Nancy (Nan) Elizabeth Tait Interview
Erica Tenquist for the Knowledge Bank. I’m interviewing on 22nd June 2018, Nancy Elizabeth Tait [née Clarkson], who’s known as Nan. She lives at Havelock North, and now I’m going to hand over to Nan to tell you a bit about herself.
I was born in Hastings. We had a farm at Maraekakaho called ‘Awatea’.
An interesting thing to note is that when my grandparents came from South Africa they were in Wellington to start off with, and then he got a property in Maraekakaho, and I don’t know how many acres it was, but it was a very big property really, and my father used to help on the farm there. And then he got married, and in 1931 – the earthquake – at that stage there was no place for them to live ‘cause he was going to get part of the farm, and they stayed in a cottage at Glencoe which was owned by Lachie McLean. And after the earthquake my brother, who was three years older than I – he was a baby then – and the house was very badly damaged and they had to get out of it. And of course there was quite a worry because my brother was close to the fireplace, but they got him out.
And they went to live up at Glenlarn which is what the farm was called originally, at a cottage there. And just the day after, or just [a] few days after the earthquake – and this was about three miles apart from where they were living in the cottage – the house was burgled and lost all their wedding presents.
Oh, that’s sad … yes.
It was sad – everything they had.
Then I was born in 1932, up there. But before that, my father before he was married, bought a farm in Tikokino – I don’t know what size it was. And of course it was funded by my grandfather, his father – he didn’t have the money to buy it.
And his name was?
Eric Cooke Clarkson. [Eric Fleming Clarkson; his father’s name is Edward Cooke Clarkson]
And I don’t know why this happened but I think it was really rather sad. My grandfather said to Dad “oh, have you ever visited Japan? You haven’t.” You know, “would you like a holiday for a week or so there? And I’ll pay for you.” And so he did and he went there. And when he came back he found that his farm was sold, and so he had nothing. Probably most of the money would have been put in from my grandfather, so because I suppose my grandfather must have felt a bit … not finding that very easy to take, he took part of the farm. We had twelve hundred acres on part of Glenlarn farm, and the rest of them [it] was Oswald Clarkson, who actually owned the rest of it eventually. Neville had a farm over the other side, so he was rather left out.
So when I was three a house was built down there and we all moved down there. When I was school age … and my brother … it was too far – it was seven miles to go to the Maraekakaho School, and they felt it was too far to sort of go every day, so I had correspondence and so did my brother, for the same time. The McGregors who lived directly opposite us – he was a primary school student, and he rode his horse seven miles there, seven miles back, every day to school, which was incredible – all sorts of weathers and things.
However, unfortunately … we did the correspondence until I was in Standard 2 … and my mother found the arithmetic far too difficult for her, so she said I had to be sent to boarding school, ‘cause she couldn’t cope any longer. So I was sent to Queenswood – went there at Standard 3 when I was nine. And after two or three years my mother sort of complained that I didn’t seem to be learning anything at all – that I’d been booked in to go to Woodford House when I was in the 3rd Form. And so she went to Woodford and said could I please go the year earlier, in Form 2, ‘cause she wasn’t happy with the schooling I was getting. However, they said, “well there’s no room – I’m sorry. No, you’ll have to wait for the next year.” My mother, who was the most delightful woman, but knew exactly what she was doing, said “all right, well Nan can just be free round the farm for a year and have no education, then we’ll come to you after that.” And the horror of the thought of Nan not knowing a thing at all for one whole year [chuckle] – I was able to go there [chuckle] so I was taken earlier.
The unfortunate part was that I really wanted to be an accountant … I’d been studying music with my mother, and … or a banker – I loved figures and things like that. When I was at school, especially when I got to the fourth and fifth form, I had to drop a lot of core subjects because it was insisted on that I was able to practise for two hours a day on the piano, which meant I had to use some of those classes, so I couldn’t go. So my knowledge … that’s all I had really. I did very well on the piano … obviously I could, ‘cause I was putting more time in than anybody else.
After one term in the 6th form I was up at Hodge House, which is where you learnt to be a lady, and be able to cook and entertain and all that. And because money was terribly short with us, my mother sort of said “look, I think you’ll have to come home”. So I had to come home in the May holidays and that was my schooling then, because she said she could teach me far better, how to be a lady anyway.
