‘Ever, Dirk- The Bogarde Letters’ Edited by John Coldstream London: Phoenix (an imprint of Orion Books), 2009. ISBN 978 0 7538 2589 1 628pp. (paperback) £12.99

It would be safe to say that Dirk Bogarde, actor, artist, and above all English gentleman of letters, loved writing. His prolific output of novels (15 in total in 21 years) would be highly respectable for an author- but Bogarde continued to act and to take on positions of responsibility. Although a stroke all but prevented him from writing any more letters of any great length, Bogarde’s brain was still active- and the last few letters in Ever, Dirk- The Bogarde Letters are, poignantly, dictated ones. The book does not allow this trailing away of the power of the written word to be its final blazon, however, but instead revels in a few pages of “Dirk’s out-takes”- epithets and comments ‘which did not make the final cut’ (p.597). These ensure the volume leaves behind Bogarde’s wit and enjoyment of the English language, my favourite being ‘after fifty three the face does’nt [sic] suit youth anymore. It all sort of falls in…like a melting Walls Ice-Cream with Chocolate…’(1973).

After a concise but detailed introductory section (dealing with, amongst others, people cited in the letters, nicknames and a Bogarde chronology), the book (which I shall now refer to as Ever, Dirk) is divided into two sections- ‘The Continental Years’ (1969- February 1987) and ‘The British Years’ (March 1987- November 1997). This timespan provides a fascinating insight into Bogarde’s outlook on life from his approach to 50 years of age through to his mid. 70s, but also his respective environments- from his beloved Clermont to, ultimately, Cadogan Gardens. ‘It rains. God! How it rains…a flat grey light, a mist hanging down to the grass like Miss Haversham’s Weddingdress’ (p.91) Bogarde wrote in 1972 to Penelope Mortimer, but even this seemingly negative view is tinged with almost grudging admiration for the extremities of the weather. In his expression, Bogarde also belies his artistic and sensitive nature- this is not merely a comment on the weather but a simile of amusing yet intelligent thought. Ever, Dirk is dotted with such observances, as well as (of course) references to works being considered, works in progress, and works completed.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about a book such as this though is not so much what is said but how it is said- how Dirk Bogarde’s public persona (matinee idol turned serious actor in several films with Joseph Losey and later Italian maestro Luchino Visconti) becomes the private man. Only in ones private correspondence or writings (which one never envisages being published) does ones true character emerge- and I think this is true of Dirk Bogarde. The letters themselves, sent to family and friends- including Losey, Visconti, Kathleen Tynan, Tom Stoppard, Dilys Powell and Norah Smallwood- reveal a man who felt things very deeply yet was not afraid to confront them. One such example of this is Bogarde’s 1970 letter to Visconti following an article by Kathleen Tynan which appeared in Vogue. Evidently the cause of Visconti’s displeasure, the article’s shortcomings are discussed at length, but not before Bogarde tries to smooth things over: ‘your long letter has just reached me today and filled me with sadness to know that you are so unhappy’. (p.59). In a subsequent letter, Bogarde (who by now had gained access to ‘this wretched article’- p.61) tactfully acts as mediator between two friends, revealing both his diplomacy and his loyalty to both parties in equal measure.

As Ever, Dirk moves on through what would be highly productive years in the actor’s life, sections of glossy photographs break up the text to great effect. These pictures support the letters by showing people, places and emotions that one has experienced- and come as a breath of fresh air, showing as they often do Bogarde in relaxed mood. What really comes across through the letters is both the actor’s warmth and his personal nature- the more of them one reads the clearer one can hear Dirk’s own voice speaking the words aloud. Thus, ahead of the Cannes Film Festival (when D.B. was to be on the jury) he wrote to critic Dilys Powell that ‘ahead is the horror of the festival. I can’t imagine WHY I agreed to be President. Maybe because it IS an honour and because I live in France, and what the hell…why not?’ (p.334). This idiosyncratic writing style (the capital letters for emphasis being just one aspect, punctuation and spelling errors being others) are rather endearing, like the content of much of Bogarde’s letters, dealing as they do with the ups and downs of trying to live an ordinary life when you are no ordinary person.

Ever, Dirk is not a book to be read like a novel, to be consumed like one would some cheap white wine on a sunkissed Spanish terrace. Instead, it is to be savoured- imbibed gradually through many small but satisfying visits, as one may indulge oneself by having a glass of fine Tawny port of an evening. Its content and references make Ever, Dirk less accessible than (say) The Kenneth Williams Letters, but very appealing in its own way. It is clear that Dirk Bogarde had a true grasp of the human condition, writing as he did with such warmth and affection, and these qualities shine forth repeatedly from the books many pages.

‘Ever, Dirk- The Bogarde Letters’ is available from Orion Books.

Orion Books website