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George Orwell and The Hacienda

This is a transcript of episode 20 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Monica Ali, Rachel Prothero, Clare McDonnell and Richard Blair as we continue our journey through the history of music and literature in England.

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

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm Emma Barnett and in this series we are exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today. So, how does it work? Ten categories, ten expert judges and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places that together tell England's story. If you're enjoying this series, please don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode and if you're listening on iTunes, leave a review, a nice one, please.

So far in this series we've heard about the places that have witnessed sporting triumphs, incredible moments of innovation and scientific discovery, and we've taken a tour around some of our best homes and gardens. Today we reveal the judge for this category, Monica Ali's final two selections for our music and literature top ten. We'll also be hearing about one additional Irreplaceable location which gets a special mention from Monica for its collection of hugely important cultural archives and stories. All will be revealed.

I have the pleasure of being joined by our category judge, the author Monica Ali, as well as Historic England's Rachel Prothero and my fellow BBC broadcaster, Clare McDonnell. Welcome to all of you.

Location number nine, Monica, we are beginning in the borough of Islington, North London, where a man named Eric Arthur Blair lived with his wife and adopted son. Who's he better known as and where was he living?

Monica Ali:
Yes. So, it was George Orwell's former home in Canonbury Square and the reason I've chosen this is because his work, whether it's dissecting inequality or depicting totalitarian regimes, I think it remains as fresh and as urgent and as relevant as it ever was. Just the very fact that this renewed interest in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, since the beginning of the Trump administration proves that his prescience... I mean, it assures his place in the country's literary history and I just wish that he was around today 'cos I'd love to know what he would have made of fake news and alternative facts.

Emma Barnett:
Yes. I would have loved that as well. There's a new statute to him outside the BBC which talks about it being our duty to actually say to people the things they don't want to hear.  So, very apt indeed. Canonbury Square, where Eric Arthur Blair, as we say, better known as George Orwell, was living wasn't very glamorous, was it?

Rachel Prothero:
It wasn't, no, it was a bit decaying and a bit sorry-looking. It was a tenement building but it was actually quite inspiring for the decaying home in Nineteen Eighty Four which he actually started writing while he was living there. It had a leaky roof, it let in snow and he described it in Victory Mansions as 'the plaster flaked constantly from ceilings and walls, the pipes burst in every hard frost, the roof leaked whenever there was snow.'

Emma Barnett:
He himself, though, was incredibly productive, regardless of his surroundings, wasn't he, Clare? I mean, he was prolific in what he managed to achieve.

Clare McDonnell:
He really was, with a backdrop of personal tragedy. Because he lived at this address with his wife, Eileen, and their adopted son, Richard, and she tragically died just after he was offered a job as a war correspondent in Europe for The Observer- she died from a routine operation. So, there he was on his own with his adopted son. He threw himself into his work at this very sad time. Two months after her death his take on Stalin's Russia, Animal Farm, was published.

To make things slightly easier for him, he had a live-in housekeeper called Susan and Susan's accounts of Orwell, the character, are really fascinating. In one account she noted how upon the publication of Animal Farm he returned from the bookshop, having moved several copies out of the children's section.  This is where they'd put it!

Emma Barnett:
Oh, dear.

Clare McDonnell:
An oversight he was perhaps sensitive to after one publisher had rejected the manuscript on the grounds they did not publish animal stories.

Emma Barnett:
Not quite getting it. Although, you know, I was forced to read it in school and I think lots of it was lost on me and then I've gone back and reread it again and, as Monica was saying, his books are doing very well under the Trump era all of a sudden again.

It's fascinating to think about him as a person. I mean, he had bad health- he suffered from a lung condition. He was reported to have nightmares about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War but, of course, his actual background, it was relatively privileged. You know, he was educated at Eton, he was born in India, near the border of Nepal in 1903 but he came away from academia to join the British Imperial Police in Burma, which is just fascinating.

Clare McDonnell:
Well, it is interesting because this would then inform his reaction against that, against the British Imperial life. He became very ashamed about the oppressive standards of his parent nation and that became a major motivation for his writing. So, he resigned from the Force, moved back to the UK, lived in very poor areas of East London. He washed up dishes in Paris. Of course that became the backdrop to his book Down and Out in Paris and London. He worked on hop farms in Kent. And this was all with the aim of escaping this sort of bourgeois lifestyle he resented and, of course, you mentioned the Spanish Civil War- he went on to report on that. He ended up enlisting in the Republican militia as well, horrified with the things he saw and therefore it triggered his preoccupation with communism and the politics that infused his writing.

