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Austen, Handel and Hendrix

This is a transcript of episode 18 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Monica Ali, Rachel Prothero, Clare McDonnell,  Mary Guyatt and Claire Davies as we continue our journey through the history of music and literature in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Hello, I'm Emma Barnett and you're listening to 'Irreplaceable - A History of England in 100 places'. In this series we're uncovering the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today. Ten expert judges are choosing from thousands of your nominations to find the 100 places which best tell England's story. We've gone from science and discovery through to travel and tourism to homes and gardens and sport and leisure to land in our music and literature category where we are now.

A little favour before we start. If you have the time we would love you to leave a review, of course a five star one, for the show on iTunes, [laugh] so more people can hear about it.

You're hearing a bit of laughter there already, that's a good sign. Here with me in the studio is the author Monica Ali as well as Historic England's Rachel Prothero and my fellow BBC broadcaster Clare McDonnell. Thank you very much for joining me.

Today, we're going to uncover the fourth and fifth locations on Monica Ali's top 10, who is our lead judge in this category, selected from all of your nominations which you have been generous to give. Monica, as location number four you have chosen the Hampshire home of Jane Austen. It seems silly to ask why though as she's one of England's most loved writers?

Monica Ali:
Well I am a huge fan of Jane Austen. And she is one of England's most enduringly popular authors. There's legions of Jane-ites all around the globe in fact. But I still think that she's under rated. She's one of literature's …

Emma Barnett:
Really?

Monica Ali:
… yeah, I do.

Emma Barnett:
Why?

Monica Ali:
Well she's one of literature's great innovators. And I don't think that that's fully understood. For example, she is the inventor of a style that we call 'the free indirect style' which is very commonly, widely adopted by novelists today. And when I'm teaching -I teach creative writing at a university- I find myself very often turning to Austen as an example to use with the students.

Emma Barnett:
I mean, in terms of this place then, why is it so special? I mean we were talking about this in the previous podcast a little. To see where somebody worked and lived.

Monica Ali:
Yeah, I mean one of the questions that you get if you go to a literary festival, if you do a reading, people always ask you: where do you work? Do you work at home? Do you work at your desk? What do you write with, you know a pen …?

Emma Barnett:
A quill?

Monica Ali:
… or a quill or [laughter] a laptop? And I always tend to think, well why do you wanna know, who cares?

Emma Barnett:
Yes.

Monica Ali:
But then you go along to one of these great literary houses, and you get a little tingle down your spine as you see the place where one of your favourite authors sat and wrote.  And then you start to understand why people might be a little interested in that, yeah.

Emma Barnett:
And where do you write?

Monica Ali:
I write at my desk in my studio. I'm not one of those writers that thrives on writing in noise and confusion. Some writers love being in a café … I need to sort of just be in my little bubble at home.

Emma Barnett:
Be silent and …

Monica Ali:
Yeah.

Emma Barnett:
… be in your own space?

Monica Ali:
Yeah.

Emma Barnett:
Because, you're one of those people though, who just … you know, you're able to bring places beautifully to life. So, you're doing that in a silent place, all from your mind?  One of your books, obviously, 'Brick Lane', it's very evocative. With all those colours and sights and sounds. And you know, Jane Austen obviously had the world around her that she had. But is it difficult to do that when you're doing it from a silent desk?

Monica Ali:
No. It's not, because the world is inside your head. So, you know the location is very key for a novelist. Settings are very important. The location not only gives you something from which to draw characters and sustenance to feed the characters, but the place actually becomes a character in and of its own right. So, the place has to come alive as well. And all that work that you're doing when you're out in the world, you're absorbing, you're listening, you're looking and then I personally need to go away and synthesise and imagine and reimagine and create my world again for myself at my desk.

Emma Barnett:
Well let's talk about Jane Austen's England. I mean, we're talking about a time she lived from 1775 to 1817. The way of life was pretty different, wasn't it Rachel, if I bring you in at this point?

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, England was in the industrial revolution at the time, so the economy and the way of life was just completely different. No railways and the country community lived in time with the agricultural seasons. So, they'd do their trade in market times.

You do get the sense from her writing of the closed society and everything being very small and her dealing with the society around her.

