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Stratford, Stereo Sound and Socialism

This is a transcript of episode 17 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Monica Ali, Rachel Prothero, Clare McDonnell,  Anne Tohan and Mirek Styles 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. And if you are enjoying the series don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And if you're listening on iTunes, click on "rate this podcast" and 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. Now, though, it's time for our music and literature category. In this episode we have three heavy weights to spark your imagination, and I have the pleasure of being joined by our category judge, the author, Monica Ali, as well as Historic England's Rachel Prothero, and fellow BBC broadcaster, Clare McDonnell. Welcome to all of you.

If you asked a school child to name the most famous English writer of time, you'd probably get the same answer, so this is why we've decided to begin our exploration of music and literature with this location.  Monica, where are we going first, can you reveal it please?

Monica Ali:
Yes, I would defy anyone not to have this in their top ten. It is Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Emma Barnett:
Why have you picked it and why him?

Monica Ali:
Why him, he's given us so many phrases that have entered our daily language that you have to start with Shakespeare.

Emma Barnett:
And you have to start where he was born, I mean this is obviously an incredibly important place. 1847, the Birthplace Trust rescued this building from auction for a sum of £3,000. It's not very much is it, if I bring you in at this point Rachel Prothero.

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, absolutely, and I think it was going to be lost, and people had to step in and rescue it. There's not many places that we can say we know where that writer lived 400 years ago. I don't think we know where Chaucer came from, or Milton, but we know where Shakespeare was born, and it gives us an insight into his life and his background.

Emma Barnett:
It's interesting as well because the thing that people often forget about Shakespeare is that he made his name in London, but left his wife and his kids in Stratford. I'm not sure it was probably the easiest for her, was it, Anne Hathaway?

Monica Ali:
Must have been an interesting marriage, he was only 18 when he got married, that's my son's age now, I can't quite imagine him being married with children any time soon. Anne Hathaway, I think was about eight years his senior, and yes, when Shakespeare set off to London she had three children, so that must have been quite tough for her I imagine.

Emma Barnett:
Well, he did return to the town in his old age, he bought other properties in Stratford-upon-Avon in later life, when you go there you can have a tour of all those buildings, then of course, enjoy some theatre. We did visit Shakespeare's birthplace in Henley Street, to find out more about it.

Anne Tohan:
So my name is Anne Tohan, and I'm a lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I'm currently standing in William Shakespeare's garden on rather a windy day, as you can probably hear from all the street sounds. We're standing next to Henley Street, which is the road on which Shakespeare's house stands, so if we just come up to the door handle…

This is the floor that Shakespeare himself would have walked on, and this part of the house was eventually, during Shakespeare's lifetime, rented out to his sister, Joan Hart, who lived here for a good long while, as did her descendants after her. We know that Shakespeare was probably born in this house, as were his siblings, and he had seven siblings, not all of whom survived, but as he was the eldest surviving male heir, he was lucky enough to go to the local grammar school. And he was allowed to go there because his father held various important civic positions. His father, John Shakespeare, was an Alderman, he was an ale taster, which is a rather enviable job I think and for a short time he was also High Bailiff of Stratford, so I think Stratford was very, very close to him [Shakespeare]. And of course, he's buried here, and actually when people come to visit this house, they often use words like pilgrimage, and shrine, and homage.

His works have been translated into as many languages as there are in the world, as far as we know, including fictional ones such as Klingon, so his works have survived, and he has given us stories that are universal. When we look at his works we can talk about love, we can talk about jealousy, we can talk about the realities of living with grief and sorrow. What it means to be desperately in love with someone who doesn't return your affection, all of those things are universal.

What's really interesting about Shakespeare is that the birthplace was one of the first properties that was purchased and turned into a museum for literary tourism and actually after it, in the middle of the 19th century, it became quite popular and suddenly people were buying up properties that belonged to Walter Scott and Alexander Pope etcetera, and it was really Shakespeare that started that, so literary pilgrimage I think is something that people find mesmerising in a way. Stratford-upon-Avon, I think we can safely say was very, very important to William Shakespeare, not least because he left his family here, if it wasn't important to him he would have taken them with him. William actually made most of his financial investments here, it meant a lot to him.

Emma Barnett:
Monica, people talking about it as a pilgrimage- as an author, as a writer, do you feel that, do you think it's an important place that writers should be able to go, or people who can be inspired?