Emma Barnett:
And class, you know, and how people were really living- It's hugely astute. I love reading, actually, his short essays and his short stories because I've recently got my hands on them and you could be reading about parts of the UK today. I mean, it doesn't seem to age. Or you know, other parts of the world.

We were fortunate enough to hear from Richard Blair, George Orwell's son, on his memories and recollections of his time here in Canonbury Square.

Richard Blair:
Well, I don't remember a great deal, although I do remember living in Canonbury Square. It was a very dim, dull sort of place, with sort of green and cream paint on the walls, lit by a sort of regulatory 40-watt lightbulb. So, it was always very dull but I don't think it really bothered me too much. There was always a fire going on. I think I was probably very happy there. My father was an extremely hands-on father, actually, especially after my mother died in March 1945. He did everything for me until he employed a nanny. He made my food, bathed me, dressed me and so on and so forth. So, from that point of view he was a very modern father.

He had a lot of tools- he used to make little wooden toys for me. I mean, don't forget, this is the end of the War. Canonbury Square was not the smart part of London, as it is today. It was rather down at heel, obviously had suffered bomb damage here, there and everywhere and no maintenance had been donefor years. Everything had to be hauled up three flights of stairs to our flat up in 27B, including the push chair.

He retained Canonbury Square until quite late on, about 1946/47, before he relinquished the rental. This was after we had moved out and gone to Jura. So, my earliest recollection is in 27B Canonbury Square. They had adopted me prior to that, in June of 1944- I was born in May. My father was one of these funny people, that he never stayed anywhere for any great length of time prior to being married.

When my mother went into hospital in Newcastle in 1945, he was already on his way to Germany- he got as far as Paris. He was doing some war correspondence for David Astor of The Observer and, of course, he got a telegram when he was in Paris to say that Eileen had died on the operating table. She had a heart attack while having a hysterectomy up in Newcastle. After that, of course, he didn't know what to do with himself. He made arrangements for me to be looked after by various people, relations and friends, while he dashed off back to Germany. I think, really, to get over his grief, he just simply wanted to work. There is no question about it, that he missed Eileen desperately but he doesn't make an issue of it. But he would have [missed her].

I think Eileen was a very strong influence on what he wrote and I think he would read to her what he had written during the day and they would discuss it. Animal Farm was published in 1945. That gave him a little bit of financial security. All the way through the war, of course, he was writing articles and reviews- prolific output. Then he had, of course, in his mind what would turn out to be Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He suddenly decided that he's a widower with a small child -"what am I going to do next?"- and it was David Astor who suggested that perhaps he might like to go up to the West of Scotland and get away from what he described as the rather grey city of London and concentrate on his writing and take me with him, essentially really to try and start a new life without Eileen.

Emma Barnett:
That was Richard Blair speaking about his late father, George Orwell.

Monica, our tenth and final location in our music/literature category you have picked The Hacienda, of course a former nightclub/music venue in Manchester, now sadly some flats. But let's not focus on that. Did you go and what was it like?

Monica Ali:
I did go. It was the first nightclub I've ever been to and...

Emma Barnett:
It's a good place to start.

Monica Ali:
It was a good place to start! It was all downhill from there, I have to say. I went in the mid-80s and I went while I was underage. I mean, it was an incredible place. It was in Whitworth Street, in a kind of semi-derelict part of Manchester. It was sort of overlooked by rusty gas works. The inside was industrial before that came into vogue. So, it was iron girders, steel pillars, all these high galleries… They had massive projection screens playing a sort of weird mash-up of bits of bondage films and psychedelia. It was just so incredibly cool, you know. And then the next club I went to was Cinderella Rockefella's in Bolton, which was not at all the same thing!

Emma Barnett:
For you it had to be on this list because of the moment and the times that it created around music in this country? Or what was it that meant it had to be here?

Monica Ali:
Even though it has been demolished, and the bricks were apparently sold off for £5 each to raise money for charity. Even though it's gone, I think its legacy... To my mind it wasn't just about "Madchester". You'd go on different nights and they would play different kinds of music. So, sometimes they'd be playing funk, sometimes it would be new order, sometimes it would be a soul night. It was just... They'd mix it up like no other club did. It was just amazing! And that was before it turned into the heavy drug scene that it's known for and the people dying and the shootings and all of that. So, to me it's more about that incredible eclecticism, energy, the melding of all these different parts of the music culture. Anyone could go in, you know. It started off as a members' club, I think, and then they opened the doors and some nights it was empty. You know, it took a while to build it up.

Emma Barnett:
It would be a hard thing to imagine.

