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May 182014
 

Jacqueline Downs

One of them, probably Di Dors, because she had quite the mouth on her, called us the Wankers, denizens of the Wank Organisation. I always laughed – it seemed rude not to and I was usually quite drunk when in her company – but privately I abhorred that lazy rhyming. It shows a great disrespect for language, in my opinion. I’d had to be squalid enough in those bloody copper films, doing the Lahndahn accent, playing the spiv, quite against my usual voice. I can’t say that I was glad to get pigeon-holed as that doctor, either, but at least I was allowed to talk properly and they thought – mistakenly, it pains me to say – that I had a gift for light comedy. I went along with it. Not for any great career plan but because I was tied into that bloody contract. Wank Organisation indeed.

I thank God, the 1960s and British Realist Cinema that I was able to leave that place and start doing it properly. Victim was the first real bit of acting I did, in my view, in the films at least. I thought it would rather give the game away and maybe it did, but the general public didn’t seem to notice and it was, quite simply, an important story, one that had to be told. I was honoured to be able to do it, lend my support, and bugger the opinion of the ignorant few who believed it would ruin me. They were bloody wrong.

Then The Servant, Accident. Pinter could be a terrific cunt but he knew his way around a typewriter. And Joe Losey had a gift for working with actors. He knew what he wanted from you and he got it, no matter what it took. I loved Losey. For a while. He did me a lot of good, career- and other-wise, but then, such is the way of these things… someone drinks, the other person drinks, one drinks more than the other, words are had. It’s a shame; I regret that we had those words, and I’ll never stop being grateful for what he did with me in those films: stopped people thinking of me as a bloody matinee idol.

So, it’s what, ’66? Early ’67? Something like that, and I have no idea what I’m doing here. South London. Sarf-east Lahndahn as the locals would have it. I don’t know what they call this particular place; it seems to have several names. Norwood. Upper Norwood. The Crystal Palace. Who knows? Who cares? All I know is I most certainly didn’t expect to find myself here after the Losey and Pinter, the serious stuff. Another bloody ruffian, although this, too, is – quite honestly, in my view – serious stuff. I am to be murdered with a poker, I believe. By a child! Brilliant. Subversive. We all know that children can be little fuckers. I have to do “the voice” again; you know, the one that shows I’m “acting”, all spivvy and working class, but at least it’s for a serious film, a serious director. We’re to spend some time filming in the park. They’ve scheduled us for four to six days because the weather is so unpredictable at this time of year and they might want to do some extra shots that aren’t in the current script. I’m driven in every morning by Terry, who sees everything and says nothing, so we get on famously. All I have to do is a scene on the boating lake. It shouldn’t take even the minimum four days that have been allotted to us but this is the film industry after all, and there’s always something. The lighting isn’t right; there’s a shadow; my face is hidden; something’s hidden. Something’s always hidden.

Mostly, I’m in a glorified caravan on a stretch of grass, having my face put on, or eating my meals alone between takes. Occasionally I venture out for a wander. No one really pays attention, and they have people keeping the crowds – such as they are – out of the way.

It is during one of these wanders that I see him for the first time. He is sitting on the tawny grass near the part of the lake infested with dinosaur models. Well, I say lake, I suppose it is in that it’s an area of water, but it’s not real, is it? It can’t be. He is wearing blue jeans and a shirt, nothing special. But his hair is some inches below his ears and, when he turns to look up at me as I walk past, his eyes are the green of lush vegetation somewhere in an exotic, foreign clime. He quite simply takes my breath away. He smiles. His teeth aren’t wonderful, but the smile is.

“All right?” he nods. I walk past, stiffening as I do so.

“Please yourself,” he calls after me. I ignore him. I go back to my caravan the long way round and enjoy half a teacake with real butter and jam.

Later, I am out on the boating lake trying to film the scene. The water is murky and there’s a lot of noise coming from the perimeter of the park on the other side of the lake, all of which I find quite distracting. Then something goes wrong with a camera and I am towed back to dry land.

This happens a total of five times, and we’re losing the light before we even get through one take. It’s a fucking scandal.

Terry arrives to drive me home. “Wait here for a bit,” I tell him. He parks on a road near a railway bridge while I go for a walk. Just… walking. Just going for a walk. After nearly an hour I go back to the car. “Take me home,” I say. I’m in a huff.

The next morning, and I’m back in the park, pancake on, getting ready to go onto the lake again when – would you believe it? – something else goes wrong. A canvas chair, with the words Mr Dirk Bogarde emblazoned in bold italics on its sagging back, is put before me, and I sit with my book and I read and I wait. After a while I am called back to the boat and we manage to get a whole take done before a light drizzle of rain stops play. Terry is waiting. “I think I’ll just go for another walk,” I say. “Just a quickie.”

It’s overcast, of course – that’s south-east London for you, even the sun won’t venture this side of the river – but it is quite a pretty park, all things considered. Little bridges, the lake, the winding footpaths, the green leafiness, the trees. On closer inspection, the little bridges overlook stagnant water, a recipient for the usual crushed beer cans, used rubber johnnies, plastic bags. Was it ever thus?

I am walking over one of the bridges, looking over my shoulder, not in the direction of travel, when I knock into someone. I turn immediately and although it was my fault I still have a sharpness on the end of my tongue, ready to unleash. But it is the long-hair. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” I say.

“No need to beg,” he replies, a little too forward in my view. Before I know where I am he is showing me the dinosaurs and telling me all about them, everything he knows about them which, it turns out, is an awful lot: how they were commissioned in 1852; that they took two years to make (“which doesn’t seem that long for so many creatures,” he says, in wonder); that they aren’t all, in fact, dinosaurs…

I most certainly didn’t see that coming. Although later, a few hours later, I did see him coming. That’s the permissive society for you.

