Out and about in an innocent age

A Trouser-wearing Character: the life and times of Nancy Spain by Rose Collis, Cassell, pounds 25

She's gay, she's provocative ... She's going places", the News of the World boasted when it acquired Nancy Spain as a columnist in 1961. That headline, like much of Rose Collis's welcome biography, is a reminder of a more innocent world than ours, a world in which it was seriously suggested that the trouser-wearing Spain might be about to marry Gilbert Harding, a man in whom bachelorhood could hardly have been more obviously confirmed.

Spain and Harding were among the first television "personalities" at a period when a modicum of talent and decorum was required of those appearing on panel games. Unlike Harding, Spain never gave the impression that such programmes were beneath her. She was a genuine populist who had made her name in the pages of Beaverbrook's Daily Express, where she began as the paper's chief book reviewer before gradually becoming a free-range columnist.

The Express promoted her as a controversialist: "They call her Vulgar; they call her Unscrupulous; they have called her the worst-dressed woman in Britain". Vulgar and unscrupulous she undoubtedly was, but although rarely prevailed upon to wear a frock, she had a certain butch chic. In the formal world of 1950s broadcasting, the contrast between Spain in her "natty gents' sportswear" and fellow-panellists such as Lady Isobel Barnett in their stiff evening dresses was striking. Some people thought her merely bohemian, but others recognised the dress-code and were grateful to have so engaging a role-model.

One of the pleasures of Spain's story is that of witnessing someone getting away with it. Not only did this person, who would these days be described as a "visible lesbian", have a large gay following (particularly for her decidedly camp detective stories), but she was read and listened to by thousands of ordinary heterosexual pre-feminist women. Contracts with Women's Hour and She, the magazine founded and edited by her lover Joan ("Jonnie") Werner Laurie, brought her into homes where women still had their place. Through Spain, such women could learn what it might be like to work a dockland crane, go rock-climbing or rally-driving.

With a certain amount of discretion she even wrote about her own domestic set-up with "a very nice lady publisher (i.e Laurie) and her two sons". Readers were not, of course, informed that the two women shared a bed, but this was less surprising than the fact that the younger boy was Spain's son. This was something that not even he discovered until after Spain and Laurie died together when the light aircraft in which they were travelling to the Grand National crashed in a cabbage-field near the racecourse.

Also part of this menage was Sheila van Damm, racing driver and manager of the Windmill Theatre, with whom Laurie (as her son explained) "would go off and do fairly butch boys' things together". This is probably all they did, although their relationship was undoubtedly more than friendship. Spain, on the other hand, had several affairs, most openly with Ginette Spanier, the (married) directrice of Balmain. (She may have had a liaison with Dietrich - but then who didn't?) Spain and Laurie's partnership easily withstood such diversions.

Collis traces Spain's life and career with diligence and good humour, but occasionally with rather too much detail. By the time we get on to Spain's service in the WRNS, however, the book gathers momentum. "Don't be an officer," one pal advised her. "You go on being a bloody pirate." Spain took the counsel to heart, and Collis is particularly good at capturing this buccaneering aspect. When Spain behaved badly, Collis says so, but this is a properly affectionate portrait which rescues from gathering oblivion an unlikely but cheering representative of her era.

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