I was still studying the piano, and I was studying singing a little bit too. And then she decided my teacher wasn’t a hundred per cent in Hastings, where I was going. She got around and found that the best teacher in New Zealand lived in Christchurch and he was called Ernest Empson, and he taught Richard Mapp and all the well-known musicians in New Zealand. And I hadn’t really sort of mixed with anybody at all, because at school we were only allowed out for one full day a term and two half days, otherwise we never left the school really … never went to concerts or anything like that. So I left school really knowing nothing, and I was desperately shy. Mother would be entertaining people, and I could barely walk into the room where they were in case they looked at me. So I was really ill-equipped to be sent away from home without having learnt a little bit about things.
While I was at home when I was seven, Mother had an orchestra from all the farmers who could play some form of instrument. There was about seven or eight of them, and they’d come ‘bout once a fortnight to our place, and she would have all the music because she was an exceptional musician herself.
Was she a music teacher at all, per se?
Only when they retired. But she studied at the Guild Hall School of Music in London. And she used to play the banjo, she used to play the mandolin – she could play anything really, and she loved music. I was allowed to be the accompanist at age seven. So the men enjoyed coming because they had a glass of beer or something like that for their supper, and I loved it because I could stay up late you see, because I was playing the piano.
That was fine, but when I went down to Christchurch, it was a great shock to me because I wasn’t used to being away from home. I’d never sort of met a man very much – we had school dances but that was all, but we didn’t know anything. And I was quite his worst pupil I think.
But I had to take singing as well, and I learnt from a woman who only had ten or twelve pupils. And in a sense she looked after me a little bit … somebody I could relate to … she helped me, and was a very good teacher. But she never ever sang a note herself. Not once did I ever hear her sing a note. So we all had completely individual voices, because she’d say what she wanted us to do and keep on making us do it ‘til we got it right. But often you just imitate somebody when you’re learning, and that’s how you learn. And then I was doing Grade 8 exam … Royal Schools Exam … and then three weeks before my exam she died. She had cancer of the throat. That’s why she couldn’t …
… she could talk, she couldn’t speak [sing]. So that of course, not having really had much to do with death or anything like that, and here was I – I’d got my ATCL [Associate of Trinity College London] while I was down there that same year – and I’d had the singing exam, so I was determined that for her sake I must do the best I possibly could in that exam because I was so fond of her. And I did very well, considering I’d only been doing singing for about three years and it was Grade 8. I got Distinction.
And then in the post I got a letter from the Royal Academy at London … the Royal Schools of Music at London … inviting me to apply for a scholarship, which I’d get four years of tuition free in singing, and you know, could I reply to them. Well this was in 1951, and what I did with that letter was tear it straight up, because I knew if my mother saw it she’d send me over there. Definitely. She’d have wondered why it’s singing and not the piano, because I’d got my ATCL in the piano and singing I’d only had a few years. But I could stand on a stage and sing and … doesn’t worry me a scrap – it didn’t at all. Get me playing a piano on the stage and I’m as nervous as anything, and still am. So I tore it up, and it’s my one …
Regret in a way?
It’s more than regret. She lived with us for the last nine months, in Wellington, of her life, and I never thought at that stage that I should have told her. She would have been so proud of me. And even if she hadn’t understood it wouldn’t have mattered – the years had gone by so much, and we were very close – that it wouldn’t have mattered. But I never did, so I’m afraid I take that to my death … something I made a real mistake in. But however … so I started teaching in Hawke’s Bay in 1952.
Where did you live?
I lived on the farm, but then when I was teaching there was the Red Cross Rooms in King Street or somewhere it was, on a corner. and I rented a room from there. It didn’t have a bathroom, but I used to have sort of good wash. [Chuckle] And I had seventy-two individual pupils every week. I taught for six days – I was teaching in Queenswood during the day, so I was teaching right from about eight o’clock ‘til about six o’clock at night for six days.
Where was Queenswood? Is it still in existence?
Yes, it’s now Rudof Steiner. It was renamed Rudolf Steiner when they took over. It wasn’t – whatever they call it, a school – it was an Anglican School in Nelson Street. So I had a tremendous lot, and that’s where I grew to love children because you know, I loved being with them …
You could relate to them?
