Magazine article The Spectator

Fame Was the Spur

Magazine article The Spectator

Fame Was the Spur

Article excerpt

Few people under 50 will have heard of Nancy Spain; the journalist, broadcaster and novelist. On the other hand most people old enough to remember her dramatic death - in a civilian air crash near Aintree on Grand National Day 1964 - will have some idea of the kind of person she was, even if, like me, they hardly ever read her or listened to her. She was, wrote the late Nicholas Tomalin, `the first professional Celebrity'.

Her public image seemed to me unappealing: an arch, intrusive Beaverbrook hack, a shameless success-snob feeding off the reputations of the rich and famous, a brash, overweight, ageing tomboy whose showing-off tended to embarrass as much as amuse.

Rose Collis's biography - sensitive, witty, exhaustively researched - does not gloss over Nancy's defects. But it presents a more human and sympathetic character, a more genuinely, if ephemerally, gifted woman than I had imagined, convincingly evoking the irrepressible joie de vivre which won the affection not only of the mass public but of Noel Coward, Hermione Gingold, Sandy Wilson, Denis Norden, Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street, and also a series of lesbian lovers.

Her obvious weaknesses - lack of sensitivity combined with sentimentality and constant play-acting - were typical of someone who has never quite grown up; a state once said to be essential for a successful, inquiring journalist.

She came from a likeable, fairly prosperous family in Jesmond, the genteel part of Newcastle. Among her antecedents were Mrs Beeton and Samuel `Self Help' Smiles. From them she inherited her common touch, her sweeping enterprise and determination.

Her shortish life - she died at 46 - is in Miss Collis's lively hands an exhilarating adventure story. Despite her childish side and sexual tastes, it was during her schooldays at Roedean - `School of Love and School of Might' - and her war service in the Wrens that she was least happy. Ever a rebel, she disliked institutional life, and her pushy opportunism and outrageousness grated on several contemporaries.

Her time spent between these two institutions was idyllic: success as a Newcastle cub reporter, radio actress and amateur sportswoman coincided with her first real romance, with the alluring lacrosse champion Winifred 'Bin' Sargent - about whom she wrote much glutinous verse - culminating in a blissful French trip, cruelly cut short by Bin's sudden death.

In post-war London, that extraordinary melange of war-scarred austerity and exuberant youthful hopes, Nancy's energy, facility and personal eccentricity quickly came into their own. Her first book, about her naval experiences, was a success; she followed it with a series of high-camp detective novels and a life of Mrs Beeton. She used old and new contacts to launch herself into freelance journalism.

Her trademarks were soon established: living beyond her means, avidly cultivating celebrities, discarding conventional woman's dress for mannish trousers. She became an outstanding editor of Books of Today, a smart, middle-brow magazine whose contributors included Elizabeth Bowen, Hermione Gingold and the young Elizabeth Jane Howard. …

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