Thursday 27 October 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Modern Nature" by Derek Jarman

There’s an omnipresent overseer throughout Jarman’s Modern Nature. It manifests in different forms as he switches from daily records of the garden at Prospect Cottage, to a memoir of his childhood and life as a film producer - from the looming presence of Dungeness power station, felt through the thickest fog as his home faced ravaging seas, to the oppressive rule of the teachers at boarding school, ever vigilant for deviant behaviour.

Covering a period from the beginning of 1989 through to September the following year, he begins with the great storm that plunged the cottage into darkness, leaving him with only the beam of the lighthouse to see by. As he watches timbers fly from fishermen’s cottages and hears the wind cry like a banshee around him, he takes us back to Kansas and his nightmare dreams of Oz: "The Wizard of Oz reminds me of the frightening power of movies to move. I’m glad it had a happy ending."

The great city of Emerald, lit up like Dungeness station, is another presence that overshadows the narrative - a hint that we don’t always get what we truly wish for. 

Jarman bought Prospect with his father’s inheritance and moved there when his HIV status became public. The memoir is very poignant as he turned to face his death. Many of his friends had already succumbed to this vicious disease and he must have known that his time was running out as he built a garden in a savage microclimate. Many plants died, succumbed to the salt sprays, turned black and calcified. The temperatures could swing from intense dry heat to bitter blasts, but he persisted and replanted after every storm, gathering stones thrown up by the surges to decorate his patch.  A keen gardener and wide reader, he knew his plants and makes references to their mythical past, cultural symbolism, and power to heal. The prose is beautiful and melancholic: "Today, Dungeness glowed under a pewter sky – shimmering emeralds, arsenic, sap, sage and Verdigris greens washed bright, moss in little islands set off against pink pebbles, glowing yellow banks of gorse, the deep russet of dead bracken, and pale ochre of reeds in clumps set against the willow spinney."

This symphony of colour, intense like no other landscape, is filmic and harks back to the technicolour washes of Oz. A film-maker throughout, he sets scene after scene for us and is mindful of our reaction. During this period of writing, he was also filming War Requiem and includes the scene of poppies from the garden, buzzing with bees.

          Scarlet Poppies
          This is a Poppy
          A flower of cornfield and wasteland
          Bloody red
          Sepals Two
          Soon falling
          Petals four
          Stamens many
          Stigma rayed
          Many seeded
          For sprinkling on bread
          The staff of life
          Woven in wreaths
          In memory of the dead
          Bringer of dreams
          And sweet forgetfulness. 

I can clearly remember the towering black obelisk of 1980s public information films, warning us about the AIDS epidemic. A newly-qualified teacher at the time, I was working under the shadow of Section 28 which forbade schools from "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Jarman’s experience of the prejudices and persecution he faced during this period whilst watching his friends "shrivel and parch like the landscape" is harrowing. From his refuge at Prospect, the nature is encompassing and assuaging but also a grim reminder that our time in the garden is finite. The debris he collects from the shores after high tides is dragged back and used to create a sculpture garden of decay, where distorted metal hums to the sound of bees - inspiring him to paint and write.

          No dragons will spring from these circles.
          These stones will not dance or clap hands at the solstice.
          Beached on the shingle,
          They lock up their memories,
          Upright as sentinels
          In the dry grass.

Name dropping throughout his close contacts and work diary, this book will appeal to anyone who is interested in media of the period, but it is the plants who steal the show. It is they he turned to at the end of his day and Prospect Cottage that was his refuge at the end of his life.

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine and The Arts Council.

1 comment:

  1. A very insightful, observational and sympathetic piece. The reviewer obviously has great knowledge of her subject.