Obituary: Leslie Flint

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Leslie Walter Flint, medium; born London 1911; died Hove, West Sussex 16 April 1994.

IN HIS HEYDAY, which was before the war and some 25 years after it, Leslie Flint was one of Britain's best-known spiritualists. He possessed the rarer distinction of being a direct-voice medium.

Flint used no trumpets or other paraphernalia. Though sitting in total darkness, he did his work wide awake, not in a trance. Those who flocked to him could engage, if conditions were propitious, in fluent, colloquial conversation with others, kith and kin, strangers and the well- known, all of them 'passed over', who manifested themselves in space, voice only, around Flint's solid if unseen presence - 'a little above my head and slightly to one side of me'.

The mood was not at all solemn; still less, frightening. Leslie Flint took his inexplicable gifts sensibly and objectively, sometimes light-heartedly. Especially when conversing with his 'familiar', a child called Mickey who had been run down in a street accident in Camden Town back in the 1910s. This perky and impertinent boy would engage his master in cockney chitchat and occasionally turn his sharp tongue on the guests sitting expectantly a dozen strong round the big Paddington drawing-room in the 1960s or, when Flint's health had permitted him to tour in earlier decades, packing the churches, halls and theatres in their hundreds and thousands all over Britain, the continent of Europe and America.

In looks, Flint resembled a first-generation union leader: he was short and square, wore double- breasted suits and heavy-framed spectacles: Ernie Bevin's brother, maybe. Only his silvery hair and a bass voice with an actor manager's vibrato in it suggested a theatrical dimension. Like many such prodigies, he was born in poverty - a Salvation Army home in Hackney - and legitimised soon afterwards, only to 'lose' both parents again when they went their separate ways: his mother to the West End's bright lights, his father to the trenches of the Western front, neither seen again. A grandmother reared him in St Albans on broken biscuits and tuppence worth of jam and let the picture palace take care of his preschool afternoons, so that from the start he was happier in the dark than in the light of day.

The dead became a normal part of his world early and enduringly. Aged eight, he saw the apparently solid figure of a deceased uncle in his granny's kitchen and, around the same time, grew aware that the voices whispering all round him at the cinema in that silent era hadn't paid for their admission. He was by turns a cemetery gardener, an impromptu grave-digger, a semi-professional dancer up to trophy-hunting standard, a cinema usher and a barman before he found his medium, so to speak, and founded a spiritualist circle in Sydney Grove, Hendon, with the aim of providing evidence of the continuity of life after physical death by the demonstration of his psychic gifts.

From that time, in the mid-1930s, Flint 'took off' and was soon filling the biggest halls in London and answering mailbags of letters. He willingly submitted to numerous tests to disprove accusations of ventriloquism or other deceptions. In one, he held a measured quantity of coloured water in his mouth throughout a voluble seance; in another, a throat microphone registered no vibrations from his larynx while the voices continued in full spate. Later, he allowed anyone who liked to do so to tape-record his seances.

The 'famous' were no strangers to him: Rudolph Valentino often came, sounding a bit like Charles Boyer, which was correct since he had been taught English by a French governess; others included Leslie Howard, Ivor Novello, Cosmo Lang (the late Archbishop of Canterbury) and Queen Victoria - an important calling-card for the invitation that came to Flint to take tea at Kensington Palace with the Queen's daughter Princess Louise.

Unsurprisingly, Flint was a conscientious objector, and served in a non-combatant regiment for part of the Second World War and then worked briefly in the coal-mines, though he much preferred the sedentary darkness of his psychic occupation. Celebrity voices with a show-business emphasis evoked understandable suspicion - compounded by Flint's presidency of the Valentino Memorial Guild and the fact that his last London residence - a gloomy mansion off the Charles Addams drawing-board in Westbourne Terrace Road that had been the actor George Arliss's one- time home - accommodated a private cinema for a dozen or so guests who, this time, were not disturbed by spectral whisperings.

Yet the famous were vastly outnumbered by the spirit voices of anonymous, ordinary people speaking messages of hope, comfort or occasional clairvoyance to their friends and relatives. I attended several sittings. They were always held in pitch dark, Flint explaining that he extruded ectoplasm which formed the 'etheric voice-box' for the dead to relay their words and any sudden intrusion of light would send it recoiling back into him, 'like a kick in the midriff': potentially very dangerous. The company chatted in a desultory way until, very suddenly and dramatically, the room grew cold; then on a good day for reception, Mickey came through, introducing the 'speakers'. Though tolerantly sceptical, I had to concede that those which addressed me, claiming acquaintance with a recently deceased parent, answered test questions about childhood, family and pets with fluency and total accuracy. They did not seem to need to pause for breath. Flint's heavy breathing was audible and he sometimes talked over the voices. The most troubling thing was the utter lack of curiosity about the present state of the world among those who had left it recently or long ago. Even Valentino did not care to ask who were his contemporary peers.

No charge beyond tea-and-biscuits money was levied for these group sessions: Leslie Flint presumably made a very satisfactory living out of private sittings and a book, Voices in the Dark, he co- authored with Doreen Montgomery in 1971. With advancing age, bronchitis and other infirmities, his powers became unreliable, the voices faded - and, last month, their remarkable conductor himself died, quietly by the sea. I like to think, however, that we have not heard the last of him.