Derek, Dungeness and Rye: A Pilgrimage

Dungeness, Kent
15 August 2009

A day trip to Derek Jarman’s beachfront cottage in Dungeness and Henry James’ elegant townhouse in Rye becomes a personal pilgrimage and a meditation on the links between art, sex and death.


Today I fulfilled a promise and plans to make a pilgrimage where were first forged 15 years ago – to visit Derek Jarman’s cottage and garden in Dungeness on the South-East coast of England. Jarman was a artist, filmmaker, writer, activist – a Renaissance man for the modern age – who became one of England’s most distinctive independent filmmakers, fearlessly and joyously depicted gay desire on screen. He became as well known for his public declaration of his HIV status in the 1980s, and his strident face-down of homophobia and public exploration of his illness in his life and art.

Somewhat oddly, for a man so identified with urban gay sensibility, he was also a keen gardener. In 1987, after the public declaration of his illness, he retreated from London, buying a cottage on the stark, windswept beaches of Dungeness in the shadow of a nuclear power station, and created a garden of local plants, carefully nurtured against the salt spray and headwinds of the coast.

Derek was the emblem for a generation of gay men, born after the war, growing up in the repressed 1950s, finding sexual freedom and political expression in the 1970s, only to be beseiged by AIDS and homophobia in the 1980s. He was also a pioneer of an explicit gay sensibility that was sexualised, fearless and confrontational, and never prettified or censored. In his own life and work, he became a vivid example of the politicised artist.

He created around him a modern day equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group (though possibly without the sexual bedhopping), a gaggle of artists and actors and designers, rent boys and scarf-waving interpretive dancers, to make a commune of artists, as well as a seemingly endless list of celebrity luvvies and hangers-on. His diaries drop almost more names than Warhol – it’s an endless parade of lunch with David Hockney and Rupert Everett, phone calls to Annie Lennox, video shoots with the Pet Shop Boys, sneaking Ian McKellen into concerts at Wembley, slagging off Gilbert & George and hospital visits from Tory MPs. Many of his regular collaborators have gone on to achieve success, including the actress Tilda Swinton, who was his muse and star of many of his films, the costume designer Sandy Powell, the filmmakers John Maybury and Isaac Julien.

His work was sensuous and lyrical, often humorous and occasionally wistful and elegaic, but always fired with passion and anger and political purpose. He left behind a body of work and a legacy that’s inspirational, and a compelling combination of art, politics, sex and sensibility that I don’t think has been matched by anyone since. Maybe noone can replicate Derek because the intensity of the homophobic 80s and 90s that he battled has since been softened and gentrified. Or perhaps it’s the unique qualities of the man himself – to date, noone else can pull off being poet, prophet, martyr, satyr, scout master and patron saint of naughtiness quite as well as he could.

I discovered Derek in 1994 when I saw a sparsely attended screening of his last film Blue, his elegy to his blindness in the final stages of his illness, which was completed as he was dying and released shortly after his death. He’s been a central figure in the development of my own sensibility and politics ever since. He’s been a hero, an inspiration and a provocation, a role model and an occasional sexual fantasy. I can’t imagine my adolescence and adulthood without him somewhere in my life. I even refer to him as “Derek”, as if I’m talking about an old friend.

When I watched Blue, I was dazzled. The film’s sole image is a motionless blue screen for 90 minutes with Derek’s voice narrating the story of his going blind as he develops full blown AIDS, his memories of past lives and lovers, and bitter polemics against homophobic Thatcherite Britain, set against a soundscape of music and voices. It was a simple but ingenious way of visualising his blindness and transcending it. I watched it with excitement that I’d found a gay voice who effortlessly claimed the role of artist, activist and poet, and created work that was both politically relevant, artistically stimulating and emotionally moving. I also remember a feeling of profound sadness that I’d discovered him just after his death, and that I’d never get to meet him or speak in response to the challenges he threw down in his film.

After Blue, I went off and discovered his writing and diaries (in the pre-DVD universe of the mid 1990s, prints of his films were hard to get hold of), and over the last 15 years, I’ve accumulated all his films. In 2004, by which time I’d moved to London, there was a small gurgle in the gay press and the art scene to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death, with the BFI slowly producing new prints and DVD releases of the films.