Emma Barnett:
And it's interesting - a lot of people, when they think of Jane Austen, they think of Bath, they don't necessarily think of Hampshire, because there's obviously a big dedication to her in that city. But she wasn't that happy there. She spent most of her life in Hampshire, isn't that right Rachel?

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, she was quite unhappy in Bath. In fact, she accepted a marriage proposal when she was in Bath but she withdrew it the following morning. But we don't know how she felt about this because there are so few letters that survive.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah, there's this great quote though. She said: 'anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection'. That was later in a letter to her niece with some very sound advice. And she was very close to her sister, Cassandra, who also never married.  The sisters stayed very close. And after Jane's death Cassandra referred to her as the 'sun of my life'.

She was actually living in relative poverty compared to her brother who did very well, didn't he? Clare McDonnell?

Clare McDonnell:
He did do very well. And you know, I have visited the house and it is incredible. I mean, it's a tiny little [writing] desk. The story I was told when I was there is, you know when someone…she knew somebody was outside because of a creaky floorboard and she would hide what she was writing. And that may have been that she just wanted that, you know, privacy because clearly, she did get a lot of support from her family. But you know, back in the day, her brother inherited the vast estate whereas she, her mother and her sisters lived a quite modest, if happy, life in the cottage.

So, it was a contrast in lifestyles. Maybe she was acutely aware of the dependency she, her mother and her sister had upon Edward's good fortune which is probably key to the very strong female characters in many of the novels- in Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.

Emma Barnett:
We'll hear more about that in a moment, but first let's hear from Mary Guyatt, Curator of the house which is now a fantastic museum. It sits in the little village of Chawton on the edge of the South Downs National Park near Winchester and attracts over 30,000 visitors each year, who come to pay homage to this literary great.

Mary Guyatt:
Welcome, I'm Mary Guyatt. I am curator here at Jane Austen's House Museum, in Chawton, Hampshire. The house was the home of Jane Austen for the last eight years of her life. It was here in this house that her career flourished, and her novels came to be known by the public.

Her richest brother Edward Knight, through a curious adoption process, he had been made the heir of a distant relative. One of his estates was here in Chawton. And in 1809, a house on the estate became vacant and it's this house. He offered it to his mother and his sisters to live in rent free.

This was in fact, the entrance to the house in Jane's day. Coming off the street, we're looking out over a very quiet, very pretty Hampshire village. In Jane's day, it would have been quite a busy thoroughfare because this was the main route to Winchester with coaches racing past.

We are standing in the dining room which contains the tiny, iconic writing table that Jane wrote at. She wrote on very small pieces of paper and the legend is that she did that so she could hide them from view [laughs]. I think you can very much see the parallels between the life that Jane knew and had been living. With the contrast between her brother Edward's enormous wealth and well, her own household's quite meagre existence. They weren't poor: by the standards of the day they weren't poor but they certainly had to watch their pennies in a way that her brother wouldn't and would have forgotten about, I think.

She was a very keen walker as was Cassandra. And if they did need to get somewhere quickly then their main form of transportation was a donkey carriage. That's in our collection. It's one of the first things that visitors see when they arrive here.

Well we've now come upstairs to the bedroom which Jane and Cassandra would have shared. It's often this room- the writing desk and Jane's bedroom, where people are most struck by their closeness to Jane's legacy and to where they might reflect on the meaning of her work in their own lives. And we do have visitors coming from all around the world. For me this is really the heart of that story.

Emma Barnett:
Just to reflect for a moment, Monica- it's very different nowadays I suppose, but her writing as a woman at that time…it was a different game, wasn't it?

Monica Ali:
Yeah, I mean her first novel was just published under the … it was by "a lady". And that was completely typical at the time. She did have a supportive family as Claire was saying. But also, you have to remember that she was, after her father died, she and her mother and her sisters, they were impoverished. Gentile sort of poverty. Jane had to do a lot of the household work. So, she would always be doing needlework or sewing or looking after her brother's children. There was an awful lot of tasks that she had to take on, and yet, in that period at Chawton which was what, six-seven years, eight years, she produced a phenomenal amount of literature as well as taking on all those domestic chores. Absolutely amazing.

Emma Barnett:
And her books were fashionable. You know, even the Prince Regent was said to enjoy them. And she did see Emma and a new edition of Mansfield Park published in her lifetime.

