Monica Ali chooses her top 10 places for Music & Literature in England

  • Author Monica Ali judges the Music & Literature category from hundreds of public nominations in our campaign A History of England in 100 Places, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance
  • Shakespeare’s birthplace, the world’s longest-surviving live music venue, Abbey Road Studios and the homes of some of England’s greatest writers are among 10 places chosen from a long list of public nominations
  • Podcast hosted by TV and radio presenter Emma Barnett explores the 10 selected places and their importance to England’s identity

Image of the famous zebra crossing outsdie Abbey Road Studios, immortalised by The Beatles on the front of their album "Abbey Road"
The famous zebra crossing outsdie Abbey Road Studios, immortalised by The Beatles on the front of their album "Abbey Road" © Chrsitiaan Triebert via Flickr

Abbey Road Studios, Shakespeare’s birthplace, the world’s longest-surviving live music venue, and the homes of some of England’s greatest writers, from Austen to Orwell, are among the 10 places chosen today by author Monica Ali for our campaign A History of England in 100 Places, sponsored by Ecclesiastical, leading insurer of the nation’s Grade l listed buildings.

The campaign aims to find the 100 places which bring England’s extraordinary history to life.

All 10 places picked by Monica will be explored in new episodes of the recently launched podcast series, hosted by Emma Barnett.

Monica Ali said: “I was intrigued by the idea of telling the history of England in 100 places, and I was delighted to be asked to judge the music and literature category. The judging process proved to be a reminder of just how rich the nation’s history of creativity is, and it was tough to select only 10 places. Why is it important to celebrate such places? First of all, it is an acknowledgement of how the arts have shaped our society, especially at a time when arts are becoming more and more marginalised. Secondly, and no less importantly, these are not only places in which to learn about the past, they also invite contemplation, reflection and - just maybe - inspiration, thus passing the creative baton to future generations.”

Image of Jimi Hendrix in his apartment at number 23 Brook Street, London, where he lived for a brief period in 1968-9. His flat is next door to the home of the Baroque composer George Handel, who lived there 200 years previous.
Jimi Hendrix in his apartment at number 23 Brook Street, London, where he lived for a brief period in 1968-9. His flat is next door to the home of the Baroque composer George Handel, who lived there 200 years previous. © Handel & Hendrix in London, Barrie Wentzell

The top 10 Music & Literature places

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

Although we’re not sure of the exact date, this is believed to be the house in which William Shakespeare, the world’s most famous writer, was born in 1564. It was here in Stratford that he lived with his wife Anne Hathaway and three children, before he left around 1585. Within a few years he was an established playwright in London, penning at least 38 plays and over 150 poems before his death at the age of 52. These survive thanks to two actors from the King’s Company, who collected a selection of his works after his death and published them as the First Folio. His works have been translated into around 80 languages, including the Star Trek language Klingon.

Judge Monica Ali said: “How could it not be included? Shakespeare is the greatest English language writer, the most important dramatist, and a superb poet. A visit to his birthplace and to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is always inspiring.”

Abbey Road Studios, St John’s Wood, London

Abbey Road will forever be associated with the Beatles. They made its Studio 2 their own, and the studios were even renamed after their 11th album, Abbey Road- the last album to include all four band members. The zebra crossing immortalised on the album cover is listed in its own right and visited by over 300,000 people every year. But the studios are so much more than The Beatles. Since being converted into a studio in 1931, the site has been the recording place of choice for a diverse range of artists and music styles, including classical, jazz, blues, rock and roll and even serialism and minimalism. From the pioneering jazz singer, and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Adelaide Hall, to Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Duran Duran, Radiohead, Coldplay, Oasis and Kanye West, Abbey Road has been a temple of pop music throughout the 20th Century.

Judge Monica Ali asked “Is this the most famous recording studio in the world?”

Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

Jane lived here for the last 8 years of her life and in this house her genius flourished. Her novels, Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were refined and finished here. She then wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion whilst living under this roof. Austen’s works interpret and satirise England’s middle and upper classes, for whom class and money dictated prospects and social standing. With biting irony, Austen used her novels to comment on society, people and the events she observed in her corner of the world. Austen lived a happy but humble life in Hampshire, where she, her mother and sisters depended on their brother, who had inherited a vast estate. The dependence of women on marriage for economic security is a common theme in her works. She and her beloved sister Cassandra never married, though they each came close. After Jane’s death, a heartbroken Cassandra wrote “she was the sun of my life…I had not a thought concealed from her and it is as if I had lost a part of myself”.

