Frogs feature prominently in folklore and in fairy tales. Few witches were without one.
They tend to be portrayed as benign, ugly, even clumsy, but they have some very impressive talents – principally camouflage, which allows them to avoid detection by blending in with the surroundings and so passing for something uninteresting, or for something mysterious and, perhaps, dangerous. Dirk understood these talents well.
In his wartime work in photographic interpretation he developed a skilled understanding of camouflage – seeing through it, or using it as a cloak. Later, when presenting himself in his memoirs and in interviews, he became a Grand Master of the art.
Dirk was fond of frogs even as a small boy, and introduced several to a pond in the family garden. Frogs appear from time to time in his writings, either as objects of description – especially at Clermont, his home in France – or as metaphors. On his script for The Spanish Gardener he drew this one, a sketch of a small glass frog which he acquired at the very beginning of his career. He carried it with him to the end of his life.
And then there was Lally. By now in her nineties, and with a razor-sharp recall, she spoke to Low and Shakespeare of the happy, uncomplicated days at Twickenham and Lullington; of the troubled, benign Ulric; and of the various currents within the family. Her affection for all the Van den Bogaerdes remained undimmed. She talked, too, of the frogs Dirk would find near the cottage, and how he would sit and have long chats with them. ‘You know, to him they weren’t an animal,’ she said. ‘They were a person. And he would think up all sorts of little stories about what they did and what they were going to do.”
Dirk had a flair for the original metaphor and simile, but throughout his own account of his life, written and spoken, certain imagery recurs time and again: the ‘wall of protection'; the shell; the corridor; and the frog – camouflage expert extraordinary. Dirk was, as we have seen, an all-round master of the craft, both officially as an interpreter and unofficially as a practitioner. Mimicry can be a form of camouflage, a pretence which disguises or distracts attention from the mimic’s own persona. Dirk’s inhabiting of another character for the camera was one, obvious, form of mimicry; some of the lives he lived were another. In one of his ‘concerts’ during the nineties, he told his audience that he had only ever let them know what he had wanted them to know and that he had never lied to them in anything he had written: ‘I’ve never been a very good liar. I have evaded. That’s quite useful. “Evasion” and “lying” are two very different words.” His technique was second to none, because at some risk he made himself, like the frog, such a hypnotically fascinating subject for the observer. By being at once so private and at the same time so available to the public through his autobiographies, his many interviews and, latterly, his public appearances, he practised deception in an extraordinarily accomplished, even dangerous way.
The dark, inscrutable eyes, skill at concealment, and stillness make the frog seem enigmatic, even slightly threatening; its capacity to spring out of reach when approached too near, makes it tantalisingly elusive. There is an exceptional study of Dirk by Jane Bown, that most sensitive of portrait photographers, which shows him with his eyes wide and protuberant – unquestionably frog-like; it does not flatter, but it has a truth; and when he helped to choose the illustrations in his collection of journalism, For the Time Being, he did not hesitate over its inclusion. He used to joke about age giving him an increasing resemblance to a turtle; perhaps the lines and, of course, the shell persuaded him so. Yet it was with the frog that he had the greater empathy, even a likeness. It is not too hard to imagine him immaculately dressed in one of his Nancarrow and Temple suits, his Hermes tie and his handmade shoes, skipping like Jeremy Fisher from leaf to leaf on some celestial lily-pond – perhaps, though, with Barrett’s furled umbrella in one hand and his pork-pie hat in the other.
The frog and the toad turn up frequently in Dirk’s life and in his writings: ‘The bull-frogs were croaking by the swimming-pool'; ‘the frogs began to agree among themselves'; there arc several variants on ‘I have always been as green as a frog’. His 1949 broadcast to the BBC Far Eastern Service highlighted ‘the croaking of the frogs in the swamps’ which he recalled from his time in Java. In an unusual portrait photograph taken during the filming of The Wind Cannot Read, Dirk lounges in a jet-black kimono adorned with a brooch in the shape of a frog leaping towards his left shoulder. The Diary records that in January 1966 Tony bought him a china frog from a shop or a stall on the Left Bank of the Seine. Agnes Zwickl remembers how on one occasion as he left for work Dirk forgot his frog; after dropping him at Pinewood Tony made the journey home and back again to the studio in order to reunite them. The pond at Clermont teemed with frogs, bred from the spawn which Dirk smuggled back from Britain in his spongebag. And as for the toads: ‘They arrived in the second year as one pair. Locked together in ugly rapture, struggling valiantly up the steep hill After some days of violent and uncontrolled waltzing together, the hen road industriously laid her eggs, ropes of glossy black pearls strung and looped among the pondweed. In May I had two million tadpoles bustling through the water. I was enraptured.’ Then again: ‘Fat, heavy with promise, golden eyes blazing, [the road) lumbered slowly up the path on a route which she obviously knew from years before and from animal instinct. She was on her way tO her destiny, and her destiny lay in the little stream which bickered and whispered through the boulders beyond the little orchard. Toads, I knew, always return to the place where they were born.” A large black toad sat regally on the Biedermeier secretaire in the drawing-room at Cadogan Gardens, near a mug inscribed with the words ‘A frog he would a-wooing go.’