With time has come a certain kind of canonisation – his place in the pantheon of independent filmmakers and as the lecherous uncle of New Queer Cinema seems assured, and a number of books about the Dungeness garden have been produced, placing Dungeness on the map as a kind of pilgrimage for fans – should we be called Jarmaniacs? Interestingly, while his films and writings are now more accessible than ever, it seems that it may be his garden that becomes the most tangible and moving legacy of his life and work.

In 1987, Derek was scouring headlands of Kent for a location for the film that would become The Garden. He remembered a cottage with yellow painted windows on the shingle, in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station. Finding that it was for sale, bought it at Tilda Swinton’s suggestion, promptly moved in, and used it as a second home, shuttling back and forth from his flat in Charing Cross in central London.

“Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge… Now the sea has retreated leaving bands of shingle… Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist…. There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is only broken by the wind, and the hulls squabbling around the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch… There is more sunlight her than anywhere in Britain; this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take a hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.”

Jarman wrote beautifully about Dungeness in his journals, and took a perverse pleasure in creating a home and a garden in such an apparently inhospitable place, and celebrated the strange, stark beauty of the rugged landscape:

“This symphony of colour I have seen in no other landscape. Dungeness is a premonition of the far North, a landscape Southerners might think drear and monotonous, which sings like the birch woods in Sibelius’ music… Here, on the rare days when the wind does not blow, I will be able to give alfresco suppers with the nuclear power station as a backdrop.”

The garden was started tentatively. Derek had an interest in gardening and flowers as a child, but his horticultural experience until that stage was limited to growing geraniums on the windowsill of his Charing Cross Road flat. He planted and patiently nurtured hardy native plants that grew in the beach area – sea kale, gorse, broom, fennel, lavender and wild poppies – facing a number of setbacks when winds and salt spray would level the garden or rabbits would devour the fennel.

He scoured the beachside and created totemic sculpture from cast off driftwood and found objects, and stones arranged in paganist semi-circles, and carefully collected and arranged cast-off bits of fishing paraphenalia – old anchors, chains, fishing nets, and even an old boat that was dragged to his doorstep and presented to him by friendly neighbourhood fishermen. On the side of the wall of the cottage, he had a friend spell out John Donne’s sonnet to the rising sun “Busy old fool, unruly sun…” in raised lettering.

The cottage and garden had no fence or formal boundaries when Derek purchased it, an eccentricity that he cheerfully preserved. Visitors, fans and lost seagulls can wander in and around the cottage and visit, although there’s a sign on the front door asking politely not to stare into or press your nose against the window. (Despite this, the windows are covered with nose smudge marks and fingerprints – it seems that an open window is an invitation to voyeurism).

Having read about the garden for years, pouring over photos from the illustrated books, re-watching The Garden and re-reading Modern Nature, Derek’s journals about the construction of the garden, I’ve been itching feverishly to visit for years. I’m usually in two minds about whether to visit “literary locales” – the Jane Austen industry of Bath left me mostly cold, and I share with Derek a contempt for the English Heritage-esque prettifying of messy parts of history:

“Sissinghurst, that elegant sodom in the garden of England, is ‘heritized’ in the institutional hands of the National Trust. It magic has fled in the vacant eyes of tourists… The shades of the Sackville Wests pursuing naked guardsmen through the herbaceous borders return long after the last curious coachload has departed, the tea shoppe closed, and the general public has returned home…”

Generally, I prefer to remember my favourite writers and artists through their work, rather than drinking tea in the carefully restored 17th century cowshed where their pet cows once took a dump. With Derek’s garden, though, the appeal to visit was irresistible, possibly because the life and the work and the art were all so inextricably entwined. And it seemed like a slightly more interesting day out than another trip to tatty old Brighton or gloomy Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors to see where the Bronte Sisters coughed themselves to death.

So, with friends Stephen and James (two fellow Jarmaniacs) in tow, plus Kurt the American for a splash of colour and eccentricity, we set off from Charing Cross (Derek’s old stomping ground) to Dungeness, in a journey that took around the same time as it now takes to fly to Amsterdam or Provence. Derek didn’t drive, so relied on train travel to Ashford and taxis or otherwise commandeer his posse as chauffeur to get him to and from the beach.

On the journey down, we passed through some of the trashier parts of Kent – suburban railways stations with grim faced 16 year olds in shellsuits and fags sticking out of their mouths pushing baby prams. (Sadly, I just missed a perfect photo opportunity to snap a woman pushing a pram with twin baby girls wearing matching lime green velour jumpsuits – damn!) Ashford station is a terrifying, soulless place – rebuilt with big 80s platforms and a flashy shopping centre to incorporate commuters from the Eurostar, it’s now a ghost town since the relocation of the Eurostar from St Pancras – another example of misplaced British entrepreneurialism gone sour.

