A Postillion Struck by Lightning is the first part of Dirk Bogarde’s seven volume autobiography. First published as long ago as 1977, it has stood the test of time, has been widely read throughout its existence and has been reviewed, probably, hundreds, if not thousands of times. This, therefore, is not a review of the book, but a reflection on a particular aspect of it.
The first volume covers years of childhood, schooling, and finally professional stumbling towards what became a highly successful career in films. It might be said that Dirg Bogarde had three different film carriers, a mass market, Mr. Clean in the Doctor films, the experimenting intellectual in his art house period and finally accomplished and internationally recognized character acting in his Death in Venice phase.
Here we have the idyllic childhood spent in the Sussex cottage or around Hampstead in North London. We have the failed school years where first nothing much interested him and then, during his time in a Glasgow technical school, when nothing at all interested him. He had to live with an aunt and uncle during those years in Scotland, and his only self-protection came by learning a Glaswegian accent.
He was born into a special family. His mother had been an actress, while his father was art critic at The Times. The surname originated in Belgium and his grandfather deliberately lost himself up-river in South America, only to return, old, aged, grumpy and cantankerous.
Dirk Bogarde’s prose is highly expressive and includes moments of vivid colour when events are magnified to significance. On country walks we share the vistas, smells, an occasional hug of an animal, always with something that amplifies the experience. We feel we personally get to know the tortoise. In later pages, he is already on stage, disdainful, he says, of any notion of stardom. He is happy to be doing what he does, and small venues in London, amateur to semiprofessional, will do. But we know what happened next.
But perhaps the most intriguing section in A Postillion Struck by Lightning happens in Glasgow, on a day when he is playing truant from school. In the 21st-century, the victim of sexual assault is granted whatever space is demanded to describe, relive, speculate, question, compensate, or indeed pursue -or indeed any verb that may be applicable – the recalled experience. In 1977 Dirk Bogarde relates his own experience from the 1930s in almost a bland, matter-of-fact way. It comes across almost as if it were a scene from one of his films. The detail of the assault can be experienced by reading the book, and it is essential that it is not described here because it has a theatrical character that itself is grounded in the cinema. It was, nevertheless, a real experience and a terrifying one as well. Now presumably, possibly, the perpetrator of this assault was still alive when this book was published, and yet there appears to be no record of the actor’s having pursued any action against his assailant.
One of the joys of reading is being presented with the surprising or the memorable. When I began A Postillion Struck by Lightning, I never for a moment thought I would be writing this kind of review.