Monica Ali:
I think it is a place of pilgrimage, but also, for kids it's a very great place to get them interested in Shakespeare. So the house is a museum, it's got important exhibits, it's got first folios, but also it has costumed guides who will take you through Shakespeare's life and tell you interesting things about his family history, and they have live theatre there, so actors declaiming bits of Shakespeare. So that starts to bring Shakespeare to life for children, I took my kids when they were young.

Emma Barnett:
Clare McDonnell, welcome.

Clare McDonnell:
Goodness me it is so important to have recreations of how it was back in the day so we can completely get under the skin and understand this, which is why it is important to go to these places, so they're not in some kind of aspic that the next generation don't really understand the context in which he was writing. I think it's really interesting, I didn't know that when he left Stratford around 1585 there was seven years where there was no record of what happened to him, but then he pops up again in London as a playwright, so all of the experiences he must have had in those formative years that infuse his work, the relationships, the love affairs, the drama in his personal life, he must have been going through quite a lot, you would have thought.

Emma Barnett:
During his lost time, his lost period.

Clare McDonnell:
Yes, exactly.

Monica Ali:
He was an actor as well, so there is a strong theory that he was in a travelling group of actors during those years and of course, one of the reasons he became such a fantastic playwright is because he was an actor, so he understood the art, he understood the needs of the theatre. And his wealth, such as it was, came more from acting in fact than it did from writing, because in those days you didn't keep the rights to your plays, you sold the play to the production company, which is a theatre group. So, a Shakespeare play would have made him about seven to ten pounds only, not such a tiny amount of money as it sounds now, but it certainly wasn't a King's ransom even in those days.

Emma Barnett:
There's lots of questions about his life, that we don't even know despite having all of these access points.

Monica Ali:
And I think it's the myths surrounding Shakespeare that are kind of intriguing as well, aren't they? I mean I didn't really know he was such a prolific actor that's really fascinating to know. The interesting thing about having all these properties as well- he seems to be a real sort of Renaissance man, that he could turn his hand to anything and make a success of it, and he must've worked incredibly hard in his lifetime.

Rachel Prothero:
I guess maybe to get on from his background, you have to be quite an entrepreneurial character and quite driven to make a success of your life.

Emma Barnett:
If you talk about the work as well, 38 plays, two narrative poems, 154 sonnets, it's pretty prolific, isn't it Monica?

Monica Ali:
Yes, apparently some of his early sonnets were written for his wife, Anne Hathaway, when he was courting her.

Emma Barnett:
Then she was forgotten and he went off to London.

Monica Ali:
Maybe he reused them on other suitors, I'm not sure!

Emma Barnett:
Well, having started off with literature, let's move on seamlessly to music and a place you might associate with a certain zebra crossing. Monica, for our second selection in your music and literature top ten, where are we heading?

Monica Ali:
We're going to Abbey Road, in St John's Wood, in north London.

Emma Barnett:
It's a kind of bucket list thing for artists to record at Abbey Road, from Cliff Richard in the '50s, to the Beatles and Hollies in the '60s, Pink Floyd in the late '60s and '70s, Kate Bush and Duran Duran in the '80s, through to Radiohead, Coldplay, the Manic Street Preachers, Oasis and Kanye West. Abbey Road has been a temple of pop music throughout the 20th century. Why? Why have we gone there, why has this got to be in the top ten?

Monica Ali:
Well I suppose that Beatles album cover alone would put it there, it's such an iconic cover, the Abbey Road album, it's sort of instantly recognisable. It doesn't have the band's name on it, it doesn't have the album title on it, it's just that image of the zebra crossing and it's become sort of totemic hasn't it, for a whole tranche of different artists of all genres.

Emma Barnett:
And the crossing itself, I'm learning this as well, it's just fascinating, it's Grade Two listed Clare, did you know that?

Clare McDonnell:
I did actually know that and honestly, they have to be very careful around there because people from all over the world, every single day of the week will be taking photographs on that crossing, recreating the famous album cover.

Emma Barnett:
It's not the place to drive.

Clare McDonnell:
It really isn't, and they scrawl along, everyone goes up and signs the wall outside Abbey Road, which is lovely I think Monica, because it's a piece of living history. They're not saying "look but don't touch", they're saying this is what people always did, so please come along and carry on that tradition.

