Myra Love, Maori princess, jazz singer & long-term Bethnal Green resident, died last Wednesday aged eighty-three after complications following heart surgery. Today I publish my profile of Myra as a tribute to one of the most spirited women I ever met.
“We are a warlike people!”
“My mother was the Queen of Rarataonga, so I am a princess,” revealed Myra Love, with a gentle ambivalent grin, when I pressed her to admit her royal lineage. Yet her ancestry on her father’s side was equally impressive, she was a Maori of the Te Ati Awa tribe of Petone, and her ancestors included two eighteenth century Scotsmen from Selkirk - an explorer and an whaler – who married Maori princesses, Robert Park (brother of Mungo Park) and John Agar Love. “I always say my legs are Scottish,” Myra added with a smile, claiming the European part of her family with pride.
Although Myra’s residence was a one bedroom flat in Bethnal Green – as far away as it is possible to be from her ancestral land – she carried the weight of responsibility to her people, revealing a passionate sense of duty when she spoke of the politics of land. “I never learnt Maori because my grandmother said ‘English is the language of power, and you have to be fluent in English and get the land back’ – and we have. We formed corporations and we’re able to reclaim it today because the leases are coming up after a hundred years. There’s loads of land that we gave away for beads and blankets, and we’re getting it back.” Myra told me, swelling with magnificence and widening her eyes in skittish delight, adding, “Most of Wellington belongs to us now, and we got the railway station back last month.”
In that moment, I was afforded a glimpse of the woman who was born to be Queen of Rarataonga, because even though she did not choose to enact her public role, Myra’s abiding concern was the stewardship of the land on behalf of her people and her driving force was her desire to leave it in a better state. In another age, Myra might have led her tribe in battle, but in her time she fought at the High Court instead. “We are a warlike people!” Myra informed me proudly, accompanying the declaration with a winning smile. She knew that the success of her endeavour would define her legacy when she was long-gone, and in this sense, her concerns were parallel to medieval English royalty, seeking to unify the realm for generations to come.
“When I was a child, there was a feeling that we were second-class citizens.” continued Myra with a shrug, “If I was put down for being a Maori, my grandmother would say ‘Remember they’re walking on our land,’ and she owned quite a lot of land. My father was going to change how land was owned in our part of the country but he went to war and got killed instead. He was a leader of men. I was only five when he left. He went to Sandhurst and was the first Maori to command a battalion in World War II, but Maori leaders always fight alongside their men, and he was shot.
I was the youngest of three siblings so I didn’t count for very much until they died, and then I became very important because now I own a lot of land. I’m getting some of the land in New Zealand and some of the land in Rarataonga. And their siblings are fighting me for it and I am defending it in the High Court. I’m partitioning it out because I don’t want it for myself and I don’t want them to sell it, and I intend to stay as healthy as possible because they all want me to die.”
Stepping into Myra’s warm flat, painted in primary colours and crowded with paintings, plants, photographs, legal books, jewellery and musical equipment, Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I entered the court of a woman of culture. Not in the least high-faluting, she balanced her serious intent with an attractive emotional generosity, which made it an honour to sit beside her as she opened her photo album. Myra confessed that she became the author of her own destiny, when she made the break at twenty-one and ran away – like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – to find a new life in the wider world.
“Once my grandmother died, the family disintegrated and I was moved out of the family house, so I decided to leave. Every Christmas we met together, but when she was gone there was a fight for the land, so because my family were all angry, I chose to go to America and become a jazz singer.
I sold a piece of my land to my uncle for £300 and bought a P&O ticket to San Francisco. You think everywhere’s going to be like New Zealand, so it was a bit of a shock when I got off the boat, because I was bit of a hokey girl. But it was exciting and, going through the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought, ‘My dreams are coming true.’ And some girls on the boat told me they knew Oscar Peterson, and they took me to the Black Hawk Club and there was Oscar Peterson. But I thought, ‘I’m going to New York,’ so I got on a train. It was 1958 and I had £100 left. I was an innocent abroad. In New York, I stayed on Bleecker St, just around the corner from Marlon Brando.
It was such a joy to visit places you’d only read about in books. At school I learnt Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge and when I came to London I had to go there at dawn. By then, I had only about £25 left, but money went a long way in those days.”
Myra told me it takes thirty years to learn to be a jazz singer, but she also filled those thirty years with getting married, having three children and getting an Open University degree. “I got divorced because he wouldn’t let me go on singing,” she confided, spreading her hands philosophically, “When we broke up, I did a teacher training course and my first job was in the East End. I’ve always worked in underprivileged areas, and I’ve sent more kids to university than I’ve had hot dinners. These kids they know a little about a lot, and they’ve got the ability to latch onto something. They’re more than people who don’t live in the area know, because their struggle has been long. I’ve always believed that knowledge is power and that’s what I’ve tried to teach these kids.”
Discovering a recognition that the situation of the people of the East End equated with the circumstance of her own race, Myra discovered a sense of camaraderie here which drew her to adopt Bethnal Green as her home from home. So it was that, Myra Love, the heroic Maori princess – devoted to fighting for the rights of her tribe – became a popular figure in the East End, renowned for singing jazz at the Palm Tree. “I get my kicks from meetings with old East Enders,” she confessed enthusiastically, “They’re a tough breed. These people are just like me – they’re Maoris!”
This painting of 1858 by William Beetham shows the Maori Chiefs of Wellington with Dr Featherstone at the time of treaty of Waitanga which established peaceful colonial government in Aotearoa. On the left is Hon Tako Ngatata MLC and in the centre Honiana Te Puni Kokopu, from whom Myra was descended
Taumata, Koro Koro Rd, Petone - “My grandmother had this house built in 1898, she picked this hill so she could see where she was born and where she would be buried. And I was born there November 8th, 1934, and I will be buried there too.”
Myra’s grandmother, Ripeka Love
Myra’s mother, Takau Upoko-o-nga Tinirau Makea Nui Ariki Love, Queen of Rarataonga
Rangitira women of the Te Ati Awa tribe. At the centre is Lady Pomore, standing to her right Romahora, then Grandaunty Mata with Grandma Ripeka Love at the end of the row.
Myra Love in her debutante’s dress - “We are really very posh in the Maori way of thinking!”
Myra Love (1934-2017)
Portraits copyright © Patricia Niven
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here