Saturday 21 September 2019

Nancy Spain, the popular song and an English lesbian

When the late Barney Rushe wrote his classic ballad, he used the name of a woman of some notoriety

Writer and journalist, Nancy Spain
Writer and journalist, Nancy Spain
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In 1969, Christy Moore played a gig at a club in St Helier on the island of Jersey. The resident singer at the club was a man originally from Sallynoggin called Barney Rushe, and that night he played some songs that he had written, two of which in particular caught Christy's attention - The Crack Was Ninety and Nancy Spain.

"We hooked up after the gig and we swapped songs late into the night," Christy recalls. "When I heard him sing Nancy Spain, I was instantly smitten by this beautiful song."

Rushe promised to send a tape of the songs to Christy, though when he eventually received it he was a member of Planxty and did not get to record his famous version of Nancy Spain until 1976, with The Crack Was Ninety coming out in 1978.

As Christy observes, both songs have entered the People's Repertoire and have been recorded many times, though most of the people are not aware that Nancy Spain was the name of a real woman, of a very different kind to the one that we might have in mind when we hear the ballad.

"Barney explained it to me," Christy recalls. "When he was writing this love song, he needed a name to tie it all together. Nancy Spain was a famous English journalist back in the 1960s, and Barney really liked the sound of her name. That was the name he chose for the subject of his song."

Further investigation tells us that Nancy Spain was no ordinary journalist, but one promoted as a free-roaming controversialist by the Daily Express which declared proudly, if somewhat feverishly: "They call her vulgar. . . they call her unscrupulous. . . they call her the worst dressed woman in Britain. . ."

And the reason "they" found her badly dressed may have had more to do with the repressions of the 1950s than with Nancy Spain's own sense of style. In her public appearances on TV shows such as What's My Line? she tended to favour "natty gents sportswear" and what they called "mannish" clothes.

Nancy Spain was, in fact, a lesbian. When she signed for the News of the World in 1961, that organ made a prophetic if unwitting reference to this side of her personality when they screamed: "She's gay. . . she's provocative. . . she's going places. . ."

To some her "unfeminine" look was just the mark of a free spirit, a member of the Bohemian classes, but more astute observers were clued in to the deeper signals she was sending, which meant that Nancy Spain was not just a lesbian, she was an inspiration to thousands of other lesbians and to gay men in Britain at that time.

Moreover, she was read just as avidly by many "ordinary" women who enjoyed her articles in She magazine, in which she would write about rugged outdoor activities such as rock-climbing, rally-driving and operating a large dockland crane. Indeed, Nancy Spain lived with the founder and editor of that magazine, her lover Joan Werner Laurie.

And it is said that she had many affairs with other women, including Marlene Dietrich.

All of which was apparently accepted in good spirit by her soulmate Laurie. The two women even died together when the light aircraft in which they were travelling to the 1964 Grand National crashed into a cabbage field near Aintree racecourse.

Noel Coward wrote that "it is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out, when so many bores and horrors are left living."

So singular was the life and work of the real Nancy Spain, it would provide many verses for a ballad, entitled, perhaps, Nancy Spain. . .except that, of course, is taken.

Barney Rushe, who loved that name, had an interesting life too. His friend Mick Curry, himself a fine musician whose song Lawless has also been covered by Christy Moore, describes Barney as essentially a troubadour.

Born in 1946, he played in bands - mainly blues bands - in the early 1960s. On a holiday in Jersey he found that he could make a living there, playing at the Royal Hotel, a period during which he had that crucial encounter with Christy Moore.

From Jersey he had moved to Ibiza, then Germany, where he ran a pub near Nuremburg - though his real job was always singing and playing, perhaps with a drum machine. He moved to Spain, where he played in bars in Malaga.

He was, according to Mick Curry, "a really, really nice guy" who had never settled for too long in any one place, that idea being anathema to the troubadour. On a recent visit back to Dun Laoghaire, Barney Rush suffered an aneurysm, and died. At his funeral Christy Moore sang Nancy Spain - whoever she may be.

Sunday Independent

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