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So Long, Myra Love

November 1, 2017
by the gentle author

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. 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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Bunting permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Well, Here is one person who is not only Descended from a lot of East end families but also from the Second Maori king on both my mum and my Dads side of the family . My grandfathers grandfather on my mums side was Tawhiao ,the second maori King, His daughter by his third Wife was my GG grandmother and she married the Ngapuhi Chief Te Morenga . Both Tawhiao and TeMorenga signed the treaty of Waitangi .But on Dads side I am also decended from Tawhiao . I’m no prince though,the Royal Maori line only goes through the Decedents of Tawhiao’s First wife , my far distant cousins. But through the Waikato Tribes, the Tainui and maniapoto Tribes I am probably a Distant relative of the late Myra love as another one of my ancestors was the Waikato Cheif,Te Rauparaha who went to live in the Wellington Area after Epic battles with Northern Tribes. If you have ever watched the All Blacks doing the Haka, it was Te Rauparaha who first did that haka during a skirmish with an opposing tribe off the kapiti Coast close to Wellington. Multiculturalism isn’t a new concept,especially in my Family tree :-)

  2. November 1, 2017

    A life lived well.

  3. November 1, 2017

    What a wonderful story about an amazing life. Hope she will never be forgotten!

  4. Adrienne permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Gentle Author
    Myra said she wanted to be buried in Petone where she was born.
    Are there plans for her wishes to be fulfilled?

  5. Ellen Whittle permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Myra was a very old and close friend of my mother ( Claire Bland ) and known and loved by us all. Have spent many evenings with her in the Palm tree on a friday night when, after 11 she would get up and sing a few jazz songs. I remember being at her party celebrating her 70th birthday, which only seems like yesterday. I also have a number of 45rpm discs of her singing with a group led by Tony Haynes ( Grand Union ).
    Please, if not too late send me details of the funeral as I would like to attend.

  6. November 1, 2017

    Mrs Myra Love (1934-2017) — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. Mike Z permalink
    November 1, 2017

    What a woman!
    Thank you for commemorating her.

  8. Ben Whittle permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Thank you for that. Myra was an old family friend and I can only add that she was as wonderful and lovely in real life as the article conveyed. Although we had not seen her in a few years can say she will be missed!

  9. November 1, 2017

    I just love the casual way she said, ‘I’ve sent more kids to university than I’ve had hot dinners.’ And she was a jazz singer. Respect.

  10. November 1, 2017

    Myra::

    Whakatakata te hau ki te uru,
    Whakatakata te hau ki the tonga,
    Kia makinakina ki uta,
    Kia mataratara ki tai,
    E hi ake ana te atakura,
    He tia, he huka, he hauhunga,
    Tihei Mauri Ora.

    Anthony, Maui, Chiba
    XX

  11. November 2, 2017

    Wow. What a fascinating story and an extraordinary woman! Thanks for telling us about Myra Love with such verve, GA. You are helping to keep her memory alive.

    Though I have to confess that my heart sinks when I see yet another ‘So Long …’ title.

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