Derek Jarman by Richard Dodwell
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Richard Dodwell (b.1988) is an artist and editor of Pilot Press, a small publisher of contemporary queer art and writing. His first publication, Not here, a queer anthology of loneliness, was launched in the UK and USA in 2017. He lives and works in London.
I first encountered Derek in his garden. It was a glossy photo book with images of marine plants and strange, contorted metal sculptures sticking out of the shingle at violent angles, some with witch stones hooked around their jagged ends, like strange mementos that a ghost from the sea had left. One of the photos in the book is of Derek in full djellaba (his own take on a hospital gown while on day release from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he was receiving treatment for the final stages of AIDS) and a ward bracelet around his wrist. He is leaning down to inspect one of his deep flower beds, built over the shingle from bits of drift wood, scavenged throughout the seasons from the seemingly endless shores of Romney Marsh, by the busy English Channel with its horizons of ever-changing sky and vast container ships moving silently in the distance, bringing over plastic toys from China.
In the background a small row of cottages and old fisherman’s huts can be seen: a little enclave in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the world, called Dungeness. I was struck immediately by this black and white image before I even knew anything about Derek, or who he was. I was confused about why he was wearing a hospital bracelet, why he was dressed like an old sea shepherd, or mystic, and more specifically what was the bleakness and seemingly empty, grey landscape that stretched out beyond him.
“Have you ever watched a Jarman film?” The first time I heard his name uttered, around age 23, was when I was dating a rather mad theatre director - my first major cultural education after growing up, and then fleeing, the wilds of comfortably Conservative, agricultural Essex - on one of those rows of former council homes, each now with its own Sky dish and green uniform lawn (no wildflowers) and those neon blue Ford Fiestas parked outside, which from an early age I thought rather vulgar, and hated. I hadn’t heard of Derek before, and my first experience was of his 1988 film The Last of England, incidentally made in the year of my birth, and a film that, in those heady, anxiety-ridden days at the beginning of a young queer relationship seemed to represent to me an obscurity of feeling, of contortion and unknowing, that my then boyfriend possessed, and that I found deeply threatening to my own fragile, still-forming sense of self, and to my homeland. The title for the film comes from an 1855 oil-on-panel painting by Ford Madox Brown, depicting two emigrants leaving England to start a new life in Australia. A departure for the exotic; for the unknown.
After a deeply unpleasant row, which lead him to switch it off mid-Tilda Swinton, I never really encountered Derek again, until a year later, when I happened to pick up his memoirs which I had seen on the bedside table of my ailing boyfriend for some time. It was an attempt, I suppose, to understand what he was getting at; what he was trying to convey, but couldn’t; and more importantly, in hindsight, why our relationship needed to end. I was immediately alarmed by how confessional, how self-aware, how beautiful his writing was, and skipped to the bits about sex and cruising, hoping to get off on my boyfriend’s imagined desire for them (our sex life was struggling, as is the dilemma of receptive / active sex that often stifles the queer relationships with two cocks early on). I did get turned on, somewhat, but my fear of sex, of the kind of wild abandon depicted, as well as the gentle reserve and observation of the fragile body laid-bare, lasted much longer into my relationship with Derek’s work than it did with my boyfriend, and our love soon tilted, as they say, into the wind, and I was adrift at sea again.
About three years later, after my sister died (suicide), my mum took me to Dungeness, finally, after hearing me speak for years of this magical place with the jagged wire and sea kale. We didn’t know where his house was along the stretch of old ramshackle fishing huts and artist studios, but we knew to follow the beach. We picked up bits of debris along the way: a piece of dried seaweed, some smooth driftwood, a razor clam shell, admiring the wooden carcass of an old boat, before finally I saw the house appear from behind an old lifeboat station. And there it was. Derek’s house. The one I’d seen in that book in the ex’s house all those years ago, as the wind and rain of the north of England had battered the windows, and I had wondered for a moment if there was something I was lacking, and needed to go and find for myself. The beginning of all great journeys are painful.
My mum went up to the door and peered in, but I stayed a respectful distance. I didn’t want to touch or disturb anything, it was all as it was in the pictures, albeit less attended to and more battered by all the wind and salt spray that had been rushing off the Atlantic since his death in 1994. I just wanted to look and pay my respects, and say thanks, I guess, for putting the horizon in my mind when I couldn't see it, for introducing me to the sounds of nature, and the heart. And perhaps, more importantly, the willingness to accept, and face, life’s perilous sea.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.