Info 5b-billie, Billie Mair - memoirs
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Extract from the Memoirs of Billie Mair, who in 1976 chronicled her memories of 25 years at the Promenade house, with her grandparents Mr. and Mrs. E. W. Alison who had made Lochaber their home in 1890.
I came to Lochaber when I was six weeks old, I was born in Sydney, and with the quick breaking up of my mother's marriage, in which Grandma had a most successful hand, we came to Takapuna and Grandma.
She brought me up, My mother had no say whatsoever. Daughters who had broken the social code had to learn to live with the results.
I Lived in Lochaber for 25 years - 15 of them with Grandma. My earliest memory of her is her voice - high, clear and demanding.
"IVEE-EE"... my mother being summoned. How many times I heard it echoing through the house, that most clearly indicating the mood of the moment. My cousins who read this will remember Lochaber as well as I do.
Built of 'Heart Kauri' it still stands sturdy and elegant among the faceless modern model chalets that surround it now. With the constant urge of city planners to pull down the old and rebuild I do not think it will survive, so I am happy that I saw it before the inevitable path of progress puts home units there instead and the last chapter of its life closes.
Looking back I guess my memories of Grandmother and my life with her are a bit clouded by nostalgia for a childhood long ago. She was a woman of great generosity and kindness, but very hard to live with She was difficult and demanding and could be unjust She was the Master - and what she wanted she got most of gave in for peace sake.
She had all such characters she had warmth, charm and a talent for Living. You can't be perfect I admired her, I admired them all and I still do, they don't make 'em like grandma any more!
Grandma loved photographs. I use to be dragged to studios dressed in my best, or draped in tulle and told to look soulful at the camera. In those days there were do to door salesmen who would come round asking for your family photographs which they would take away and make into expensive miniatures on ivory or tint and 'enlarge' Granny was easy prey. They would go away with orders smiling all over their faces.
Grandfather began his career as a compositor on the NZ herald and he used to proudly recount how he became one of the worlds fastest by winning a competition.
He was proud of his Scottish ancestry - a descendant of the Cameron Clan. He could quote Scottish poems by the hour - his voice resonant and compelling - arms emphasizing each phrase.
"Lochiel Lochiel remember the day when the lowland shall meet ye in battle's array ..."
And on he'd go. Mother getting fidgety and grandma usually asleep by the end.
When I was older I use to assist Grandma out ..(of her corsets). They were all whalebone and laces crisis- crossing over and over, and pulled tight to encase her body like an iron sheath. When they were loosened she would pop out like a cork from a champagne bottle, singing with relief.
One of my earliest memories of Lochaber was the old racing stables at the back of the house by the paddock. Grandpa and my uncles were always living in hopes that one day their horses would win not only the Auckland and Melbourne Cups, but the English Derby as well, with the Pric De Arch De Triomphe as the final achievement. To this end Grandfather spent a lot of money he could ill-afford, it almost ruined him. Uncle Ewen and uncle Ernest especially were always busy with plans for the horses. - often to the detriment of their jobs as lawyers. Grandfather was their main supporter. He founded the Devonport Jockey Club and Auckland racing club and he could not resist the looks of a good colt or promising Filly.
This caused much family friction. Grandma loved a day at the races and a bit of a flutter, but she felt to much money was going down the drain. She hated having the stables so near to the house and complained loudly and often - to no avail. Grandpa held the stables would remain there and that my Annie was that.
So one day she acted, she ordered a demolition firm to come in and pull the whole lot down. Before Mr... Alison gets home you understand ... she told the Forman. Yes maa.am , the forman understood perfectly and he stables were laid low in just a few hours.
Grandfather, all unexpecting, arrived home in his usual benign state of mind. An awful sight met his eyes. Derelict gaps where once the horse box had been. The horses were wandering around loose in the paddock. The hands sitting around.
He was enraged. It was the only time I saw my mild gentle Grandfather positively shake with rage. Grannie tried to hold her own. She even tried a heart attack, with no luck. My two Uncles arrived and were speechless, It created a first rate ding-dong family row and Grandpa actually threatened to leave home.
But something had to be done about the horses. Grandfather went up Killarny St. which had a lot of spare paddocks in those days, and found a site for new stables. He allowed himself to be mollified and promised to stay. I think he really frightened Grandma and she never did anything like it again. It had been a near thing.
Because I spent so much of my like in boarding schools, when I came home for the holidays I ran wild. Away with discipline. There was the beach, the sea , the rocks, Grandma didn't give a hoot where I was, what I did or where I went, so long as I came home at the agreed time and kept out of trouble.
In her own strong way though she imposed other disciplines. At a birthday party she gave for me with most of my cousins present, there was included on of the list of local children invited a child whom I hardly knew and looked down upon because of her background. This was enough for Grandma.
She gave Nellie all my birthday presents, the seat of honour at the party the biggest helpings When the party was over she made me take off my beautiful party dress and give it to the bewildered Nellie. I Wept, Nellie wept, But Grandmother was adamant "you see Nellie" she said "my Granddaughter thinks she is better than anyone else. She has to learn she is not"
When I was about seven an incident occurred which pleased Grandma greatly and shocked my poor mother. I was sent for a few short months to the local Takapuna school while they decided what to do with me between boarding schools.
