Derek Jarman


Prospect Cottage, Kent.Thinking still of the importance of small things, the best guide is Derek Jarman's Modern Nature, Diaries 1989-1990 (Vintage 1992) which covered the making of a small garden around his cottage at Dungeness on the south coast of Kent, in the shadow of an enormous  nuclear power station.  I went there once as a student; the beach is shingle, small round pebbles, excruciating to walk on in bare feet.  There was, in 1973, a row of tiny cabins, sheds and old railway cars sitting on the beach. One had a path from the laneway to the back door made up of the enamelled parts and panels of a gas stove taken apart and laid on the pebbles.  It was all a fierce, pathetic landscape of small scrapings and savings perched tenously on the edge of the English Channel.

Derek Jarman acquired a small cottage, painted black with creosote, and built a garden of local flowers and plants that could survive the salt spray and general inhospitability of the beach.  Jarman had AIDS in the pre-retro-viral era when it was a death sentence.  His diaries for 1989 and 1990 are staggeringly beautiful, elegiac but never sentimental.  His entry for February 2, 1989:
The gorse is a blaze of golden flowers forced by the wind into an agony of weird shapes, twisted branches wrung out like washing.  It's the only winter flower on the Ness; some of the bushes are six feet high, crowned with tight bunches of spines which creak in the wind.  Other bushes cling to the ground, shaped in neat cones and pyramids which are clipped by the rabbits with the precision of topiary.  'Kissing is out of season when gorse is out of bloom'.  No-one need worry – here it is always in flower.

All the time he was making his garden he was continuing to make films; he had a London life and a Dungeness life – one large, complicated and worldly, the other full of nature and intimate with it: he writes on August 31, 'In front of me a jade sea is running wild.'  and then goes on the next day with the complications of dying, of getting financing for his film, of people and their demands. 

I read this book every few years for the lesson that nature is both solace and indifferent.  It is there if we want it and if we don't it continues nonetheless.