Emma Barnett:
Specifically though, the Beatles, I mean as you say, it will always be associated with the Beatles. They made Studio Two their own, making and ultimately recording the album after which the studios were renamed and the final recording where all four Beatles came together, which must have just been an amazing moment in itself. But before they were the Abbey Road studios, they were previously the EMI studios, and that's interesting, these places just become associated with one group, but lots of people have recorded there and that's the thing isn't it.

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, I mean the list of Abbey Road's recording gives us a real slice of British cultural history. Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon; Cilla Black recorded Alfie; Kate Bush did Babushka; And Bernard Cribbings recorded Right Said Fred. So, you've got… (laughter)

Monica Ali:
The sublime to the ridiculous!

Rachel Prothero:
You've got catalogue of British culture though, it's got something for everyone, it really tells us a lot about where we've been.

Emma Barnett:
And any particular favourites for you Monica out of that list?

Monica Ali:
Oh, Bernard Cribbins! (laughter)

Emma Barnett:
Really? Are you more of a Beatles fan though as well?

Monica Ali:
Yes, I'm a big Beatles fan, so they would be the ones for me out of that list. And it's interesting as well isn't it, that nowadays you can become a pop star without ever going into a recording studio to launch your career. You can sit there in your bedroom, can't you, you can do a Justin Bieber and record in your bedroom and put it on YouTube and so on. So, the studio that has become so famous, it's in a way a part of history. I know that the recording studio is still used, but it reminds us of how things used to be, that you had to get into a studio, you had to cut an album deal with EMI or one of the big record labels in order to get out there. And that's changed, so it's really important to preserve that bit of history, isn't it?

Emma Barnett:
And what we were talking about…about the sound that was created there, stereo sound, we don't even think about this now, it was invented by an engineer called Alan Bloomline. He was frustrated by layers of sound coming from the same speaker.

Clare, you've interviewed loads of people who have made their names through music, and I know you're a big music fan- what is it about Abbey Road, do you think, that makes people want to go there? People like Marlene Dietrich performed there, they want to go in there!

Clare McDonnell:
The first recording was Edward Elgar, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Emma Barnett:
That's a little bit different to Right Said Fred, isn't it?

Clare McDonnell:
It's a world away, but that's kind of how it started. And yes, you're absolutely right, down the years Adelaide Hall, a key figure in the Harlem renaissance, pioneering jazz singer [recorded there], Fats Waller as well, legendary Fats Waller recorded two singles at Abbey Road. There's such a rich history. In essence, it was George Martin and the Beatles that really put it on the map and it was, as we've just established, it was EMI studios then renamed Abbey Road. I mean I've been there and it's the most amazing place, oh my goodness, just the walls of it, you walk in there and you go, all the people that have recorded in there! And also what's interesting is it's one of the very few remaining live recording studios of its kind. There's Rak studios in London, where Mickie Most did a lot of his classic recordings for bands like Hot Chocolate and the like, and you know Abbey Road is the other one essentially. Olympic has gone. Major, major big studios have gone because of the change in how people record.

A lot of that technology was pioneered in the early days, but what's interesting is Brit Pop essentially caused this renaissance, or resurgence of interest in the Beatles, because back in the '90s, they kind of weren't cool. They were kind of falling off the radar. You had grunge that had killed off poodle rock and then Brit Pop came along after grunge and it was a celebration of all things English, you know. You had Oasis, you had Blur and they were referencing people like the Kinks and people like the Beatles, and so what it did was, it refreshed the whole back catalogue of the Beatles. It breathed new life into Abbey Road, which is where all these people wanted to record, and all of a sudden they were queuing out the door to go and record at Abbey Road studios again. And it's now incredibly vibrant!

Emma Barnett:
We went along to Mirek Styles at Abbey Road.

Mirek Styles:
My name is Mirek Styles, I'm the head of audio products here at Abbey Road studios. I've been working here for 20 years now. Abbey Road studios is a facility for artists, film producers and directors to create.

The building was bought by EMI in the late 1920s. That came about because in the mid-20s the concept of recording music electronically was really coming to fruition. They were looking for a purpose built recording facility as there weren't any in existence before then. Before that EMI were recording in church halls, town halls, anywhere they could find space. They were attracted to this building because it had a massive garden, a huge garden at the rear. This is perfect [they thought], we'll buy the house and we'll build the studio on the gardens.