From Ashford, we took the train to Rye (more on that later), and got a taxi to Dungeness. Our taxi driver was mildly amused about 3 city queens visiting one of the most desolate parts of the beachfront, and, like our taxi driver from the old Bloomsbury Group house in Charleston, had no knowledge of Derek Jarman other than the fact that he had a house with a garden that tended to attract queens from London to visit.

From the descriptions, I was expecting a cottage alone on a deserted stretch of beach with nothing but the shadow of the nuclear power plant. Rather surprisingly, Derek’s cottage was one of a series of houses along a small road, with a view of the shingle but a 5 minute walk to the beach, past a post-apocalyptic display of ruined ships, washed up crap, ancient tarred sheds, old fishing rope, and hardy kale. Like most beach in England, Dungeness is shingle (ie., pebbles), and supposedly the longest strip of shingle beach in Europe. The view is amazing – huge, broad skies, a washed out almost monochrome colour palette of greys and blues, and a 360 degree view of the horizon. After the noise and colour and crampedness of London, it was the equivalent of a moon landing.

The cottage and garden are still well looked after, and what looks like a fresh tarring of the plywood and canary yellow on the windowsills, and the garden flourishes, possibly looking healthier and more luscious than in Derek’s lifetime. There was no sign of life in the house, though through the sunroom window there were a couple of opened envelopes on the floor and a half-finished novel on the sofa. (Was this evidence of a weekend visitor, or just more Jarman-inspired art direction?)

We walked to the lighthouse next to the power station, where Kurt spotted a little cafe selling smoked fish. I prefer my fish non-radioactive, but the others chowed down on mackerel, sardines and crab, which they claimed was delicious.

Walking back along the beach, we wandered through a wasteland of old tarred shacks, charred remnants of ships, old nets and gas cans. Gay Stephen and I were reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, and were reminded a little of the post-apocalyptic landscape he describes. It was a strange, weird landscape, like walking on the moon, or through the set of a science-fiction film.

It’s also bafflingly similar to Southland in New Zealand where I grew up – flat landscape, huge skies, scrappy plant life with lots of tunnel-rooted plants like lupins to burrow into the soil to find water and stabilise the land, and a strange stark unadorned beauty. Like New Zealand, Dungeness has the same feeling of precariousness about being on the end of the world and about to fall off.

For Derek, the garden seems to have been an escape from the world, and a challenge to himself (whether brave or just masochistic, I’m not sure) to create beauty and meaning out of an inhospitable world. Perhaps there was an appeal about starting with the blank canvas of a bleak empty place. Perhaps in the parched landscape and the shadow of the power station as a momento mori, he had the perfect setting for the garden as a memorial for the dead. In his diaries, he suggested that he was inspired to create a garden of life as a symbolic challenge to his illness, though he sometimes despaired of the project: “I plant my herbal garden as a panacea, read up on all the aches and pains that the plants will cure – and know they are not going to help. The garden as pharmacopoeia has failed“, he wrote gloomily, though it’s still impressive that he found a use for the word “pharamacopoeia”. Or just he just enjoyed the perversity and bohemian edge of living in a nature reserve in the same spot as a nuclear power plant.

All of us while we were there commented about feeling slightly unsettled, and it’s true. A place as elemental and bare as Dungeness, stripped of all the distractions of modern life (except a single strip of road and a small kitschy local pleasure train service), and nothing but the looming reminder of the nuclear power plant, forces you to confront the landscape, and by extension, confront yourself. Perhaps Derek found that living in such a bleak place meant that the act of self-examination was inevitable, and put the complexity of the world into a kind of relief.

The image of Derek the artist as a hermit living in monastery of nature is appealing, and something that Derek himself was happy to propagate, but it doesn’t seem to match the other accounts of his life – the phone ringing constantly, a role call of luvvies from the film and theatre world visiting the cottage, and tourists and well-wishers bringing cuttings for the garden. But regardless of his luvviedom and pretensions, the fact of the garden, like most of his work, throws down a challenge – to find your own voice as he found his, and to work to create art out of anything, using whatever resources you have available.

