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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996

By C W Malcolm

The New Zealand Herald's Weekend Magazine of 23 September 1995 contained a quite remarkable article headed: THE POET LAUREATE AND THE KIWI TEACHER. And that Kiwi teacher was identified as the late NELL CLIMIE, a New Zealand school teacher, for many years a well known and respected figure in Paeroa, the first Editor of our Historical Society Journal.

As a young teacher, Nellie Scott was one of those who participated in the Exchange of Teachers between New Zealand and England where she went in 1931. Here she attended a lecture by the Poet Laureate, the late John Masefield. Thereafter began a correspondence between the two over a period of some thirty years.

The author of the article, Jack Leigh, asks, "Was it infatuation, flirtation, fantasy, genuine friendship or the indulgence of an established literary figure towards a lesser creature from the other end of the Empire?" He leaves us to judge when Masefield's letters are displayed at the Auckland Library's Rare Books Room to which they have been gifted by her nephew.

When I myself was in correspondence with John Masefield, Mrs Climie made me aware of her earlier contacts. She had even received from him copies of his books but she gave me no suggestion that his letters had been of so very personal a nature.

The HERALD article, no doubt with the actual letters at its disposal, tells how Masefield wrote to her as, "My dear Nan", and "My dear Nonnie." At times it was just, "Dear Nellie." While in England she visited his home: "Dear Miss Scott, I hope that by early March my wife will be well enough to welcome you here." And in a following letter, "We shall be delighted to see you on Saturday at 1pm." And she is asked for a photo before she leaves on her return to New Zealand. Throughout the correspondence this notable man signed himself "Jan" which, as far as I am able to judge, was that used as a favourite epithet by members of his own family.

To this Poet Laureate of England, Nell sent some of her own poems. In exchange she received his. But throughout his letters there is at times a lighter, playful, even boyish note such as his enquiry as to which way she faces on the opposite side of the globe, so that when he knows "we will go burrowing our greetings at each other like anything."

My own letters from John Masefield cannot compare with this personal correspondence. They are, written in his own hand, acknowledgements of my letters of 1957, 1959, and 1960 telling him how my large Wesley Intermediate School in Auckland had, each year, celebrated his birthday with a special assembly, and conveying the greetings of the several hundred pupils. The assembly hall seating was rearranged in "hollow square" so that the choir could sing those that had been set to music. He was delighted that his work had given such pleasure to so many in this distant land.

My first interest in John Masefield was aroused when, as pupils at Paeroa District High School, we were required to memorise a choice selection from his 1916 book GALLIPOLI: "Ship after ship, crammed with soldiers, moved slowly out of harbour in the lovely day, and felt again the heave of the sea. No such gathering of fine ships has ever been seen upon this earth, and the beauty and the exultation of the youth upon them made them like sacred things as they moved away. All the thousands of men aboard them gathered on deck to see, till each rail was thronged. These men had come from all parts of the British world, from Africa, Australia, Canada, India, the Mother Country, New Zealand, and remote islands in the sea. They had said goodbye to home that they might offer their lives in the cause we stand for. . . "

They were leaving the shelter of Mudros Harbour for the Anzac landing. Note the careful alphabetical arrangement of the countries from which they had come. It is a prose work written with poetic beauty - the work of a Master of the English Language.

My treasured letters from the great Poet Laureate will not be gifted to any public library but will be inherited by my children and grandchildren, some of them in England itself. My letters from John Masefield can in no way compare with those that have earned for our beloved late Editor such a headline in a national newspaper as THE POET LAUREATE AND THE KIWI TEACHER.