Shortly before Derek Jarman died from an aids-related illness in February 1994, he asked me if I would write his biography. I happily agreed, but didn’t properly start work on the book until many months after his death, by which time the prospect of it – how on earth to encapsulate and explain such a multi-faceted artist? how revivify someone whose life-force had been so dauntingly intense? – had begun to fill me with considerable alarm. Then, one night, I had the most vivid of dreams. Unlikely as it sounds, I found myself sitting alongside Derek in an open carriage while the pair of us were slowly driven the length of a wide and handsome avenue. The avenue was lined with banks of brilliantly coloured flowers and, as we drew abreast of each bush, Derek would lean forward and excitedly explain its features to me: the type and genesis of its flowers, their shape, texture and colour.
Not surprisingly, this dream gave me ample courage to proceed with the book. It also sums up the essence of Derek, both as a man and an artist: his love of beauty, of all that is colourful, and his habit of exuberantly, insistently, sharing his enthusiasms with those around him. In the years during which I knew him, whenever I visited his tiny flat in Charing Cross Road, or his windswept garden in Dungeness, I always came away aglow with the feeling – the certainty – that anything and everything was possible. These are not words he himself would easily have used – he was too much the classicist for that – but Derek Jarman was a true empowerer; a true enabler. What he liked to say was ‘yes’ – and to have you echo him.
Puzzlingly (to me, at any rate), in the ten years that have elapsed since his death, a somewhat deadening silence has subtly but insidiously started to descend on this man who, in life, was always so clearly heard, so wonderfully vociferous in his views, be they artistic, political or personal – or, as was frequently the case with Derek, a heady combination of all three.
So how best, then – and indeed, why? – to recapture the cadences of that voice today? Re-experience it in the twenty-first century? If one lives within reach of his inspirational garden at Dungeness, one can perhaps hope to approach him via his sensitivity to the landscape, but for the rest, his theatre designs are no longer current; his paintings rarely displayed; his gay activism consigned, more or less, to history. Which leaves only (only?) his published journals and, pre-eminently, the films, where the banks of flowers he showed me in my dream gloriously abound, even though, on celluloid, they invariably shimmer alongside darker images of, say, barbed wire: beauty hedged about by brutality. (I’m thinking particularly of The Angelic Conversation.)
Derek was not, of course, the first artist to intimate that beauty and brutality go hand in hand – nor will he be the last – but that isn’t really the point. What’s important is that his vision was so idiosyncratic, so intensely personal. Never someone to bow to the orthodoxies of his time, he was supremely uninterested in telling a conventional story in a conventional manner – except perhaps in a film like Caravaggio, though even then, he did it his way. Convention – in every sense of the word – was anathema to Derek: the enemy of life, promise, love, all that he held dear. What he valued was convention’s opposite, the more neglected corners of existence, exploring what others might ignore, and – of course – doing this entirely on his own terms.
Increasingly – the legacy of the aforementioned Caravaggio, this, in that the long struggle to fund that film was a torment he never wished to revisit – he made his films as simply as he knew how, with his hand-held super-8 camera and a small group of friends, in his garden, maybe, or some other favourite part of the countryside. His message being that if you want to make a film, if you want to express yourself, you don’t always have to get bogged down in the complexities of feature film production. It isn’t essential to go through the hoops of courting the money with a carefully prepared and tailored script only to have that script rejected, or turned into something not remotely your own. Instead of stepping into the jaws of the commercialised world and watching that world swallow you whole, you can, by contrast, simply pick up your camera and train it on your own back yard. Look at and describe what’s yours in your own, unique way. In the gospel according to St Derek, that’s the ultimate trick. It’s really that simple.
It isn’t, of course – it never can be – even a film like The Last of England, which Derek once described as ‘home movie-making really gone sort of slightly grand’, involved its share of production mountains that needed climbing. But even so, the message spelt out by his preferred method of working is still a vital one. Which is why I hope and pray that the relative silence which currently enshrouds him can soon be dispersed, so that we can properly start to hear again that distinctive voice – by turns spirited, embattled, angry, subversive, mischievous, provocative, learned, oblique, direct, tender and erotic. Always challenging, frequently uncomfortable, never dour. And the way it will playfully insist, of course, that anything, but anything, is possible. Always and forever possible.
Tony Peake is the author of Derek Jarman (Abacus) and two novels, A Summer Tide (Abacus, 1993) and Son to the Father(Little, Brown, 1995). His writing has appeared in numerous short story anthologies and edited a collection called Seduction for Serpent’s Tail (1994). This article first appeared in Vertigo magazine, volume 2, issue 6. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.