There are three studios: studio one, studio two, studio three. Studio two is pretty much the same as it was. In terms of the recording space it hasn't really changed much. Whatever they did back then they got it right first time- they nailed it.  Studio one has changed a little bit over the years. When it first opened (studio one is the big orchestra room by the way- the centre piece of Abbey Road) it had a very grand art deco thing going on up the walls. It looked great but it didn't sound particularly good, so over the years they've added panels and acoustic treatments and sort of livened the room up a bit.

You could say Abbey Road is like a barometer, a timeline of the innovation of music technology from the beginning right through to today. Whether we've invented it ourselves or whether someone has asked us to field test something in the real world- you name it, we've seen it all over the years. It doesn't matter how successful, for want of a better word, an artist is or how big. No matter who you are, Abbey Road still has some sort of effect on you. If you say to an artist or client "this is the piano that was used on A Day In The Life", or "this is the piano that was used on ink Floyd recording", that's kind of "woah, can we use that then?" And we say "Yeah sure, it's here, it's there for you to use." Or this microphone John Lennon sang into…I think most people realise that we haven't really thrown anything away, as it were. We've got the best of old and new. So all the history in the walls, and all that sort of stuff, and the acoustics, also the history of some of the equipment that can still be used...We're probably the only facility in the world who can boast that Sir Edward Elgar and Kanye West have recorded in studio one. It's a very unique place.

Emma Barnett:
Incredible, incredible heritage there. Well, we do have time for one more Irreplaceable music and literature location in this episode. Monica, where have you picked?

Monica Ali:
Well, the rest of my literature choices are all about individual writers, but libraries are vital to free dissemination of literature and ideas, and it's Chetham's library on my list now: the oldest free public reference library. It's also a very beautiful building, it has a particular association with Marx and Engels, two writers who shaped much of the history of the 20th century, so that's an added bonus as well.

Emma Barnett:
Well, it's in Manchester, it's in the heart of the city centre, and lots of people may not know they [Marx and Engels] met there, sitting at a desk in that library, which is quite amazing.

Monica Ali:
Yes, so they used to study there and actually the alcove where they used to work together, that's still there with the desks that they used to use.

Emma Barnett:
Have you been?

Monica Ali:
I've been. I grew up in Bolton so I remember going there to do some research for a school project about Salisbury's factory reforms. You have to make an appointment if you want to go in, so it is open to the public. But once you're in there, you're very reluctant to leave because it's like a cathedral of books. Absolutely gorgeous. It's got these very high vaulted ceilings, these ribbed ceilings, stained glass windows, red leather chairs, loads of rows of mahogany and dark oak bookcases with leather bound volumes…I'm sort of getting excited just talking about it! That's my kind of place.

Emma Barnett:
It's like the Abbey Road for authors or writers.

Monica Ali:
For nerds.

Emma Barnett:
For nerds, okay. Did you find it inspirational being in there, do you think it's another place of pilgrimage for writers perhaps?

Monica Ali:
I felt quite awed by it. I was at school at the time and inspired, I suppose, in terms of books are where you go if you want to find out about the world, yeah.

Emma Barnett:
The only place you could go for a long time. In terms of the history of this, Rachel, from your perspective, tell us a bit more about this. It was built in 1421, is that right?

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, and it was built by a textile merchant in London called Humphrey Chetham. It was quite a benevolent set up for it really, he and a collection of other governors went out to set up a school for independent study in the north. He'd seen what happened in Oxford and Cambridge and he wanted to address the gap with a wealth of initiatives. So he established a school for poor boys, there is a music school nearby (he established that as well) as well as five libraries within local churches.

Emma Barnett:
I think the music school is almost more famous for people. I feel like, having grown up in Manchester, we always thought about the music school but actually I didn't think about the library necessarily. And I've never been, to my shame! I need to correct that. I'm learning a lot on these podcasts of where my gaps are. But this idea of being able to get access to information, which we now take for granted, I mean it's quite an amazing thing, isn't it Clare?

