Every fertile inch: Derek Jarman’s “Modern Nature”

Dungeness occupies a peculiar place in the English psyche. If the more overtly symbolic Dover cliffs can be read as embodying England’s stance toward Europe – aloof, haughty, withdrawn – Dungeness, whose geography is far less confrontational, is more ambiguous.

It is an English wilderness; one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe. It is inhabited, but the settlement is very un-English: isolated cottages lined up amid the shingle and facing the sea.

These contradictions, or multiplicities, make Derek Jarman’s stay at Dungeness entirely appropriate. Not merely a film-maker, he was an artist, writer, set-designer, gay rights activist and gardener: Prospect Cottage is testament to that. And that gently sloping shore, in stark contrast to the white fortresses to east and west? As he says of his 1986 film Caravaggio, it was “my own throwing down the gauntlet at the American-oriented cinema and saying ‘here is a film oriented towards Europe’, which has always been where I’ve looked”. No-one proposes giant, aggressive statues of Prime Ministers on Dungeness beach.

I found Modern Nature – smartly repackaged by Vintage earlier this year – shelved in one bookshop under Nature Writing and in another under Biography. As with its author’s life, the book – though undeniably a diary – is not content to belong to merely one genre.

As Jarman says of the cottage, or more specifically of the garden which attracts tourists in their numbers a quarter of a century after his death from an AIDS-related illness, “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”

This is a brave, even transgressive idea, and can be read several ways. The first, and most trite, is that it symbolises a life without the boundaries imposed by bourgeois culture. Secondly, that in being open – neither delineated nor protected – it lets the outside (the Other) in. Thirdly, the counter, is that it stakes a claim to everything that lies “outside”, i.e. the entire world might be my garden.

There are many descriptions of the wildlife around his cottage: his director’s eye is ever-sharp: “Today the sun shines with an unreal intensity, precise as a street corner in a de Chirico, razor-sharp shadows. The crocuses bright as flares in the shingle.”

Yet those expecting the consolations of the new nature writing will be disappointed. This, unlike the books that cover the tables in bookshops, is not a tale of personal redemption found through extended exposure to nature. We know how his story ends, for a start (though Smiling in Slow Motion continues the diary until a few weeks before his death in 1994).

Jarman moved to Prospect in 1986; Modern Nature is his diary of 1989 and 1990, when his immune system first shows signs of ailing. Weeks pass in hospital, in which he is unable to write. He is angry, and often scared and lonely and exhausted.

“When the doctor first told me I was HIV positive, I think she was more upset than me. It didn’t sink in at first – that took weeks. I thought: this is not true, then I realised the enormity. I had been pushed into yet another corner, this time for keeps. It quickly became a way of life. When the sun shone it became unbearable. I didn’t say anything, I had decided to be stoic.

This was a chance to be grown up. Though I thought I ought to be crying, I walked down Charing Cross Road in the sunlight, everyone was so blissfully unaware. The sun is still shining.

The perception that knowing you’re dying makes you feel more alive is an error. I’m less alive. There’s less life to lead. I can’t give 100% attention to anything – part of me is thinking about my health.”

Yet he finds delight in the smallest of things, as he tends to the garden; planting or watering (an act we see in his 1990 film The Garden1, the making of which is detailed in the book), or exploring the headland.

Ever a social animal2, he details all the gossip of his wide circle (much of the talk is on the declining health of friends and lovers as AIDS takes its brutal toll), and takes special pleasure from the company of people such as Tilda Swinton – a long-term collaborator – and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant.

I was intrigued to discover his loathing of Peter Greenaway’s A TV Dante (Greenaway does not emerge from this book well), which as a 16-year-old blew me away. I had always linked the two directors in my mind, possibly because their works were contemporary and (in different ways, though the nuances were lost on me at that age) highly extravagant.

If Prospect Cottage is a refuge from London, it is far from stable: battered by the storms which reshape the beach and lend the landscape its unique look (watching The Garden, I was struck by how much Dungeness actually looks like the set of a Jarman film), and also at the mercy of one of Jarman’s many pet hates: officialdom and bureaucracy (a facet of the “straight” establishment whose oppression of gay rights and culture he campaigned against):

“It is not the good manners of Dungeness that have made it so delightful, rather the haphazard growth and crusting past. The old army buildings, PLUTO pipelines, even the great nuclear power station gives this landscape it’s charm.”

Quite so. Another kick in the teeth for those who see no beauty in concrete. RAF Denge is nearby, with its World War 2 pre-radar “listening walls”, designed to alert coastal defences to incoming Luftwaffe attacks:

“The listening wall is the greatest concrete structure in the kingdom…even great Lutyens’ Cenotaph or the many monuments of battle lack it’s power”

What, then, is the “nature” recorded in this diary? Not solely the flora and fauna around Prospect (shown in The Garden in wobbly 8mm glory). Philip Hoare describes it as “a natural history of the HIV virus” and writes:

“Like some contemporary Thoreau – his tar-painted seaside hut set, not like Thoreau’s Walden next to the new railroad, but in the shadow of a nuclear reactor – Jarman recorded his sojourn in Modern Nature, his ironically titled journals, alongside the development of the virus that would soon take his life….His writing spoke to a queer nature, as well as being a natural history of his infection in the way that Kathleen Jamie’s essay “Pathologies” treats cancer cells under a microscope in a Dundee hospital as an equally valid subject for “nature writing”…”it’s not all primroses and otters””

Nature is also what we need to live: not merely plants and their place in the food chain, or in mythology3 but the chemicals that prolong our lives or in Jarman’s case keep the illness at bay as long as possible, and also in the form of the massive nuclear power station that haunts the book, standing gnomically behind Dungeness’s fragile ecosystem.

A poem which appears under the entry for April 27th 1989, and which is spoken on the (superb) soundtrack of The Garden, includes these poignant lines:

My gilly flowers, roses, violets blue

Sweet garden of vanished pleasures

Please come back next year

Cold, cold, cold I die so silently

Modern Nature is a fascinating, funny, angry and brutally honest glimpse into the mind of a major artist.

 

1 The Garden saw him revisit the 8mm format of his early films (of which A Journey to Avebury is highly recommended, as is Adam Scovell’s study of it)

2 In an interview on the DVD of Caravaggio, he describes his approach to film-making as an environment in which “…everyone can come together for a few weeks and find something to work on which opened up avenues of different sorts for themselves and that that was the real purpose of film making…to create community. This is one of the reasons why its been difficult for me to join in the commercial or even television-oriented cinema that we live in now where people are actually sort of employed for jobs. [That] never struck me as the right way. People should come to it because they want to make a film.”

3 “In ancient Greece, where every part of the body was perfumed by a different scent, mint was used under the arms. In the middle ages it was used for whitening the teeth. Menthe was a nymph whom Pluto loved – changed to this plant by Proserpine in a fit of jealousy.”

 

Sources:

Jarman, Derek: Modern Nature (Vintage, 2018)

Hoare, Philip: “The Unfinished World” (in Ground Work, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Caravaggio (BFI DVD, 2007)

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