Judge Monica Ali is a self-proclaimed great fan of Austen: “Although she is one of England’s most enduringly popular authors with legions of fans, I still think she is underrated. She is one of literature’s great innovators, for instance, and the inventor of the ‘free indirect’ style that is so commonly adopted by novelists today.”

Doughty Street in London where Charles Dickens lived for several years
Doughty Street in London where Charles Dickens lived for several years © Charles Dickens Museum

The 100 Club, 100 Oxford Street, London

The 100 Club started life as the Feldman Swing Club in 1942 and has been putting on live music ever since, making it one of the world’s longest-surviving live music venues. Working life continued in the capital during World War II, and people needed to keep their spirits up on the home front. It was in 1942 that a Jewish garment worker called Robert Feldman passed a basement restaurant named ‘Mac’s’ on his way home, stopped for a cup of tea and decided it would make a great music venue. It was the socially liberal door policy that made the jazz-swing club such a melting pot. Social and racial prejudices were left at the door and people simply went to dance and forget about war for the night. This humble basement became the jewel of London’s jazz scene after the Second World War. Once BB King jumped on stage for an impromptu jam and even Louis Armstrong dropped by for a visit. In the 70s, still at the forefront of the music scene, it hosted the first ever UK punk festival which featured the Sex Pistols and The Clash, whilst later decades saw legendary gigs by The Rolling Stones, Bowie and Bob Dylan.

Judge Monica Ali calls it the mother of all live music venues: “The 100 club has such a laid-back, unassuming vibe which belies its importance as the site that has introduced so many ground-breaking music scenes and artists – the blues to punk, from BB King to the Sex Pistols.”

George Orwell’s home, Islington, London

Of this site, the category judge Monica Ali said: “Orwell’s work, whether dissecting inequality or depicting totalitarian regimes, remains as fresh and as urgent today as it ever was. The renewed interest in his novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, since the beginning of the Trump administration, proves once again his prescience and assures his place in the country’s literary history.” Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell moved with his family to Canonbury Square in 1944, after a bomb destroyed their former home in Kilburn. These once tatty-looking tenement buildings helped inspire the “decaying home” in Nineteen Eighty Four, which Orwell started writing whilst here. Born in India in 1903, Orwell’s writings reflect the extraordinary experiences of his own life. Educated at Eton, he rejected a life of academia, choosing instead to join the British imperial police in Burma where he became revolted by Britain’s oppressive rule. After resigning, he lived in poor areas of East London, washed dishes in Paris and worked on hop farms in Kent, all with the aim of escaping the bourgeois lifestyle he resented. Later, whilst reporting on the Spanish Civil war, he enlisted in the Republican militia which triggered his preoccupation with Communism. Whereas Animal Farm dealt with Stalinism and Nazism, Nineteen Eighty Four addressed totalitarianism and was so politically astute that it remains as relevant to our political language today as it was when published nearly 70 years ago.

The Haçienda (former nightclub and music venue), Manchester

The legendary Hacienda was home to the ‘mad for it’ Manchester scene of the 1980s and 90s. Although it was famous for rave, the musical styles played here catered to almost every modern taste, including indie, Motown and Northern Soul, all with a Mancunian twist. Opened on 21 May 1982, the venue hosted an eclectic range of bands; The Smiths performed three times in 1983 and Madonna played her first UK gig there in 1984. Two years later, it became one of the first British clubs to start playing house music. The club became renowned for intense, drug-fuelled nights and ultimately it closed its doors to ravers in 1997. Physical remnants of this iconic venue can still be found in the Manchester museum of Science and Industry and Peter Hook, the bassist of the band New Order which part-owned the Hacienda, had some guitars made out of the dancefloor floorboards, complete with stiletto marks and cigarette burns. In his memoir, Hook advised “never open a nightclub with your mates!”

Judge Monica Ali said: “The Hacienda was the first nightclub I ever went to in the 80s. No club ever topped that for me. It was the coolest place I’ve ever been.”

The muscian Louis Armstrong
The muscian Louis Armstrong is just one of the many characters who went to the 100 Club in London.