I could relate to them, yes. But then of course I read in the newspaper, the Herald-Tribune I think it was, that a man in Wellington put an ad in that he wanted a housekeeper – his wife had died in childbirth and he had three children aged nine, seven and five, and he needed a housekeeper. And I said to my mother, “well – you know, I’ve done nothing for anybody – perhaps I should go and help somebody.” And she said “well dear, you’re getting a very good connection here with your teaching. Think carefully of it”. And I was then I suppose about twenty-five … twenty-six.
And the interview was actually with somebody in Greenwood Road, and so eventually I rang her up and I said “I‘d like to have an interview”, and my mother was grumbling a bit in the background. And then I dressed for the interview – and I did like my clothes in those days – and she looked at me. She said “are you interested in getting this job or not?” And I said “well I really don’t mind, but I feel you should make the effort.” She said “well take those high heel shoes off and put on my bowling shoes”. [Chuckle] And then she took off my lovely jacket I had on, and made me wear her white bowling cardigan. Cardigan! [Chuckle] So I arrived at the doorstep to be greeted by a very elegant woman, with lovely sort of antiques all over the house. Here was I in my bowling shoes and cardigan. However, I eventually got the job – I had to go down for a weekend and stay with them, and just see if they’d like me or not.
So I dropped every one of my pupils – earning quite a bit of money – to go down to there … Khandallah. And I had to do straight away a birthday party because the four-year-old was turning five. I’d never done a child’s birthday party or made a cake or anything – [chuckle] … fact I couldn’t cook for sour apples. And I learnt early on that in the last … I think it was about eight, nine months … he’d had over nine housekeepers. Nobody would stay – they wouldn’t stay at all. Now I did stay nine months. He was grieving so much that he wouldn’t talk, and we’d sit in silence … solitary silence … every night when he came back from work. And I would say to some of the children that “oh, sorry, you can’t do that. You might be able to do that later on, but not now.” They’d go straight to their father and he’d say instantly, “oh yes – yes, go ahead, of course you can do it.” So that’s why everyone was leaving, I think. But I loved the children, and it was all going very well and I would have stayed there for a year or two, but then his mother, who lived in Orchard Street in Wadestown – beautiful two-storeyed house and loads of money – she more or less said one day, “I think you’d make a wonderful match with Patrick. You two … you know, you’re so good together.” I liked his wife’s parents, they were the salt of the earth and I thought they were wonderful. And when she said that, I thought ‘this is the last thing I feel like doing at the moment thank you very much – taking on three young children with a man that … I mean, I like, but I’ve got no connection with’.
I had no days off, I worked seven days a week – I was just you know, at home, but if he was home on a weekend I could go out and see my friends or anything, and so I used to go out every now and then at night, and I’d go and take shorthand and typing lessons – there was a place there that you could do that – ‘cause I knew I had to leave at some time.
I think it was too – yes. I thought ‘well I haven’t got a job.’ I didn’t have a piano with me at this stage, and to go teaching, you can’t just suddenly go into a school and start, you’ve got to wait to get a position. And I remember one night – I can still see it … I’ve met two of the children. One of them committed suicide, the eldest one, when he was about nineteen, but I was coming out of the bath, and he just clung to me and he said “you’ll never leave us, will you Nan?” And … in that stage I knew I had to leave, and I felt absolutely dreadful … I really did. And when I told him I was leaving, he said “not you too”. And I said “yes – I’m sorry … just not the life I want completely.”
So then I walked the streets of Wellington, and said “I’ve got a junior typing exam – do you need anybody for secretary’s work or anything like that?” I went into all the offices – spent a whole day doing that, and eventually got into a firm called Joan & Russell Reid. It was a library that I was in charge of where they had sets of play reading books, that we used to send to the Islands … Fiji and places like that, and all round the country. They were responsible for getting people to build stages and everything – all the books and everything, and I was in charge of the library. And I did that for … oh, a few years, and then somebody from Victoria University – I knew him and his wife – he said “you know that Joan and Russell Reid are going under?” I said “no they’re not, they’re perfectly all right.” He said “they are.” He said “there is actually a job at University being office manager for the students. Why don’t you go there, apply for it?” And I said “office manager – I can’t do that with a whole lot of students – I’ve never done that before”. And he said “oh – go.” And unfortunately the firm did close down, too.
