who seemed to have achieved amazing things during her time at the CTR. I also met Maj Ringgaard, who is a goddess in the knitting history firmament and she agreed to be my mentor. All in all, I had a fantastic time and most of it was spent with people — from fellow applicants to seasoned specialists — who told me my proposal for scientific study of knitted caps was excellent. Key among these was EU funding expert Lotte Japers of Yellow Research who was very enthusiastic about my eligibility for an MSCA as a “career restart” academic and agreed to mentor me as I tackled the 23-page application template with which I was now uncomfortably acquainted.
So buoyed up by these encouragements, I went home and prepared to apply for a grant which could change my life. A near-full time lecturing job at a dysfunctional college, half a day a week as a volunteer at an understaffed Citizens Advice Bureau, a very cold and challenging full-time day skipper course in March, a sailing holiday in Sweden in June, my 50th birthday in July, and a hysterectomy in late August failed to prevent me from submitting my MSCA application 10 days early on 1 September. Phew! I wasn’t convinced it was worth the effort but TLG was already checking out places to live in Copenhagen. I told him not to jinx it.
But — as usual — he was right (see photo). As I drove home from Emsworth in the rain with two muddy terriers for company, I sang along to Danny Kaye, conveniently downloaded to my phone — because Copenhagen, it seems, is wonderful!