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Modern Nature: On Derek Jarman's Queer Landscape Writing
The Quietus , June 20th, 2019 08:16

As Derek Jarman's Modern Nature is broadcast as Radio 4's Book of the Week, adaptor and radio producer Simon Richardson hymns the influence of this pioneering and inspirational work of queer nature writing.

Derek Jarman image courtesy Howard Sooley

Although Derek Jarman is best known as a filmmaker, it could be argued that the memoir Modern Nature is his crowning achievement, and the one that best encapsulates his unique philosophy. Modern Nature's genesis came with Jarman's diagnosis of HIV in 1986. He soon decided to make a garden at his house on the wind-battered coast of Dungeness. Far from being a final chapter, this would be a new beginning. That journey, charting the growth of the garden and its counterpoint, Jarman's inevitable decline, is the stuff of Modern Nature's pages.

  The book means a great deal to me as a queer person and to many others and Jarman's Kentish garden remains a place of pilgrimage. His tender descriptions of the blue green sea kale, red poppy and yellow sedum - the few plants that can survive in this, one of England's most exposed climates - find their metaphorical power in the fact their flowerings are against the odds. The same is true of the book. The current owner told me he often finds visitors, many themselves survivors of the AIDS crisis, outside staring out across the shingle crying. Straight people even go there too. 

  But aside from all this, what has kept me coming back to Modern Nature is the kind of existence it portrays at that moment in Jarman's life - a sublime immersion in the Dungeness landscape which in turn led to an outpouring of work: paintings, film, sculpture and of course the book itself. The landscape (alongside his other writerly subjects: "the nagging past: film, sex, London") became Jarman's muse.  

Scripts for his films, props, an array of household objects dipped in boiling pitch destined for exhibition, jewelled portraits - so much of the journal is an account of this fecund creativity.  Each day he would rise from his bed on the floor (the interior of Prospect Cottage today still resembles an ascetic's cell, the heavy furniture built for Derek by a friend), then he would hang the previous day's paintings before striking out across the beach gathering stones for the garden or to make a necklace; these and any larger fruits of his beach-combing - tools, winches, fishing hawsers - were then festooned across the property.  

Like his garden without walls, of which he said "my garden's boundaries are the horizon", and his tendency to bring the beach itself inside, for me the potency of Jarman's legacy lies in the way his art and his life intermingle and the barrier between the two breaks down. At the end of one particularly angry passage (ever the radical, Jarman's anger at being "forced into yet another corner" by his HIV diagnosis shouldn't be underplayed) he recalls: "I'm the most fortunate filmmaker of my generation, I've only ever done what I wanted. Now I just film my life. I'm a happy megalomaniac."  

I first read Modern Nature a little after turning 30, at a time in my life when for many of my straight friends the road ahead seemed clear: buying homes, preparing the way for the inevitable arrival of children and the all-consuming whirlwind that would follow. Modern Nature offered me a different route. An overtly queer response to Walter Pater's entreaty in his conclusion of Studies in the History of the Renaissance that "While all melts from under our feet we may catch at any exquisite passion or any contribution to knowledge that seems, by a lifted horizon, to set the spirit free for a moment."  Pater's book is a defence of aestheticism, elevating art's status in our lives as a kind of touchstone for an alternative way of living. That I found the application of that philosophy in the journal of a man suffering from a terrifying and misunderstood illness, perused by the tabloids, living in in a kind of self-imposed exile in a shingle desert so inspiring, is a testament to Jarman's gifts.  

Early in Modern Nature Jarman reads a biography of the sculptor Eric Gill, the founder of an Arts and Crafts community in Sussex in 1921 with the motto "Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses". Jarman comments that Gill "attempted to fuse his art and life, throwing his body into the struggle." He goes on, "Whitman, Carpenter, Gill and, nearer in time, John Berger and Ian Hamilton Finlay all seem to have set off on that old straight track, a road pioneered by Mr and Mrs William Blake playing Adam and Eve nude in their London garden."  

In any project to 'fuse art and life' the garden is an important emblem. Ian Hamilton Finlay who died in 2006 was a Scottish artist and poet who described himself as an "Avant Gardner". The six acres of land in Scotland's Pentland Hills that Finlay and his wife developed into a 'garden poem' featuring 200 artworks is regarded as his one of Scotland's most important artworks, and surely the only one in which the artist-creators actually resided.  

The writer Mike Parker recently told me that he believes gardens hold a particularly important place in the emerging tradition of queer nature writers (see Luke Turner's Out of the Woods, Alys Fowler's Hidden Nature and Mike's just released On the Red Hill) as a place of sanctuary, particularly for young queer people who know they are different. Gardens feature throughout Jarman's work in this mode but also as a setting for sexual awakening: "Day after day I returned from the dull regimental existence of my English boarding school to my secret garden... here our hands first touched; then I pulled down my trousers and lay beside him".  

Jarman's films are saturated with religious tropes - gardens being a prime example - and as his health began to fail, he became increasingly monastic. Hearing he was to be released from St Mary's hospital after succumbing to tuberculosis of the stomach, he makes feverish plans, starting with his London home: "Clear Phoenix House entirely, no more clutter, get rid of everything, start painting, get my Edward II under way. Plant the garden." As he approached the end all he wanted was to do was create.  

Today, the inside of Prospect Cottage remains much as he left it - a place to work. When I visited with Jarman's friend Rupert Everett to record his performance of Modern Nature for Radio 4 Book of the Week, read at the desk where it was written, we were struck by the paintbrushes still in their pots and - rather eerily - Jarman's trademark blue boiler suits hanging on the back of the kitchen door (in loving workwear as in so many things Jarman was ahead of his time). Unquestionably this was one of the most exciting days of my career. But for someone so enamoured with Jarman as a figure, I have to admit to being a little disappointed by a house and a landscape onto which I'd projected so much. Dungeness is beautiful, lunar, unique. But it's also just the English seaside. Prospect Cottage was a privilege to visit - but it's just a house now.  

Philip Hoare, Jarman's most apparent literary heir, has compared the dying artist to Prospero from The Tempest. Shakespeare's magician is an appropriate comparison because, as I've come to realise, it's only in books or film, or perhaps in gardens, that a person's life can become a work of art. This is the way Jarman worked his magic on so many of us. The image he created for himself in Modern Nature - and in his films - is beautiful and tantalising and the closer he gets to the end, more and more poignant. But memoir is always fiction and I think Derek knew this. He nods to the fact in the most memorable episode in Modern Nature, on one of his final visits to Hampstead Heath. He remembers the democracy of cruising here, all the barriers of wealth, age and class dissolving. But then thinks better of it, concluding: "An illusion you say. I know but what a sweet one."

Modern Nature, adapted by Simon Richardson and read by Rupert Everett starts Monday 24 June, 9:45am, Radio 4 on BBC Sounds, you can listen here. Jarman's 1990 film The Garden is being shown at the BFI in London between 21st and 27th June ahead of a DVD and BluRay reissue, fine out more here.