BOOKS:Never blub in public

CLEARED FOR TAKE-OFF by Dirk Bogarde, Viking pounds 16
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The Independent Culture
IN HIS introduction, the author claims he has decided to bring "this six volume ego trip" to an end. A pity. By the final chapter, Dirk Bogarde remains an enigma: master of disguise, man of masks, keeper of secrets. A re-sifting of 70-odd years of a very private life continues to tease, with memories of people and events from the war and post-war years set out like a Monopoly game, offering fresh aspects of familiar territory with every tour of the board. Comedy and tragedy roll through every page. And the actor's ego appears only as regret, the sadness of a public man who prefers his own company. The effect is fascinating, maddening and a pleasure to read.

Nothing occurs in isolation. Moments from the childhood of earlier volumes are spotlighted as portents for the future. An enormous cut-out of the Ovaltine lady on a hillside which haunted the unhappy schoolboy recurs in a Dakota packed with men and live ammunition, the frenetic smile of a fellow soldier going into battle promising "only wretchedness ahead". What wretchedness? In this volume, a future of "miserable", "brutally hard" times are constantly alluded to but never fully illustrated.

The art school drop-out and unpromising drama student becomes a well- paid actor a year out of uniform, though wartime atrocities leave a lifelong sense of failure and guilt. The agonisingly slow death by cancer of an old friend loops backwards to the horror of a landmine explosion at which Bogarde fails to execute a hopelessly maimed soldier. The liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shocks him into silence: "We never spoke of it ever again to anyone." The outrage of a British officer in Calcutta beating an Indian with a swagger-cane brings a first impression of racism. Still, no matter what life threw at him, "one never blubbed in public".

That true-Brit stiff upper lippishness does not allow sentimentality. War froze his blood, but a dull, loveless childhood had begun the process: "Training, you could say?" Preparation for a sort of separateness, anyway, like his Belgian surname, van den Bogaerde. And the training worked. The cinematic image of everyone's perfect Englishman, polite, charming, yet ultimately cool is there in the life, too. Characters from earlier volumes are dropped or left out of the frame, in particular Bogarde's siblings, as well as his male friend and lifelong companion, Forwood; sexuality is kept largely in the closet and affairs with women are recounted with a curious emptiness. Most telling is Bogarde's reaction to discovering the awfulness of his parents' 50-year marriage: "I was so shattered that I asked no more questions."

The discretion appears to have increased with age, but so has anger. His mother's chronic alcoholism finally explains the blank spaces of childhood and one facet of the writer's contradictory character. The father is another, heroised here for long forbearance (what about his chill apartness?) as Ma scattered pain and humiliation through their lives. A consummate actress with a liver "like an Aegean sponge", she is the monster who plays her finest role as reject in an old people's home, eventually killed by bottles smuggled in by unsuspecting admirers.

Bogarde writes irony into every scene, sometimes allowing it to build towards an unexpected climax. Best is an encounter with a prostitute in Cyprus who performs a striptease as Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Years later, when Bergman came to stay, he told her the story: "Her amazement was glorious to see ... and when I told her about the gingham dress she practically barked a laugh of surprise, 'It was nonsense, I suppose? ... I had quite pretty things.' "

Detail is the stuff of actors and writers. Bogarde's inspiration for von Aschenbach in Death in Venice is as powerfully told as any scene from the film; the depth to which he immersed himself in the role brings new meaning to the idea of dying for one's art. Yet there is no sign of failing memory or lost powers of observation, only clever circularity to the end: the nervous child on the Glasgow train has become the knighted old actor speeding from Buckingham Palace in search of a lavatory. A very English carry on.