Taking up the challenge on the day we visited were a group of porn stars making what appeared to be a knickerless music video or a St Martin’s art school undergraduate video. We didn’t stay around long enough to find out, but the neon pink hair of one of the tranny hooker wigs certainly popped against the gray-blue skies. Gay Stephen sighed and wished he’d brought his American Apparel gold lame cunt-scarf that he wore to a dance party a few weeks ago and joined in. Not to be outdone, we posed for some brooding 80s New Romantic Pet Shop Boys video-esque poses in the garden, which we hope Derek would’ve approved of.

I was expecting to feel devastated and depressed by the visit, and imagined time alone lying in the garden, penning morose thoughts in my diary, and feeling the same sense of just-too-late loss that I first felt when I saw Blue. I don’t believe in the afterlife, and I’ve always believed that the dead, once gone, are lost irretrievably to us, except through our memories and through whatever legacy they may have left behind them.

Still, it’s a strange thing for me to imagine that I “knew” Derek, when I never met him. Can you “miss” someone who you’ve ever met, and can my experience of him be considered even vaguely as authentic as the many many people who are still alive (including friends of mine) who did know him? And such is the grand illusion of Art – the belief that we can draw close(-ish) to others even after death, and see something of what they saw. It’s the same illusion that makes me want to call him Derek rather than the more academic reference “Jarman”, and makes me want to smile and feel slightly sad when I look at photos of him, looking battered but still handsome standing outside his cottage or striking a camp pose on his hospital bed.

Sometimes I’m convinced that Art does provide a connection through time with the dead – at other times, I feel cynical about the possibility of knowing or understanding anyone else, alive or dead. Surprisingly, my visit to the cottage left me feeling happy, inspired, and with a sense of connection through time with Derek, a sense of closeness that I had walked where he walked and seen what he had seen, and a sense of security that his work hadn’t all been swept into the sea. I also felt seriously challenged to do anything the same with my remaining time on earth. I doubt that it’s going to involve moving to Dungeness and planting a garden (although Stephen and Kurt found a fabulous California style bungalow down the road that they want to move into immediately and start swanning around in wearing matching Ossie Clark kaftans).

We then switched gears to Rye, the terribly-terribly sweet charming village straight out of an English Heritage brochure – known for Elizabethan architecture, cobblestoned streets, a 900 year old Gothic cathedral, more antique stores than two gay men can shake a little pooper dog at.

Here’s some text from the Ye Oldie Rye website to describe the town, which gives you an idea of how much it prides itself on (and still lives in) the past.

“Rye describes itself as an ancient town, with a charter dating from the 11th century. William the Conqueror’s grandson, King Stephen, gave the town its first fortifications, of which the medieval Landgate and Ypres Tower are the main remnants. Rye was also a member of the medieval federation of Cinque Ports, providing ships to the Crown in exchange for trade privileges, although centuries of silting and long shore drift have shifted the coastline away, leaving the town stranded two miles inland. It remains a river port, however, and fishing boats still chug upstream to land a daily catch at the Strand Quay, amid moored yachts…. Elizabeth I liked it so much that she bestowed on it the title ‘Rye Royale’.”

Rye and its small town suffocations and bitchery are amusingly represented in Mapp and Lucia, a deliciously camp set of novels by E F Benson (a one-time mayor of Rye) about two snobbish middle class ladies in a small Sussex town called Tilling. The novels were televised by Granada in the mid-80s, starring Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales, and filmed in and around Rye. The series is screamingly camp, and pitched somewhere between P G Wodehouse and Noel Coward, by way of a Dynasty bitch fight. The link with Mapp and Lucia is still being worked over faithfully – there’s a Mapp and Lucia walking tour given every month by a local middle-aged homosexual (which we stumbled into the middle of en route to the tea shoppe) and in the window of one of the Ye Oldie shop windows, we saw an advertisement for auditions for the Rye Players’ forthcoming production of “Make Way For Lucia”. (We insisted that Stephen audition for Lucia immediately, and discussed which kimono he should wear for his stage entrance).

We had a terrifying afternoon tea in Fletcher’s House, named for the playwright who was one half of Beaumont & Fletcher – the cream tea and scones were great, but the psychotic staff were not. Deciding at half past 4 that they were just too goddam full, the maitre d’ and then the chef slammed the door in prospective patrons’ faces, told a family that if they left, they wouldn’t be let back in, and the waiter cheerily confided in us that the Germans didn’t know how to behave. (We didn’t tell them Kurt’s last name was Helfrich.) So much for the fantasy about small towns being filled with friendly locals with becoming accents and charming cap-doffing manners – actually, they’re all cloven-hooved psychopaths.

