Read #144

Some form of loose autobiography, this is one of the warmest books I’ve read in years: it just left me so much happier than when I started reading it – one of the few books I was genuinely saddened to finish.

Derek Jarman was a film maker, painter, set / stage designer, writer, provocateur, campaigner, openly (and unapologetically) gay man, who became one of the first public figures to declare his HIV+ status. He died from complications around HIV in 1994, aged 52. I say “unapologetically” because his refusal to try and hide either his sexuality, his practices or his illness, very much marked him out for public abuse back in the 1970s / 80s / 90s.

One of his responses to receiving his diagnosis was to buy an old cottage on Dungeness – a very peculiar spit of land off the south coast of Kent, which is technically Britain’s only desert – in the shadow of a nuclear power station. The central conceit of the book is to describe Jarman’s “rescuing” this cottage from decrepitude and establishing a garden there, in this most hostile environment: paragraphs are simply lists of plants he is trying to grow there, plants he has seen on his walks, plants he wants to grow there: he wonders at the wildlife; talks about the elements, the inescapable sea.

For most of its duration the book has three themes: the cottage / garden and his work on it; his life as a very active gay man – cruising Hampstead Heath is a recurring theme; and his work in other fields of art – the descriptions of his frustrations in the film industry are particularly frank and illuminating. He gets to a point where he prefers the act of making the art, to the finished product. He holds nothing back, there appear to have been few secrets in his life… which sometimes caused conflict.

Towards the end of the book, his illness in its broadest sense, becomes the focal point of the narrative, but it never becomes doom-laden or “woe is me”, it is factual and he curses (rages against) the incapacities and limitations it places on him, but he never appears to be letting it overwhelm him.

I haven’t seen any Jarman films for years – I recall seeing Sebastiane and Jubilee decades ago – but the one that always stood out was Blue, which one of the most extraordinary pieces of film-making / television I can recall: about 90 minutes long, a simple blue screen with dialogue read over it. It was a “response” to his illness, and it was remarkably moving.

The book is one of the most satisfying I have read for a long time. Jarman’s humanity is evident on every page, as often, is a wicked sense of humour.

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