So I went and had this interview and I won’t mention the names … there was a lot of people that are now either Parliamentarians doing [chuckle] fantastic jobs, or else they’ve done awful things … that come through my hands in the years I was there. And at the interview, somebody came in from the cafeteria, I had two of them interviewing me, holding a plate of food. And they looked at him, and they said “what’s the matter?” And the boy said “there’s a caterpillar in my salad – see?” And so they sort of didn’t know quite I think what to say. So they said to me “now, if somebody comes in to you and says there’s a caterpillar on their salad – how are you going to deal with it?” And I said, “well all I would say to him is that ‘if you don’t want to eat it, put it on the side of the plate. It’s not going anywhere – it’s dead.’” [Chuckle] “’And get on with the rest of your food.’” And so I got the job. [Laughter]
So I had the job, and I had it for some years. It was wonderful in some senses, and I got to know the students. And there’s so many names too, that I know people living here, that were about nineteen or twenty when they were there, and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘you’re going somewhere’. And this particular one that I know very well here, became an ambassador in very good places and he is just as lovely as he was then. So I spent quite a number of years there until I got married, and I was still there.
Did you come back in between times to Hastings or Maraekakaho at all?
No. I came back just to … we used to come back just to see my parents, they’d retired into Hastings. No, I lived in Wellington for twenty-six years. Then I became pregnant … had a wonderful send-off when I was eight months pregnant, then of course we lost the baby. And my successor – I had her for about two days so she could see what I was doing, and I said “really, all you do is see what somebody else has done before.” When I had to do all the books, that’s where my accountancy … I had no skills at all, I’d never done anything. I took accountancy with [by] correspondence after I came back up here to live. But I said “you just do what somebody else has done – you can’t go wrong. You can always ask questions.” And unfortunately, three weeks after I got a call … three weeks after I’d left … to say that she’d committed suicide – she couldn’t handle the students.
Oh! So did you go back?
They said would I go back, so I went back for another year and became pregnant again, so I had another beautiful send-off, [chuckle] and this time I said “I really am going.” So then I started teaching at home. And then my husband got fed up with sick people all the time, and so we moved up here because my son … we thought he could be sent to Hereworth then, so we lived here at the corner of Te Mata Road, by Hereworth.
George – was he at Wallaceville, and then he became a doctor?
No, he didn’t become a doctor, he was always a bacteriologist. But there’s a firm in Wellington called Medical … it’s a laboratory. And they started one in Porirua and he ran that one, so he was running [?] and things where they needed … you know, blood taken. And because he was so good at taking it … leukaemia patients and people like that … they sent him all around the Wellington area because he’d never draw blood from anybody when [he] put a needle in. And he was horrified that you know, you’d often have a red mark left after he was done – that wasn’t his style at all.
I don’t think this is quite relevant, but one funny story is that because I kept my business to myself about my pupils and anything about them, and he obviously did too. Now I was teaching somebody who already had two children and she wanted to do Grade 8, so that was fine. And after a few months, one year … she had ‘bout three years with me … I said “you know, you’re putting on a lot of weight. Don’t put on too much weight, it doesn’t suit you”. And she said “but George would have told you I’m six months pregnant.” And I said [chuckle] “no, he wouldn’t. We don’t discuss anything about [??].” I said “when’s the baby due?” And she quoted the month – I think it was in October, and I said “but that’s when the Royal exam is!” And she said “well that’s all right, I’m going to sit the exam.” However on the day of the exam she rang up and she said “I’ve gone into labour.” And I said “oh, I’m so sorry – with all the work you’ve put in.” She said, “oh, I’m still going to sit.” Well if you know what somebody looks like when they’re nine months pregnant – you can’t really get near the piano to do what you need to do. You’ve got a big lump there. So she came in and she was having contractions, but she said, “no – I think I can almost go half an hour”. And it’s an hour exam you see. But she didn’t get through, and I think the examiner was so terrified she was going to produce a baby on the spot [chuckle] that he wanted to get rid of her. And we took her, she went by taxi and had the baby two hours later. It was baby number three you see, so it was coming quite quickly. But that was beside the point.