Well let's move to our next location. It's time to explore some of our musical heritage.

Our fifth location has both classical and contemporary music credentials. Brook Street in London's Mayfair makes the list because it's been home to two hugely influential artists. Neither of them were English by birth. Let's just find out a bit more.  Monica tell us?

Monica Ali:
So, the great baroque era composer George Frideric Handel lived and worked at number 25 Brook Street for 36 years. And next door at number 23 was where Jimi Hendrix, dubbed the greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, he lived there nearly 200 years later. So, that's quite a pair.

Emma Barnett:
I mean they had been neighbours at the same time, [laughter] that would be something wouldn't it, Clare? Can you imagine the sound battles between them?

Clare McDonnell:
One would have drowned the other out, that's absolutely for certain. I mean the parallel between the two of them is incredible. I don't know whether that was just a complete coincidence that they ended up there. Was it, that he just ended up next door to where Handel's …?

Rachel Prothero:
I guess it was a fashionable part of London. It was then and it … well it was then in the 60s as well.

Emma Barnett:
There is now a museum on the site where you can explore these two hugely important and culturally diverse contributions, not just you know in our country, but to the whole of the world music scene. The two Georgian buildings sit next door to one another in a very affluent part of London. Number 25 is Handel House where four of his rooms have been restored so you can see where he worked, ate, slept and held recitals from 1723 until his death in 1759. And then next door is this Hendrix flat on the upper floor of number 23, where Jimi Hendrix lived for a very short period actually, July 1968 to March '69 and that's where he gave press and media interviews. Clare, that's where you and I would have been hanging around to try …

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah, clearly.

Emma Barnett:
… and get our scoops.

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah.

Emma Barnett:
He hung out with his friends and he wrote.

We visited Handel and Hendrix- the trust which promotes the musical heritage of these beautiful Georgian buildings.

Claire Davies:
Hello, my name is Claire Davies and I am the Head of Learning and a Curator at Handel and Hendrix in London. When people visit Hendrix's bedroom, it is quite wonderful, it's quite magical. What we mainly get is Hendrix fans who are just so excited to be in a room that Hendrix called home. And it can get extreme. We've had people kiss the walls before [laughter]. We've had people sit cross-legged and just sort of meditate in the space. And we've had some lovely events of an evening, where we sort of allow people to come in and jam and sort of take a guitar and sit and sing along together. Those are the really special moments because you can see that everyone's really connecting musically through Jimi Hendrix which is exactly what he was doing when he had guests over. And so, there's the wonderful sort of circle of activity I guess in this room.

Whilst Jimi was touring Kathy sort of set about making the home really but when he came back, when Jimi came back, the two of them went over to John Lewis on Oxford Street and they bought things like these beautiful turquoise and blue velvet curtains. Then you know, went to a few flea markets and apparently Jimi was obsessed with a few Persian rugs. I say a few because there are about seven different rugs in this very small space.  There's a lot of texture, there are a lot of colours and they are really pooled from lots of different types of shops.  So, yeah, quite an eclectic mix.

When Kathy Etchingham arrived here from Australia a month before we opened to the public in 2016, I think it was really emotional for her. How many of us have ever had a home that we used to live in recreated for the public? We had assumed that Hendrix as a rock star probably wouldn't have really minded so much about having a messy unmade bed. And the first thing she said was, "oh my goodness, you need to make that bed", because he was, you know he was in the military- he was very, very clean and tidy.  He wanted everything to be very precise.

We are currently stood in Handel's bedroom on sort of the other side of Jimi Hendrix's building so it's 25 Brook Street. Handel's career really took off when he moved here in 1723. And I do wonder at the sort of psychology behind that because Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, etc. were some of his you know, most successful works in his lifetime and they were written in the first few years of him living here. Handel appeared to use his front room on the ground floor to sell tickets and to sell sheet music. He had an amanuensis that would sit down there and provide that.

Over 250 pieces of work were written here and the sort of jewels of  the crown are Messiah, Music for the Royal fireworks and I mean, several operas, several oratorios. It really is the bulk of his work that was written from this very house.

I think historic houses in general are really important to humans because it is access to the private lives of a figure from the past- somebody that's made an important impact which has brought us to where we are now. And I think you're contextualising why baroque music was the way that it was and why Handel was able to be so influential. And it's the same with Hendrix's flat. You know, he was in a confined space but he filled it with colour, he filled it with life and that's exactly what he was doing to the music scene at the time.