Coming home one day just out side the Mon Desir Bar a large girl of about 12 flounced up to me, looked me up and down and said Sneeringly "you little shrimp, your wearing a skirt made out of your mother's" To the delight of Boozers lounging outside the bar I Swung my school bag, which contained only one exercise book, but a spanking new heavy wooden pencil case which Grandma had given me and slapped her over the head. I can still hear the crunch of it. She fell over yelling and we were at it fighting on the pavement The Boozers shouting the odds on as to who would win. Undoubtedly she would have trounced me had not Gus Raynes, the head barman come running out at the hubbub and pulled us apart, carrying me home bruised and dirty to Grandma.
Grandma was triumphant "Billie can take care of herself" she told my distraught mother. She was doubly pleased because the large girl who had insulted me was a cousin called Mavis Brett - a member of the hated Mair Clan, my father's family.
Summer Holidays at Lochaber as my cousins will remember were a child's paradise. The Sea ,the sun, the freedom to gambol around the large garden eating apples and peaches. Some times we would go strawberry picking with Grandfather at the back of the lake or he would take me on a harbor trip to Brown's Island which he then owned. He would hold my hand and tell me all about the places we passed - he knew everything about the sea and the land around it.
During the winter we all curled up into the little study where Grandfather would read to us Grandma corsets loosened would lie on the old settee with Micky, our beloved old mongle dog tucked in behind her. The study was a favourite room with all of us. The walls were lined from top to bottom with books. There were too Grandpa's precious locked cupboards which Grandma longed to clear out. In the study too was the HMV rosewood gramophone. It was the fashion when I was young, and growing up at Lochaber, to entertain one's guests with family talent. Mother had to sing and I had to recite, or worse still, thump through my star piano piece, the Dolly's Dance by Chaminade. Frequently (and depending on who was there) my mother would be asked to do some of her famous imitations. She had a marvelous gift for mimicry and would often dress up in the rolls of her characters. In other words she would have been a splendid actress as well as a singer.
The Drawing room at Lochaber was a beautiful room in Grandma's favourite colours - pale green and lilac mauves. The walls were papered in white and Grandma dyed the carpets herself to bring out the colours. It was cleaned by sprinkling damp tea leaves on it and then a brisk brushing.
Two of her most notable purchases abroad were there - two lovely busts called (I think) Music and Plenty.
Sundays were memorable days at Lochaber, This meant - often as not - the whole family for lunch and tea. Grandma complaining bitterly about this invasion, but really she loved it. It gave her a chance to be Grand Dame. To produce healthy food for hungry grandchildren -plates piled high and speak when you were spoken to.
One of the things I remember best about the house were the big white gates. They were very handsome, double, and linked together with a heavy metal catch. A long broad drive led to the house. It was covered in white crackly shells, raked to perfection, which wound round the circle of Pungas facing the font steps leading up to the house. There was an old Rangitoto across the blue sea and the green paddocks. I have seen many grander entrances since, but none more beautiful. Nothing remains now but an ugly car-park. The front gates were, for me a refuge I would climb up and sit swinging on one - I'm the King of the Castle - until the gardener came along and scolded me. But I loved to perch on the top watching the world go by while Grandma rampaged about Lochaber. Grandma was like lightning in a domestic crisis such as the unexpected guest of some importance who had called at a really awkward moment. This quite often happened. Lochaber was a major port of call for any of Auckland's distinguished citizens when in Takapuna.
Once I remember was a sudden visit of the new Anglican Bishop of Auckland calling to pay his respects. This particular day the larder was empty. We were faced with a poached egg each for lunch - no lovely deep freeze to run to. Aunty May tried to catch grans eye to warn her, but to no avail. The invitation to stay to lunch was issued and the Bishop was delighted. While we kept the conversation going and the Bishop sipped his whisky Grandma disappeared for about half an hour. She came back smiling She had caught a chicken, wrung its neck, plucked it, disemboweled it and had it in the oven before the Bishop was half way through his drink.
One of Grandma's great relaxations was a trip across the harbor to window gaze and to shop. Queen St. was a royal procession. Grandma met everyone she knew and a lot who only knew her very vaguely but who always spoke a greeting. When we'd arrive Milne and Choyce's there'd be a flurry to find the chairman, Mr.. Stuart Milne, whom Grandma had known from boyhood. Actually, she wanted the use of his office in which to take her heartburn medicine.
If the office was not forthcoming she would send a salesgirl to get a glass of water, rummage around in that vast bag and take her dose. I would die with embarrassment. Grandma's favourite son was Uncle Ernest. He was a clever man with a great sense of humour. He was, for many years, the unmarried son, Grandma, with relief, having got the others married off and settled years before. He use to have the laugh of his life with poor Aunty May who was no horsewoman, and very light and small to boot. He would let her ride Reporter - basically a gentle horse with no bad habits - but Aunty May could not cope with him. He was a massive 17 hands and exceedingly intelligent. He knew Uncle was having a bit of fun and played along until one day he had enough, so he sat down on his haunches and Aunty May slithered off backwards.