We came back here – I was thinking I wasn’t going to do any more piano, that was it. I could play the piano but I was going to have a lovely life you see, and retire. But however, somebody heard that I was back – it was Head of Music at the time, at Woodford … rang me up and said “would you come and teach here?” I was teaching at Lindisfarne at this stage, and I said “well, I suppose I could come and have an interview”. And she said “oh, you don’t need to do that – I know who you learnt from, so I’m quite happy for you to come.”
So I went there and I had eight lovely years there, and allowed to do exactly what I liked, and taught there. So I’ve taught at Lindisfarne and I’ve taught for a long time here.
Did they mostly come to your house or do you go to their schools?
I went to the schools. Yes, and I’d teach during the school hours, [speaking together] so that when I went home I’d teach up to about six at night. And my husband had never learnt how to cook, being an Englishman, but he soon learnt because otherwise he didn’t get any food. And so he did the cooking, so I’m still not much good at cooking. No, I did that and I thoroughly enjoyed it, whereas now I help people with music. I don’t make any money out of it, but I love helping people, and I’ve done that most of my life.
So music is your main … love of your life?
It’s the love of my life, I can’t do without it. sometimes when I go into … you know where Griffith’s shoe shop is … they’ve got a grand piano in there which they’ve covered with music, and sometimes I think ‘oh, I haven’t played the piano today and I have to’, so I go in there and I say “do you want me to entertain to bring some customers in for you?” And it does, it brings people in.
Where is Griffith’s?
It’s on the corner of King Street and Heretaunga, there’s a chemist on the corner and then it’s just next door to that. So that basically is my life.
Now, I’m just going back to Christchurch for a minute – where did you stay when your mother and father sent you down there, where did you actually stay?
Oh, they organised me to stay with a couple. They didn’t know the couple or anything they got hold of somebody – “see if anybody wants to have a boarder”, so I was just boarding there.
So you weren’t in a hostel or anything like that?
No, I wasn’t in a hostel or anything like that. No.
And Christchurch – did you usually fly?
The first time I flew was in 1948, I think it was. The first time I got into a plane.
And was that here or at Bridge Pa or at Napier?
That was here I think. No, it wasn’t – I went down to a conference with my husband, I was married. So I was married in 1970, but I know that when I was married it was the first time I’d been in a plane. I’d never been in a plane in my life.
So you must have gone by train, I would think?
I always went by train, yes, and then I had to go on the ferry.
And go into Lyttelton?
Go into Lyttelton, and then get a train or bus or something that dropped me through there, yes. But it wasn’t easy.
And I think sometimes … some children are very lucky I think. I had a most wonderfully happy childhood ‘cause I had my animals, but I had no toys or anything because they couldn’t afford those. But what was rather sad that not one holiday was taken where I had both my parents … my father and mother. Never once … he always had to be at the farm, so I’d go with Mother and my brother would go too. And we’d … used to be somebody who let us use a house in Waimarama. We rarely actually went on holidays because they simply couldn’t afford it. They had no money, but it was much love.
Did Mum help on the farm at all?
Well except for the holidays. When I was at Woodford I had to get up every morning to milk the cow; I then had to use the separator to make the cream and the butter; and the milk separate … all that. I had to work, and had to pick up the sheep – I’d go round the sheep with my horse, pick up the cast sheep and things like that. But I was not allowed to actually ever see a lamb being born. I used to nurse all the lambs when they came into the house, but my father made me turn away if a lamb was coming out because you know, at sixteen it wasn’t the right thing for a girl to see. [Chuckle]
Now we haven’t talked about this civic honour?
Oh, that was most surprising, I didn’t expect it. It was wonderful, because I met the Governor-General at a cocktail party in Napier, and then of course I had Lawrence Yule in Hastings where they had it – yes. And that was purely done because I’ve done so much work for music.
For music in this area?
So it’s for Voluntary Community Service – the Hastings District Council and it’s given to Nan Tait for Arts & Culture executed by the Hastings District Council, 23rd April 2015. It’s very good.
