the lesbian vanishes, as paper does when it burns in the fire

4 'You have to make allowances for modern slang: her sister is "gay", her friends are "gay", one of them is even married to a "gay man called Colin"' 4
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"THAT WAS a splendid ending to the football match between Hartlepool Found Drowneds and Tynemouth Graveyards United when the players battered the referee to death with his truss." For this splendid opening sentence I am indebted to Miss Nancy Spain; it is the statement with which her anti-social father used to silence unwelcome dinner guests.

Does anyone out there still remember Nancy Spain? She was long on my list of People To Find Out About, along with Gilles de Rais, the 15th- century Fred West. But compared to the unutterably squalid and banal Fred, Gilles's crimes had an almost religious intensity. A figure of opulent evil, he fought alongside Joan of Arc, and was both a devout Catholic and a committed Satanist. For ages he bobbed around in my head in hints and half-phrases; then over the course of one year I read Huysman's La- Bas, Tournier's Gilles et Jeanne, Robert Nye's The Life and Death of my Lord Gilles de Rais, George Bataille's The Trial of Gilles de Rais, based on contemporary documents (truly a descent into the maelstrom) and a smashing doublet-ripper from the Gay Men's Press, after which I'd kind of had enough of Gilles. Nancy was to remain an enigma for a few years more.

I came across her in an old book, which recounted how she once saw a ghost just outside Fortnum & Mason. This mixture of the numinous and the mundane greatly appealed to me, as did her fantastic name. But who and what was she? At the time of writing Nancy Spain evidently needed no introduction. So the name was filed away and, gradually, the odd reference here and stray mention there added up to a recognisable character. She was a journalist, humorist, novelist and discreet lesbian in the middle decades of this century. Photographs show her as a jolly-hockeysticks type with cropped black hair, hefty forearms and even heftier eyebrows. She remained a shadow, so it was with great delight that I discovered last week, on a bookstall in the Charing Cross Road, Why I'm Not a Millionaire, Nancy Spain's autobiography published in 1957, price pounds 2.

Born in Newcastle, she went to Roedean, where the girls had to wear djibbahs, the sack-like tunics prescribed by the school founders. Spain looks far from sylph-like in her djibbah. She graduated to writing sports reports for northern newspapers, and had another ghostly encounter, this time with her lacrosse-playing friend Bin, dead at 24: "Once I am sure I saw her come into a restaurant. She sat down and ordered, of all things, a Scotch Egg. But when I leapt up to say hello she seemed to vanish, leaving a hard, clear line for a second, as a piece of paper does when it burns in the fire."

The Second World War cut short a fledgling journalistic career, and she joined the Wrens' press office, where she learned to call leaving the building "going ashore". At 25, she wrote a Wren's eye-view of the war, Thank You, Nelson, which was an immediate hit, but was quickly sucked up into literary London where she earned no money for 10 years and made lots of friends. Her arrival in Fleet Street, aged 35, was not propitious: her red MG promptly blew up. "It burnt merrily for some time outside the Press Association building until I put out the fire with my duffle coat."

It's disconcerting to find she was a name-dropper and sycophant of Paula Yates dimensions though, granted, her subjects are more dazzling: "Cocteau was marvellous"; "I liked Katharine Hepburn enormously"; Noel Coward has "the quickest, most spontaneous wit in the room". Particularly hard to take is the eulogy to her employer, Lord Beaverbrook: "His head is marvellous. So are his hands. Huge, very sensitive ..."

You continually have to make allowances for modern slang: "gay" is one of her favourite adjectives. Her sister is gay; her friends are gay; one of them is even "married to a gay man called Colin". However, you don't have to look too hard for the secret homosexual dynamic, whether it's in her adoration of Marlene Dietrich or her determination to wear trousers. The continual but entirely neutral references to love affairs with men contrast tellingly with the gushing rhapsody on the neat figure and tiny waist of the woman who, with her two small sons, became Nancy's "family".

It is all a wonderfully touching portrait of a vanished, gay world, when female magazine editors wore hats, when the Daily Express was still in "the great black glass building that Lord Beaverbrook ordered from Sweden", and Fleet Street was in full flow: "Journalists who never leave the Street are a terrible thing ... they become cynical, tired young-old men with hair whitened by catching perpetual deadlines with stories that aren't quite good enough ... because they haven't left the Street 'to go and see'." This makes poignant reading in the eastern fastness of Canary Wharf.

Spain ends her account with the declaration that "whatever the next 40 years turn out to be ... they couldn't possibly be more fun than the 40 years that have gone before." If she had been granted those 40 years, Spain would still be around today, perhaps even a household name; but she died in a aircrash not so long after this jaunty little book was published. How nice it would be to meet her ghost in Piccadilly, outside Fortnum and Mason.

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