Later Grandpa bought the girls a quiet old horse called Bogey and they would canter along Takapuna beach safe from Uncle Ernie's pranks. All this was long before I was born when Lochaber was coming into its heyday, Grandpa a rising politician. His sons becoming lawyers, his daughters unattached helping their mother with her numerous duties as a hostess - official or otherwise. The gardens were being created, engagements and marriages were in the air. There were tea parties, croquet parties and Mayoral functions to attend.
The Takapuna of those days was a small place. Everyone knew everyone else. Money was short but the city was growing and Grandfather had a big hand in helping to form it. Lochaber, with its beautiful rooms and wide verandas overlooking the harbour was the perfect place for such activities.
A constant stream of visitors appeared at Lochaber, and we had our "regulars" - people who amused Grandma or for whom she felt a sympathy and gave them an open invitation to visit. One such visitor was an old lady called Mrs.. de le Mare. She was a large woman who read cards and hands as well as tea cups. She was a charming old lady and I liked her very much. She was also rather handsome with snowy white hair and big blue eyes which looked at you very intently. Many a tea party at Lochaber was enlivened by Mrs.. de la Mare enthroned in the best chair like some ancient sybil intoning someone's fate as she shuffled the cards amid intense silence.
Another regular at Lochaber was a dashing English widow of some means, Mrs. Leonore Tanton, with a slightly dotty daughter called Queenie. Mrs. Tanton came (as she frequently reminded us) "From one of the best families on the Isle of White." Mrs. Tanton was a terrific flirt. She flashed her bright brown eyes at males of all ages and set her sights, some years later after Grannie died, on Grandfather but he was firmly resistant to her wiles. The thought of Mrs. Tanton reigning in Lochaber was too much for all of us.
Another local character was Grandma's great admirer and friend, Mother Mary Josephine of the Takapuna Convent. Mother Josephine was no ordinary nun - she played a first class game of rugby football and was usually to be found not kneeling in front of the alter counting her rosary - but flying around the football field, skirts hitched up, and wearing a pair of men's boots.
Looking at the pictures of the gardens at Lochaber I am amazed at how our gardener coped. The work must have been monumental. We had three I can remember - the first only by name, Arthur Ploughman who was there helping Grandfather plan and plant in the early days, then Fred Lockyer - "Freddyboy" to me - my special friend, patient and gentle. As fast as he planted I toddled behind him pulling the plants up. He never got angry and he never complained. Then we found Palmer, he arrived shortly before Grandma's death, but he stayed long after, I write about Palmer because he was, to me, a close part of the Lochaber scene. His famous pants were held up with a thin leather thong into which he tucked a variety of tools his "Jimmy Gadgets" His war cry in an emergency was "where's me jimmy gadgets" .. and he would come running - clanking loudly. You could hear him a mile off.
One of the greatest characters of them all was old Doc Baxter who attended Grandma. He was a terrific individualist dressing in old baggy tweeds with a fishing hat crammed with flies mash on his head ant old how. He drove an ancient car which looked as if it was held together with string and it probably was.
He and Grandma were more sparing partners than doctor and patient. She would call him and he would arrive, banging noisily down the sacred front drive - much to Palmer's annoyance Why couldn't the old folk use the back drive like everyone else? "Well", he would say to Grandma, lying among her lacy pillows while he draped himself over the high mahogany bed end - "Old ticker playing up eh?" - "Certainly not" she'd reply, "it's my Kidneys" She never agreed with any of his diagnoses on principle. It was always the start of a good Argument.
As I approached middle teens Grandma mellowed considerably. Her health was not good and an excitable disposition had played havoc with her heart and she was ordered to take things easily and not to worry - to let the world go by. I think the spark had gone, for she certainly calmed down. The pace of Lochaber life slowed down quite a bit. With Grandma less demanding in her ways. Mother found time to play and sing and Grandma would often ask her to do so. Grandma would lie on the verandah, Grandpa keeping her company packeting up melon seeds or near at hand in the dining room busily signing the Taupiri Coal mine Dividend Warrants. He was chairman of the company.
Now we are in the late summer of 1927. I have been sent by Grandma to get some ice-creams for us both. It is a hot, hot day. She is lying on the settee in the little study - the doors open wide to the light breeze. Mick is curled up beside her refusing to come with me for a little trot up the road, which he usually enjoyed. Instead he whines mournfully as I leave. He knew before we did.
When I returned Grandma could not hold the cone and dropped it on the floor. She had a stroke and she died two days later aged 72. I'm glad she died when she did in a world she knew and understood. It was not a perfect one by any means, but it was a safe one. For me the world seemed a colder place the sense of security that had wrapped me so securely as a child was to fall away.
When she left Lochaber for the last time the garden looked at its most beautiful - the beds heavy with bloom, the cars crackling gently on the shells as they followed her through the wide open gates.
She made a perfect exit as she would have approved.
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© JCC Glass
Updated 19th May 2019