The Brontë Parsonage, Haworth, West Yorkshire

This was home to the three literary sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne from 1820 onwards. It was in this house that, as children and young adults, the Brontë sisters wrote some of their most famous novels, including Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. The sisters, in contrast to Jane Austen, were working women and their writing reflects a broader spectrum of English society. They were also deeply inspired by the rugged Yorkshire landscape which surrounded the village of Haworth, bringing it to life for millions across the world in the pages of their novels.

Judge Monica Ali said: “A single Yorkshire parsonage housed three literary talents in the mid-19th century. It would be quite remarkable now, and given that the Brontë sisters had to publish firstly under pseudonyms, it was even more remarkable at the time that three young women should make such an impact on the literary landscape.”

Handel & Hendrix in London, 23 and 25 Brook Street, London

Two blue plaques mark two great musicians who lived here, 200 years apart. George Frideric Handel lived at number 25 from 1723 to 1759 and Jimi Hendrix at number 23 from 1968–69. The Baroque composer Handel was perhaps most famous for his Messiah, Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. More than most, Handel democratized music, giving his popular works a social significance which led to them becoming an indispensable part of England’s national culture. Jimi Hendrix was an altogether different sort of musician. Hendrix’s impact on the British and world music scene was extraordinary, particularly as he was active for only four years before dying from an overdose aged just 27. He redefined the electric guitar in his own image and became one of the most successful, influential and charismatic musicians of his era, whose appeal linked the concerns of white hippies and black revolutionaries. Handel lived on Brook Street for many years, paying an annual rent of around £50. Hendrix on the other hand just passed through, though this was perhaps his first real home where it’s said he enjoyed watching Coronation Street. Intrigued by Handel’s legacy next door, Hendrix bought himself copies of The Messiah and Water Music from the One Stop Record Shop in South Molton Street.

Judge Monica Ali said: “What a pair! Handel’s popularity remains undimmed by time and a million Messiahs sung by local choral societies. Hendrix’s impact on blues, jazz, rock and soul was extraordinary – a brilliant talent that burned so bright and so briefly.”

Charles Dickens’ former home, Doughty Street, Holborn, London

Dickens wrote two of his best-loved novels here, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and worked on others. For category judge Monica Ali “Dickens is the quintessential London novelist – his London lives like no other in the mind.” When Dickens moved to Doughty Street in 1837, London’s population had boomed to 1.65 million. The city’s streets and their everyday characters inspired him to put London at the heart of many of his stories and his depiction of the dirt, smells and bustle of Victorian London gives readers a window into the past. Dickens moved to Doughty Street at a time of evolving humanitarian and social philosophies, when the Chartism movement aimed to gain political rights and influence for the working classes. Through his writing, Dickens captured this spirit with vivid characterisations of ordinary people and places.

Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Chetham's Library opened its doors nearly 350 years ago and is the oldest free public reference library in the English speaking world. It holds more than 100,000 volumes of printed books as well as manuscript diaries, letters and deeds, prints and paintings. Established in 1655 by Humphrey Chetham for scholars and the education of "the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents", the library has been in continuous use ever since, today operating as an independent charity, open to readers and visitors free of charge. The library was also the meeting place of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when Marx visited Manchester in the summer of 1845. Here the pair would meet in a window seat and carry out research which ultimately led to their work on The Communist Manifesto.

Judge Monica Ali said: “Libraries are vital to the free dissemination of literature and ideas. Chetham’s library is not only the oldest free reference library, it is also a beautiful building. Its particular association with Marx and Engels, two writers who shaped much of 20th century history is an added bonus.”

 

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said: “From Austen and Orwell to Brontë and The Beatles, these 10 fascinating choices from our judge Monica Ali hint at the sheer range of music and literature hotspots England has to offer. All these places have helped to shape our country’s culture and many have witnessed creativity which will continue to inspire generations of people.”

Mark Hews, Group Chief Executive of Ecclesiastical Insurance, said: “Whether we bury our nose in our favourite book, or we hear a song on the radio that takes us back to a moment in our own history, music and literature can transport us to places both real and imaginary. The iconic venues announced in this top 10 reflect  England’s rich cultural heritage and Ecclesiastical is proud to play its part in celebrating them through our sponsorship of the 100 Places campaign, as well as helping to protect them for everyone, forever.”

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