Monica Ali:
It's a hard thing to imagine but it was just... It has to be commemorated, yeah!

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah. So, the actual physical building maybe turned into flats now but the spirit still remains because it's still out there with the people and the memorabilia from the place. Apparently there were some bollards used on the dance floor- they were bought and made into a pathway in an allotment somewhere. And one of the urinals was bought and that's been made into a shelving unit. So, I just love the idea that these symbols of hedonism have been made into symbols of middle age pursuits now. So, I think that's quite charming and makes you think that the real spirit of the 24-hour party people still lives on.

I think young people weren't looking enviously towards London as they tend to do but they were looking north and wishing they lived in Manchester.

Emma Barnett:
The club had its heyday between '82 and '97. It was at the heart of the acid house and rave music scene and if you've seen the 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People, you might know the story of the club, although that movie was filmed in a reconstructed set.

Rachel Prothero:
So, yeah, they called it the People's Palace, didn't they? Factory Records was one of the owners with the band New Order. So, money was tight at the club but fortunately the hit Blue Monday that New Order brought out brought them huge commercial success and they used the record sale proceeds to pay for the club losses.

Clare McDonnell:
So many people play there! Madonna made her first British TV appearance there, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Oasis, OMD, just so many acts. And Tony Wilson, being the man behind The Hacienda and Factory Records, he was the guy who pulled it all together and understood the creativity. It's so interesting, isn't it? You know, you had The Beatles in Liverpool in the 60s and Manchester took on that mantel in the 80s and still does to a certain extent but, you know, it really did reach peak creativity.

Emma Barnett:
But, of course, the drug Ecstasy arrived. It changed the whole clubbing scene entirely. The crowd becomes more hard core at this point and crazed, with a focus on the music, the fact they're in a warehouse. And then drug gangs and dealers start creating increasing problems for security. By the mid-90s the safety of people in there and the long arm of the law were concerns. But, as you say, until the bitter end people weren't put off; they were still going in there, both the bands and the people. But the legacy of it is just huge, isn't it, in the sense of being where the action was.

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah, and it's such a shame that the whole drug scene... As you say, you know, the movie 24 Hour Party People captures it quite spectacularly. I think the way things unravel to the extent that they did, maybe there was a point where there wasn't too many tears shed when it closed down and therefore once you've lost the venue, it's very easy to lose it completely, which is what happened. But so much memorabilia.

And the irony is that that's on a corner of a street in Manchester where just down the road now there's been this sort of cultural renaissance in Manchester with a fantastic art centre called Home that's opened up which has got, you know, wonderful space - art space, performance space - and you think, oh, my goodness, it would just be amazing if The Hacienda were part of that now. Which is why what we're talking about here today- it's so important to remember this heritage, to hang on to it and keep these buildings alive. Because once they're gone they're gone.

Emma Barnett:
What an incredible list of locations. We've stepped into the homes, studios, workplaces and party venues of some of England's most incredible artists and revellers. We've learnt about their families, relationships, inspirations, hardships and triumphs and not one of them knew at the time just how important their place would be to England and to the world. Truly inspiring stuff. But before we shuffle off to our own corners of creativity, Monica, let's get a special mention to an archive that you wanted to include. Where is this and what is it?

Monica Ali:
Yeah, it's the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square in Brixton. It's the only national repository of black history and culture in the UK and it spans all aspects of culture. They've got an exhibition at the moment which is about black British music. Their collections include oral recordings, periodicals, personal papers, dance archives, photos. It's open to everyone and it is well worth a visit.

Emma Barnett:
That completes our exploration of our Music & Literature top ten. They were:

  • Shakespeare's Birthplace museum in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Abbey Road Studios in St John's Wood, London
  • Chetham's Library in Manchester
  • Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire
  • Handel & Hendrix, not two names you always hear together at Brook Street in Mayfair, London
  • The Bronte Parsonage in Howarth, West Yorkshire
  • The 100 Club in Central London
  • Charles Dickens's former home in Doughty Street in London
  • George Orwell's flat in Islington, London
  • and The Hacienda nightclub that was in Manchester.

Thank you very much to my guests, Monica Ali, Rachel Prothero and Clare McDonnell. Fantastic hearing the stories behind those much loved and very important places and your own connections to them where possible. I'm Emma Barnett and next time we'll explore the ten important historical locations that Mary Beard has selected in our loss and destruction category. Intrigued? All will be revealed. Why not get in touch in the meantime and join the conversation using the hashtag 100 Places. That's with the number. And whilst you're at it, go on, leave us a nice review on iTunes.

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

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