Autumn leaves on the line make me late to meet Katy Pettit, who's agreed to take a break from her doctoral research at the British Library for our interview. Replying to my texted apology, she says: "No problem. I shall use the time to assume an air of intellectual gravitas."
Gravitas isn't the first thing that comes to mind. With her tumbling blonde locks and unmistakeable East End accent, Katy, 36, is nobody's stereotypical academic. And yet her achievement is remarkable - a personal triumph of intelligence, hard work, determination and personal organisation which has seen her through from leaving school at 16 with one O-level to a full-time three-year research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Her MA in cultural studies, awarded with distinction this summer by the University of East London (UEL), was achieved - like all her part-time study so far - while working full-time. Her dissertation - "Women and the slippery definition of working class respectability in East London, 1870-1910" - achieved a mark of 90 per cent, the highest ever awarded on the university's MA programme.
It's hard to imagine that the teachers at her east London comprehensive would have foreseen it. "It was a good school," she says, "but I wasn't interested in being an intellectual." Her kind of curiosity, always challenging received views, was unstimulated by what she calls "parrot fashion" learning: "get lots of information other people have written about, churn it all up and churn it out again."
After three years in catering, where she learnt to be a chef "but didn't earn enough or love it enough to stay in it", she did a series of office jobs but decided, at 24, that she wanted to return to study. "Working in local government, I met a lot of graduates and realised they were just people like anybody else. They've learnt how to think, how to put an argument together, but they weren't more intelligent than me or any of the other filing clerks."
With a lot of chutzpah and some economy with the truth - she now admits to having claimed five O-levels on her application - Katy got herself accepted as an undergraduate at UEL and acquired a BA in cultural studies. She believes she wouldn't be able to do this now: "It was the last year in which they were awarding grants. I couldn't have faced all the debt that students now have to," she says.
Hoping that a degree would get her a better job, but finding that it didn't, she returned to office work as a secretary and then as a PA, but continued with part-time study, learning to make shoes at Cordwainers' College and learning Italian. "But I started to wonder if I could do more. I met people with MAs and thought, 'If they can do it, I can.'"
Looking for a project that "would last a couple of years and keep me out of the shops" (it didn't) she persuaded UEL to admit her to its taught MA in cultural studies. Her success in completing that, she says, is partly down to understanding bosses who allowed her some flexibility in working hours and to supportive friends, but mostly to habits and determination learnt years earlier in the catering trade.
"I had to be my own little Gordon Ramsay," she says. "If you've got a restaurant full of people, you can't say, 'I've got a bit of a headache, I don't think I can feed you tonight.' You just do it."
Her UEL supervisor, Professor Mica Nava, described her MA dissertation as "an outstanding piece of work", which no doubt helped her to get the AHRC grant. This allows her the luxury of being a full-time student again, researching the daily life of east London in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.
Katy's doctoral research aims to expand on the popular view of East End history, largely dictated by contemporary accounts of social philan-thropists and journalists who had a voyeur's fascination with the area. It will delve into the lives of "respectable" working-class Londoners - and their deaths, as much of her source material is from local firms, including undertakers.
"Just don't make me out to be Eliza Doolittle," is her parting shot. "Mind you, Professor Higgins. That I do like - without the sex change, obviously."Reuse content