It is precisely because of their mystery – a mingling of charm and threat- that these amphibians held Dirk in their thrall. The frog received the kiss from a pitying princess that turned him into a handsome prince; it was the toad that Shakespeare had in mind when Othello speaks of preferring to ‘live upon the vapour of a dungeon,/Than keep a corner in the thing I love/For others’ uses’. Some species of frog shed their skin regularly, and perhaps it is not too farfetched to see just such a transformation in the way that Dirk divested himself of the trappings of stardom in the late sixties to become first agriculturalist and then author. By the end, as we learned from Sheila MacLean, he had undergone a further metamorphosis, ridding himself of pretence and unnecessary baggage to revert to a state of complete simplicity. Like the actor peeling away the layers of the onion, he had more or less discarded all bur the bulb at his own heart. For the first time since early childhood and in the most difficult of circumstances, he finally managed to feel bien dans sa peau.
It seems only right in this context to confess that the account of Dirk’s cremation with which this Epilogue begins is incomplete: there was another silent witness. On the altar Brock had placed a palm-sized glass frog, with a baby clinging to its leg, which for years had been Dirk’s companion – probably a successor to the one made of china that he and Tony had found in Paris in the sixties. Just as a piglet accompanied Tony, so the frog lived beside Dirk’s bed and travelled with him always; it was there in room sixty-six during those long months at the King Edward VII Hospital, its coating so worn that the glass was almost translucent. When, therefore, Brock returned to Clermont in the summer of 2001 with the Arena team he took with him the frog and at the end of the filming handed it to Christine de Pauw, saying that as the object most precious to Dirk it belonged in the place that was most precious to him.
Shortly afterwards Brock received an e-mail from Christine, saying how touched she was that he had left with her ‘the symbol of Dirk’s great attachment to Clermont’. However, she thought he should know that since its arrival a number of unfortunate events had befallen the family. First, their daughter Emilie’s beloved horse, Fonceur, died. She went to Brussels to choose another, and on the way to the vet for the customary examination, Fonceur’s successor was injured in his horse-box. Next, Christine squashed a toad while shutting the from door. Then the dogs became unwell, and spent an entire week being sick all over the place. Christine and Alain had a furious row and for a fortnight afterwards addressed not a single word to each other; things had never been quite the same between them since. Then all the clocks in the house stopped. When Christine went to feed the fish in the pond, they took no notice of her or their provisions. Clermont was subjected to an unprecedented plague of flies and hornets. And finally Christine, who had never before lost any of her belongings, began to notice that items were disappearing, including one of her rings. At first she thought that the frog was sad, sitting alone on the top of a cupboard, so she put it on her bedside table. In the morning and evening she would stroke it and talk to it, but from that night onwards she herself tossed and turned, and cried herself to a fitful sleep. At 4 o’ dock every morning she would wake in a panic.
Eventually, at dawn on 17 July 2001, Christine de Pauw decided that the frog must be missing England and Dirk’s family. She wrapped it carefully and took it to the post, where the woman behind the counter accidentally crushed Christine’s fingers in the turnstile as she handed over the cardboard box in which the frog was to be despatched. Finally he was on his way back to Britain. From that day, life at Clermont reverted to normal. Christine de Pauw and her husband were reconciled and, as she put it, ‘le solei! est revenu’.
The frog now resides peacefully in the countryside chez Brock Van den Bogaerde and his family, not all that far from Lullington. And it is a safe bet that when calm was restored at Clermont a shadowy figure, flirting among the olive trees and the cypresses nearest to the Pond, will have smiled his sardonic smile and said: ‘So that was all right.’