Clare McDonnell:
So, that's what I mean! You say there was a little bit of history that is tucked away there, that you would have met people outside it and not necessarily known it was there, but the history! When you read into Engels, who came from German heritage and ended up coming over to the UK because his protestant parents were unhappy about his liberal, atheist views. They thought "let's send him over to the UK, to Manchester, where our textile business is doing rather well, and that will calm him down". It didn't at all because he fell in love with a radical which made him even more determined! Reading around it, it's absolutely fascinating that he was considered to be a bit of enemy of the state and he had to have lots of different residences in Manchester and Salford. He had to keep moving around because he and his wife were considered to be that dangerous, he and Mary Byrne. So I mean it's not just this little piece of history in Manchester and their lives there, it's what it meant for the rest of the world, for the communist movement. It's huge.

Rachel Prothero:
I think that the fact that you can go there and read the books they read to come up with the communist manifesto and come up with your own manifesto to save the world is astonishing. There's that great thread straight to history.

Emma Barnett:
The goal at the time, who was it for? Who was going there apart from Marx and Engels?

Rachel Prothero:
Well the goal was to build up a resource for clergymen, doctors and lawyers in the area. They started with lots of books on theology, history, law, medicine and science, so that was the kind of rationale behind it.

Emma Barnett:
The idea that it wasn't easy to find books at the time as well, there was a catalogue until 1791, and even then it was written in Latin! We take for granted that when you go to a library, Monica, it's going to be packed to the rafters with books and easy access to that information, but this was quite a labour of love to build this, as you call it, a "cathedral to books".

Monica Ali:
Well we used to take it for granted but now libraries are being cut to the bone, libraries are closing down, they're turning into leisure centres and gyms and so on. So of course we have information online and there's other ways of informing ourselves about the world, but nothing really can replace a library because what you have is the breadth and the scope…so you might Google for some bit of information, but when you go into a library you can browse- one book can lead you to the next, the librarian can lead to the next thing that you might want to read, so it's a whole different experience and the great historic libraries are reminders of that.

Emma Barnett:
And books were very valuable because they used to be chained! You can still apparently see the plates where the chains used to sit so you didn't take it with you!

Monica Ali:
Yeah, they were an expensive business, that's true.

Emma Barnett:
Indeed, and I mean what was going on at the time in terms of Manchester and how this fitted in with what Chetham was doing…I mean it's important to just try and put this in context. Manchester was known, as you were saying Clare, for its textile trade in the early 17th century. But the city did lose around 25% of its population to plague at the start of the 17th century, struggled through the English Civil War and it dented trade of course for the city as well. Chetham's benevolent cause played its part in moving the city into a new age. The travel writer, Celia Fiennes described it as a "thriving place" when she visited it at the end of the 17th century and then we get into newspapers which is quite an exciting moment, Clare.

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah, I mean it's such a fascinating history. As you say, in 1719 Manchester printed its first newspaper: it was called the Manchester Weekly Journal, which essentially proved the written word and the reading of it was alive and well in the north. And this whole idea that Chetham had (he died, he left his will in 1653) that poverty could be overcome by addressing ignorance. So a man well ahead of his time! And all the initiatives we talk about now in current times about reaching out, especially to Third World countries and how education is so important- he was one of the early pioneers of that in incredibly poor, slum conditions in Manchester! This was the man who thought "this is the way I can turn these people's lives around". So this library is a monument to that incredible intellectual thought followed through to a very practical level in people's everyday lives.

Emma Barnett:
A huge generosity I think to do that as well, when there was a dearth of that sort of information. And to Monica's point about what's happening to libraries today, you sort of lose that sense of serendipity of what you can stumble across. Plus poor people from poorer backgrounds aren't necessarily being exposed and being put into those places and that's what a lot of people are concerned about in the modern day.

Monica Ali:
I got my education as a child largely in libraries. We couldn't afford to buy books and didn't have many books in the house, so I went to the library every week and took home as many books as I could possibly stagger home with. Often they were quite a random selection- I didn't really know what I was looking for, and that's half of the beauty of it.

Emma Barnett:
It is indeed. Well that is it for now for this episode. Thank you very much Monica, Rachel and Clare for joining me. We've got more fascinating locations to reveal next time, so don't forget to subscribe on your podcast player and you will not miss it. And if you have time to leave a review, we'd really appreciate that too. I'm Emma Barnett and I'd like to see you next time, speak to you next time on Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

Voiceover:
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