“What? Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde? Blimey, that’s a mouthful,” he’d said when I’d first told him my full and proper name. And so it transpires that I was rather a mouthful.

Lunch breaks, evenings after filming, these were now transformed into quite thrilling times. He even made Penge seem exciting.

“Penge? Penge?” I said. “And how are we spelling that?”

“P.E.N.G.E.” he replied.

“It rather sounds like something that might make your cock drop off,” I sniffed, giving him what I hoped was a wolfish smile.

“Oh,” he said, voice soft as the hands he ran through my hair. “I can do something that might make your cock drop off.”

Julian Arrowsmith. Such an incongruous name for a south London barman. No wonder he ended up queer. Julian Arrowsmith. Barman at the Paxton Arms. Julian Arrowsmith. My lover. And, as it turned out, my love.

He showed me the sights of the rest of the park, such as they were. Although, that isn’t quite fair, because with him they were transformed, magnified, awash with a beauty of such splendour that it made my eyes flinch to gaze upon them. It almost hurt to look.

“I’m too old for mazes,” I said, as he led me around the scrubby passages of prickly green. “This is rather like something from a Beatles film.”

And, despite being with him, it wasn’t a great deal of fun. Not for me. I wasn’t one for easily shedding my cares, tripping light-heartedly amongst the bushes. I did not care much for bushes. He smiled, sighed a good-natured sigh, and began to lead me away from the maze’s centre. He stopped suddenly, withdrew, changed direction, stopped and changed again. “Julian, really!” I admonished. “I’m not playing, Gas,” he replied, a hand pushing a strand of hair behind his ear. “I’m lost.”

I stood for a moment, my eyes turned towards the heavens as the sky began to darken and the stars made a shy and sporadic appearance. “This could be, quite simply, romantic,” I said. I was surprised at the sense of awe inhabiting my voice. He looked upwards and then at me. “I’m still lost,” he said. I looked around and, satisfied that we were alone, took his hand and led him back towards the entrance. There were a couple of false starts and he occasionally pulled me in other directions, but before too long we had done it; found our way. Found our way out.

Some of my sort like it outdoors, but I never did. Don’t like the idea of being caught – the ramifications. I was always extra careful because I could have been kicked out of Wank for it and that sense of care has never really left me. The Wolfenden business is rather taking its time and, even when it is resolved, I still don’t think I’ll be taking to the streets with a placard announcing my preferences. But he was the same as me: he liked a bit of touching but nothing too obvious. He loved to stroke my hair. If there was anyone about it would be more of a ruffle, as though cuffing me around the head like an errant child. If we were alone, his hand held within it such tenderness as it glided across my hair, that I felt I should weep. He would lead me around the quiet perimeters of the park so that by the time darkness fell we would be in Penge, and I would be taken back to his bedsit, shoes off on the doorstep, following his practised steps so as to avoid the creaks of every second floorboard. Once or twice – oh, who am I kidding? – thirteen times after filming was over in the Palace and my visits to Penge were less frequent, he came back in the car to my place over the river. Terry had seen enough and always kept his mouth shut. It was, quite simply, a remarkable time.

And then, and then.

“I’m sorry, Gas, I can’t,” he’d said, not looking at me; looking at the threadbare grass, the dinosaurs, looking over my shoulder at the man-made lake, looking anywhere but at me. I said nothing at first. I got up, he got up, I followed him back to his lodgings and quietly into his room. I undressed. He did the same.

I thought it would make him change his mind: that kiss, that hand brushing through the hair, fingers gripping it slightly, then pressing against the scalp. I thought the love would make him change his mind.

“I’m so sorry, Gas, I just can’t.”

“Oh, why ever not?” I asked after a pause long enough to steady my voice.

“I’ve, I’ve…”

“I take it there’s a girl?” I said at last, having held off putting him out of his misery by explaining the situation for him.

He nodded, still avoiding my face.

“We’ve shared things I don’t expect you can ever share with her,” I said sharply, “so at least do me the courtesy of looking at me.”

But he couldn’t.

“I wish it was a different time, Gas,” he said.

“Oh it soon bloody will be, you idiot,” I said stiffly. “But even then I doubt it will mean much to someone like you and someone like me. Each of us, in our own ways, living on the very edge of the permissive society.”

He didn’t speak.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll leave you to it.”

And I put my trousers on, my shoes, my jacket, and I walked out of that bedsit in Penge, towards Terry in the waiting car, and I made sure I stepped on every one of those bloody creaky floorboards.

This account, which never made its way into any of its author’s memoirs, lay undiscovered for over forty years. It was found recently amongst the personal effects of a relative of Anthony Forwood, late companion of the actor Dirk Bogarde. With it were two letters, the first addressed to “Gas”, taken by film archivists to be a reference to one of Bogarde’s middle names.

Dearest Gas,

I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I’m sorry I was – am – too scared. I wish I was brave enough to say to hell with it all, bugger the lot of them, as you would say. But I’m not. I’m sorry about that. I’ll always remember the time we spent together and whenever I see one of your films at the pictures I’ll think “there’s my Gas” and I’ll remember what I taught you in Penge. About the dinosaurs and the maze and the man-made lake. But mostly, Gas, I’ll remember what you taught me. About love.

Yours,

Julian.

And this, dated a short while after the above, in an envelope, unsealed and unstamped, and addressed to a property in Penge, south-east London.

Dear Julian,

Thank you for the kind letter. I fully understand your predicament.

Please accept my apologies for the brevity of this response, but you have, quite simply, broken my heart.

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