Autobiography is a curious thing. On the face of it, it is the protagonist revealing himself in the story of his own life. Yet it offers infinite possibility to obfuscate, change the facts, and perform a magic trick whereby with a light literary wave of the wand, people, motives, chronology, and incidents are changed or invented. It allows the author to have the last word on a matter, and do so in a manner which wins over the reader. It invites the reader to take a step towards the author – and yet, for all we know, the reader is taking a step further away from the truth.
Before I read this book, I was aware that Dirk Bogarde had been accused of all of these things. He wrote several volumes of autobiography, all of which were praised for their style and evocation of place, but all of which had question marks attached to them. He was a highly private man, never discussing certain matters even with close family members. Are we to believe that in all these hundreds of thousands of words of memoir he is laying himself bare?
And yet, whatever the veracity of Bogarde’s account, in A Short Walk from Harrods, he gives a sad portrait of how he lost his grip on his life as old age and illness took their toll on him and his companion. He had bought his dream house in Provence in the 1960s, completely renovated it, become accustomed to the isolation and beauty of the French countryside, and lived life around the needs of the olive groves, grape vines, and fruit trees. The picture he paints of his life is charming, and exactly the way of life many people dream about when they get bored of the grey, stressful life in London.
London is a place Bogarde has no time for. He finds its people rude, its press intrusive, its pace of life stressful, its culture vulgar. And yet he is forced to return there in old age. The French farmhouse, Le Pigionier, is sold, principally because Bogarde and his companion, Forwood, are having to take so many trips to private doctors in London. It becomes necessary to sell the house in France, and say goodbye to the twenty years they spent there, from the late sixties to the late eighties.
Part of Bogarde’s literary reinvention of himself is that he does not talk about his homosexuality. He even makes comments which seem to aim to convince the reader he is heterosexual - for example, casually mentioning the Polish woman he had an affair with in Chelsea once. Tony Forewood, who is described as his manager and his companion, is never acknowledged as his lover. The subject was, according to Bogarde’s own family, off limits in conversation. Bogarde was a man who liked complete control, and that meant he dictated what was said and what was not.
One of the saddest elements is how futile his life of enjoyment was. Bogarde’s life seemed to be about afternoon cocktails, doing as he pleased, and keeping responsibility to a minimum. His huge success as an actor in the 1950s gave him as much money and celebrity as he wanted. Arguably, he did not want much of the latter (or did he? Again we wonder whether or not to take him at his word). When he first sells Le Pigionier, he and Forewood move to The Lancaster Hotel in Paris, with a view to buying a place in the city. For months they view flats they don’t like, and drink champagne in the hotel lounge until the money is running too low.
The decline and fall of Bogarde and his companion is felt most painfully in the details. In France he had someone who cooked his meals; in London he depends on supermarket ready meals and tinned soup. In France his neighbours are colourful eccentrics; in London they are old acquaintances who bore him and give him unwanted dinner invitations. The landscape of the French countryside is contrasted with the bleak picture of London, and the reality that he cannot afford to buy in the areas he would like to live in. He must compromise.
Whatever the truth of the specific incidents and characters, A Short Walk from Harrods is painfully truthful in its portrait of someone declining – declining in physical health, in independence, and in the power to make his own decisions. The human and emotional truthfulness of this cannot be undermined by unsubstantiated details about who, where, and when. It feels too authentic.
Dirk Bogarde the writer has skills to deftly evoke places and stories. He can write in a voice which feels naturally like his own. He writes with a plain and readable literary style, which has few (for me) distractions or irritating literary habits. His career as a writer suited him. As for Bogarde the actor, he is often accused of being shallow and lacking ambition or range. In this book he only talks about acting as a way of getting some money whenever he is really hard up. He apparently has no affection for it.
As for Dirk Bogarde the man, that is far less clear. In A Short Walk from Harrods he finds a subject matter which touches on a common experience. The book’s strengths are here, in this timeless theme, and its weaknesses are often the details which root it too firmly in the 1980s, most of which feel irrelevant. By the end of the book we may or may not have found out who the real Bogarde was. Perhaps he never wanted us to know.