Emma Barnett:
In terms of, you know, people going there and trying to imagine this, my favourite fact that I've just actually learnt about Jimi Hendrix is that apparently he liked Coronation Street, which is just brilliant and made me feel very happy indeed…and playing with his Scalextrics. I mean [laughter], what more do you need?

Monica Ali:
Yeah.
[laughter]

Clare McDonnell:
He was just like the rest of us really!

Rachel Prothero:
I love the fact as well that when they moved in they went to John Lewis to get their home furnishings. It's just like anybody else would do, wouldn't they…? [laughs]

Emma Barnett:
…Yes!

Rachel Prothero:
…When we move somewhere new.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah, exactly.

I mean he was living there with a British woman.

Monica Ali:
Yeah, he met Kathy Etchingham on his first night in London in 1966. She was a DJ and hairdresser.

Emma Barnett:
She was actually very well connected to the bands at the time. And you know, giving him, kind of an insight into the Kinks and whoever else was near a stone's throw from Carnaby Street, where they were. You sort of get this sense of them mixing with people and everyone coming together. She is actually quoted as saying "it was a time when music was evolving and there was a camaraderie between musicians, everyone knew everyone else".

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah, I mean, and it was the place to be. And interesting that there were so many American musicians in the UK then. Sadly, he met an untimely end in the UK as did Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas, at a flat not too far from there as well. But it was the place to be and everybody used to hang out around everybody else's flat. Which you know, when you think about it now, would just must have been so incredibly exciting.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah, and Kathy was very important. She was the inspiration for songs like Foxy Lady, the Wind Cries Mary, which he wrote after she hit him with a frying pan while they were living in Ringo Starr's basement [laughter].

Clare McDonnell:
She leased the flat. And in January 1969 he calls it, "this is my first real home of my own".

Emma Barnett:
Which is quite sweet.

Clare McDonnell:
Which is really sweet! And it was really basic. I mean, you look at Jimi Hendrix now and you could go anywhere in the world, you know Berlin, Moscow, New York, LA and be walking down the road and see his image kind of graffitied on to a wall. You know he had a very short life, but he had such a massive impact on popular music, on rock music. And while he was living in this very modest flat, his career was going stellar. I mean, it really was.

Rachel Prothero:
It was yeah, he had groovy Carnaby Street, and iconic venues like The Speakeasy, the Scotch of St James, and the Marquis of course. And Hendrix brought his unique style and experimental performances which really flourished here after claiming his best music came out of informal club and studio settings. He crossed paths with the Stones, the Beatles, Clapton, Cream, you name it and Keith Richards is among the kind of cast of thousand of famous people that are said to have stumbled up and down his staircase.

Emma Barnett:
And what I also liked is, bringing this back to this pairing is, Jimi Hendrix was aware of Handel's legacy next door. He went to the One Stop record shop in South Molton Street to buy copies of the Messiah and Water Music. So, he was almost paying homage wasn't he, to what was next door Monica? You're nodding there.

I mean, it's quite a lovely thing and it's a lovely thought. If we were to go back to Handel's time though, Mayfair being a lovely spot even as far back as 1723, if we just talk about the history there. I mean, his father had come from a fairly humble background outside the posh German arts music scene but he rose to become an eminent barber and surgeon. Interesting that Handel was viewed as a rebel by his own father because he came and did music and that was not necessarily what he had wanted for his son.

But Brook Street was where Handel could settle. It was unusual for composers to be of fixed abode at this time and he stayed here until the end of his life when he went blind.

And we've got a very strong legacy, don't we, in this country now and a link to Handel because of that Rachel?

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, I think it's not just because he was here for such a long time, but because he really democratised music. He made sure it appealed to as wide a spectrum of people as possible really.
[music]

Emma Barnett:
Two musicians in one location and one of England's literary greats. We will leave it there today and be back next time with more irreplaceable music and literature stories.

You can of course join the conversation. Please do so by using the hashtag, #100places to tell us what exciting destinations you think, tell us England's musical or literary story. And please do share this programme with your friends.

Thank you very much to Monica, Rachel and Clare. You will hear from us all next time.

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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