James and I went through the National Trust rarified atmosphere of Lamb House – one of Rye’s grandest addresses, and the former home of Henry James and E F Benson. As with most National Trust properties, Lamb House was presided over by a bevy of ladies in sailor suits and zebra print with green eyeshadow and hostile clench jawed smiles who ever so politely hand you a laminated card explaining how George the First took a dump here one night after his ship was stranded in Rye, and where exactly James was sitting when he picked up his fountain pen to write the last lines of The Wings of the Dove.

The ink pots and watch fobs were all perfectly arranged and labelled. The place was also sterile and completely characterless. The only vaguely distinguishing feature in the house which bore any evidence to an actual person living in the house was a creepy mausoleum to James’s dogs, discreetly poked in a corner by the rear garden wall. Other than that, it was a museum, with all the messy realities of life as it’s lived neatly tidied away – including the dead dogs.

Jarman hated Rye, and took several stabs at it in his diary, bellowing at the enforced tweeness and cynically commercialised heritage industry. Fifteen years ago, I’d have loved Rye and thought “how charming” and wished, for the thousandth time, that I lived in a Ye Oldie cottage in a little village like this instead of growing up in the harsher light of rural New Zealand. Now, I think I’m with Derek.

Strolling through Henry James’s more-English-than-the-English garden gave me another huge appreciation for the confrontational nature of Derek’s garden. When you visit a National Trust property, there’s a reassuring set of rules and restrictions. There’s a sign outside, a fine at the door, printed tickets issued by unsmiling attendants, ropes to tell you where to walk and not to walk, laminated cards telling you what to think, and an air of well-polished perfection and sterility. Even the shape of the gardens – carefully pruned hedgerows, boxed gardens, plants so well ordered they grew straight up like soldiers in formation and never, ever spill onto the pathway – demand reverence and a creeping, apologetic respect as you walk around them.

Jarman has nothing like the same reassurance – the garden stands open to the elements, already ageing (the house and garden is maintained, but things are aging, weather beaten and eroding with time), and there’s nothing to tell you what to think. He demands that you take the garden as it is, on its own terms, and make what you will of it – which is what all great art should do.

I wonder now what Derek would have been doing if he had lived, and what he would have made of modern life with the rampant commercialism of the gay scene, the social progress with anti-discrimination laws and same-sex civil partnerships, and the “mainstreaming” of gay sensibility through bland fare like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or even Bruno. Re-reading the diaries is an immediate reminder of the wall of hostility he faced as an openly gay, openly-HIV positive man living in virulently homophobic Thatcherite Britain, and the amount of publicity he received (and occasionally courted). While the muckraking tabloids are still with us, there is a sense that the tide is turning and that “gay” is no longer to be feared and mocked. With that in mind, would he still have had his gay militia of Bloomsbury-esque painters, rent boys and defrocked bishops around him, and would his particular brand of articulate gay rage still have been needed?

It’s possible, I suppose, that Derek would have morphed effortlessly into a new incarnation of his creativity, celebrated the new openness, and happily taken up the seat of Big Gay Granddaddy of modern gay culture (perhaps with maybe a cameo in Queer As Folk or an occasional appearance on Richard & Judy). It seems more likely that he’d have stuck to his status as an outsider and a critic, and possibly turned into one of those bitter old Stonewall-era queens who never fail to remind the errant thoughtless youth of today about how hard it used to be, and silently (or not silently) continued to lick his wounds about the horrors of the homophobic past. I have no doubt that he’d have taken issue with the complacency and apoliticism of most urban gay culture, and poured scorn on bourgeoise queens like Elton John and David Furnish for supposedly attempting to copy straight marriage – even though I’m sure he’d have accepted a wedding invitation. I hope that he would’ve also looked past the glossy surfaces of gay coolness and raged about HIV infection rates soaring, the continuation of gay-bashing, and the rather irritating tendency of many gay men to imagine that all is well in Gayland and there’s nothing left to fight for. I’m sure he’d have thought of something.

It’s all speculative, of course, but what is clear is that noone has replaced him. Perhaps noone can – perhaps he was too much a product and a symbol of his era to have been able to be reincarnated. And so, he continues to be missed, and in being missed, he is not forgotten. (“I place a delphinium, royal blue, on your grave”).

Oh, and Derek, if you are out there somewhere in the big gay cosmos, I stole some plants from your garden and am attempting to grow them on my windowsill. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind.


1 Comment

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