Well it is, but as I say I never expected it, because I used to teach a lot for nothing if people couldn’t afford it. If I can help people with bereavements … I mean I’ve been through it myself … and other problems in their life. I don’t actually sort of give advice on problems, but I can make the music to mean everything to them, and music gets you through life.
I’m not lonely because if I feel lonely or sad I’ll go and play something on the piano applicable to it, and come away. And the family used to know too, that if I – I used to play Chopin [imitates music] , and they knew to keep well away from me because I was furious with one of them. But I never lost my temper with anyone, ever. But then I’d cool down and I’d come, and they’d look at me, and I’d say “would you like a cup of tea now?” [Chuckle] Obviously all was better.
[Recording paused, resumes in the middle of a new discussion]
“Do you put your child in a playpen?” And I said “yes, I don’t want him spreading everywhere and making a mess [and] everything when I’m teaching”. But he was like a dog. I’d be starting teaching after three o’clock, and I used to always think to myself ‘at five o’clock I’ve got to stop what I’m doing, because it’s his turn.’ But the little blighter – oh! Oh … [laugh] I’d do oral tests with them you see, which they had to do for the exams. And because he is so musical, and he’s terribly musical now – he’d pipe up the answer. And if he had to sing something he’d [?] it absolutely right. And half the time they couldn’t – you know, teenagers – they couldn’t get it. And so I … [whispers] “ssh … don’t do that.” And then it came five o’clock, and he’d be standing up and waltzing around holding on to the rim of it, all the way round, ‘cause he was like a dog – he knew it was his time then. Yes, how did he know that? [Chuckle] It was quite a statement. It was just that he knew – a certain length of time he was very good – I could teach, and you wouldn’t know he was in the room, except when I was doing oral tests, ‘cause he loved those. But as soon as it came to five o’clock or close to it, he started sort of moving around. He was in the playpen, I had to lift him out. [Chuckle] He wasn’t allowed in the play [?]
Now Griffith’s – that’s a shoe shop isn’t it? So the piano’s there with stuff on it.
Yes, it’s got music on it. But I don’t know whether … yes, I mean he always laughs when I’m there, but I don’t know whether … [Chuckle] But he’s very musical that man, anyway.
Now that Havelock North and Hastings is all under one city, as it were, do you notice a difference?
No. I mean it’s so close together when I had a bicycle up here …
You’d ride from one to the other?
… one to the other, quite happily.
I kept to the background, because – when I was so shy when I left school etcetera, I took up drama because I thought it would help me. I thought I had to do something for myself, so I went to different places and I did one or two shows with the Hastings Group Theatre. I did a lot in Wellington, but then I used to get certain parts – sort of rather siren-type parts. And I did them quite well, but then I thought to myself ‘I’m not that sort of character actually, although I can do it’, and so I stopped. But I find it quite useful, and I have right though my life, that if I’ve got something that I’m finding really hard, or that I’m not enjoying having to do something at, I suddenly say to myself, ‘well you just pretend you’re such and such, and such and such,’ and I can carry it off. And everybody thinks ‘oh, she’s got so much confidence’, without knowing exactly how I am feeling. But I love dealing with all the Clarkson material and the Downing material – it’s part of my life to sort of do that.
So you would spend probably two or three hours a week on it?
Well that was my aim, and I’ve done that for a while. But I don’t know, I seem to have a lot of people are wanting things at the moment, that I haven’t been able to do it. A lot of my friends are in their nineties, and I think they are more important, and I will last for another couple of years to do it.
I think my biggest bent would have been – if I hadn’t had music – would have been an accountant or a banker, ‘cause I do love dealing with figures and things like that. But I didn’t have that opportunity. I believe that the wonderful life that music is … I still play at retirement places, and raise a smile with people … I don’t care if they go to sleep or what, if it means I’ve soothed them. The fact that people still want me at my age is wonderful. That’s why I feel … I get up in the morning and think ‘now what’s going to happen this morning,’ sort of thing. I’m not going to sit and think, ‘oh, I’m eighty-five, and every bone in my body aches’ – I mean it does half the time. But that’s not life. I want to enjoy every moment I’ve got, and I was just so lucky to have music because it opens up so many avenues to me.
Thank you … absolutely lovely, Nan.
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Interviewer: Erica Tenquist