Empowering And Inspiring Women: An Interview With Beryl Nairn
York is one of my absolute favorite cities in England. With its old timey chocolate box charm and wealth of architecture, theatres and culture you can’t go wrong. Meeting Beryl, retired teacher and local actor, we found a victorian pub with worn floorboards and old beams off of the cobbled streets to talk about life, death, inspirations, looking back and moving forward.
“You think your life is moving along a particular, rewarding, and successful
trajectory: School, Head Girl, A Levels, University, Teaching Career, Promotion, Head of English, Advisory Teacher for North Yorkshire – then suddenly (and without any warning) your whole career pathway, (indeed your whole life), can be completely disrupted and brought to a halt.
As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
What’s amazing is that we do have the capacity to bounce back, reinvent ourselves. So, I guess what I’m saying is, be open, be flexible – nothing’s set in stone.”
Her latest acting performance in ‘Colder Than Here’ by playwright Laura Wade at Friargate Theatre, York in 2018 held some difficult topics surrounding terminal illness. Beryl played the lead part of Myra, the mother of two grown daughters who has been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and determined to die on her own terms.
The play is hard hitting, dealing with with the difficult conversation of death, but still manages to be funny. We talked about her experience playing such a strong character, about death, and how and why we need to have those hard conversations with the people who matter.
Death is more of a taboo to talk about than sex is! I think people believe they will catch it if they do! But it (death) isn’t an optional extra. The play (Colder Than Here) dealt with such overwhelming topics. Even for me, after doing the play, It still isn’t an easy conversation to have- even afterwards, but it did really remind me to seize the day.
Being so immersed in the whole conversation has made me feel less bewildered by what is around.
I think the best way to approach the subject of death is by normalising it- we have outsourced death so much that it is no longer a family affair.
We don’t want a hands on experience, we have pushed it away. The play was a gateway into talking about it, not just for the actors, but for the audience who came to see it.
I love the idea of the ‘Death Cafe’ and Coffin clubs (where people meet to build their own coffins at a fraction of the price their family will have to buy one for) where the whole conversation surrounding death doesn’t feel forced.
It's an open space to talk about your fears and worries but also learn to celebrate your life and the lives of people who have died.
It sadly often takes a big moment in your life before you actually talk about it. Death is so profound and yet so common place. My mum says ‘everyone has their own span.’ which is something I really resonate with- It tells us that we should be happy with the lives we have lead, and appreciate more.
So, how would I start a conversation about death with young people? I’d probably suggest going online and looking at some podcasts- for instance ‘You, Me and the Big C’ and listen to how other people talk about death. Maybe it helps to make yourself comfortable with the topic first, before you start the conversation? There’s also ‘Griefcast’, winner of best Podcast of the year 2018 and the excellent BBC Radio 4 series: ‘We Need to Talk About Death.’
With parents, or older people in general, I might start by asking them what they like; music, poetry, stories. Perhaps encourage them to write down a list of their favourite choices of music/poems which they would want at their funeral. It’s probably important that all of us do this! If people are religious, or follow a faith, the conversation I think is easier.
My dad had a Humanist ceremony and we’d talked honestly about his end of life and funeral wishes. Maybe it’s also a good idea to raise the topic of organ donation, (Dad was always clear he wanted to donate his organs). You certainly don’t have to jump straight in with the big ‘D’ word!
Looking back, what do you think you were like at 20/30? Is it different to how you thought you were then?
I attended an all girls school, so when it came to the school plays, productions such as Shakespeare, all the roles were played by girls. Once we started mixing with the boys school for productions, all of the good juicy parts went to the men. We were thrilled at the time that we were finally mixing with the boys, but looking back… I wanted those parts!
When I was 20 I was at the University of Leeds studying English and History. Born in Kent to Liverpudlian parents, they were a huge inspiration to me on what a relationship looked like. They did everything together, and I thought ‘If I can’t have what they have, I won’t compromise.’
So I’ve never been married! I do wish I had the contentment I have now with that when I was 30 though. At that age I wanted marriage and children. But it’s not worth hankering after what doesn’t happen.
Apart from that, all I ever wanted to do was teach. I felt it was a very noble profession. I was very career oriented and worked myself too hard. At 30 I didn’t want career to be the culmination of my satisfaction.
My passion now though is performing, and supporting those who love the stage, and haven’t been as supported as they could have been. I seek out diverse writers. I co- founded the York branch of ‘Script Yorkshire’ which activity helps people get their scripts into theatres. We really have a duty to represent, and if we have the platforms, then why shouldn’t we use them?
Talking about gender issues like feminism and topics such as mental health are all open conversations now, in your teaching days what were these conversations like?
As a young teacher, gender issues were huge. I remember a science teacher put up posters of boys and girls doing science and the captions were hugely sexist. But calling out these issues wasn't the done thing. I tried to encourage the fairness and time for the students who wanted to speak in class, Just because someone isn’t talking doesn’t mean they aren’t listening.
I taught 11-18 year olds as an advisory teacher, but I also taught 3+ primary age. It was sad to see that even at such a young age, enforced stereotypes had already been put on the children.
When the National Curriculum came in, I knew deep down, it was practically impossible to make it work. Before, teachers had agency. After, I was overworked. My mental health got so bad I had to give it all up.
At the time, mental health was heavily stigmatised. I thought it was all my fault, and couldn’t stop thinking about what I could have done differently. My career path was ruptured, and it took me years to get well again. I met a doctor who said to me “you can’t force a broken bone to mend, so why force your mind to mend?”
I think, though, I have come out of it as a better- no, different- person.
What would your advice be for younger women?
Social media is such an amazing thing, it allows you to share things at the click of a button, it also gives women a voice. With that though, there will always be hateful people who are given a voice as well. As a teacher to my core I am desperate for people to explore the world away from the mess of social media. The Arts, theatre- the world is truly so amazing.
Be supportive to everyone. Take an interest in people, really ask how they are and listen to what they have to say, rather than it being a conversation driven by courtesy and obligation.
Everything is also always so much more complex than people want you to believe. There is no such thing as black and white. So make sure you listen to other people's views and advice, but always make up your own mind.
Tell me about one inspirational woman who has impacted your life the most.
My mum! She’s always been so supportive of my choices, education, university and teaching career. She enjoys doing DIY, with a project always on the go!
When she was little, Mum had measles, which led to mastoiditis, and she needed a number of operations on her ears. She was operated on in Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, when she was seven for the last time in 1944, before the NHS came into existence. She had a female surgeon, Dr. Abercrombie, which was unusual for a time when most doctors were male.
She was deaf as a child, but still ended up in mainstream school who were supportive of her needs. She married at 18, eloped to Scotland and had me when she was 19. Hearing loss didn’t hold her back at all, she made a happy family, had a wonderful marriage and worked for M&S and made her own clothes.
Even now she is always wanting to learn new things and takes life and grabs it with both hands.