this modern nature: a derek jarman scrapbook

modern nature.mdnntrDerek Jarman was a queer film-maker and gay rights campaigner, active from the early 70s until his death from AIDS complications in 1994. An alumnus of University College London, he created an eclectic series of experimental shorts before delving into feature film-making, later becoming a prominent voice in the fight against the despicable Clause 28 (incidentally, the issue that first sparked my political awareness). In such works as Jubilee (1978), The Last of England (1988), and Edward II (1991), he skewered concepts of English history and identity, provoking the Mary Whitehouse brigade and laying the groundwork for gay culture’s breakthrough to the mainstream. Shortly after his death, long-time collaborator Tilda Swinton premiered art piece The Maybe, ‘a performative monument to fragility, to our mortality and to collective mourning‘, in which she lies prone and plainly-dressed on a bed encased in glass.

djmnWithout knowing it, you may be most familiar with Jarman’s work through the music videos of The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys — or you might have stumbled upon one of the many pop pieces written to coincide with the 2013 publication of his absorbing project sketchbooks. With former-collaborator James Mackay’s recent revival of the 8mm shorts, and a recent exhibition at London’s CHELSEA space, it does seem that Jarman’s art is seeing something of a revival, but in recent years he has also become increasingly recognised for his creative gardening work. Following his diagnosis in 1986, Jarman moved to Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent; a small shingle property located a stone’s throw from both the beaches of the English Channel and a nuclear power station. In the following years he dedicated his days to rooting a thriving garden on the bleak wind-bitten coastland, keeping a candid journal reflecting upon this project and its relation to the events of his life to date, published in 1991 as Modern Nature.

As journals do, Modern Nature focusses on the minutiae of life — the records played, the clothes worn, the seeds planted — while sweeping through recollections of major events in the writer’s biography without pausing to offer context. The best journals are written only for the benefit of one’s imaginary friend, travelling watchfully by one’s side since birth. This Modern Nature: A Derek Jarman Scrapbook is an attempt to pull on the threads of the text, to create something along the lines of an annotated mood board — to really understand the depth of experience behind Jarman’s lifewriting. Cycling twice through the seasons from January 1989 to September 1991, it is also an endeavour to emulate his close attention and connection to the natural world, as well as an experiment in slow reading and textual immersion.
 

Friday 3 February 1989. I was describing the garden to Maggi Hambling at a gallery opening. And said I intended to write a book about it. She said: ‘Oh, you’ve finally discovered nature, Derek.’ ‘I don’t think it’s quite like that,’ I said, thinking of Constable and Samuel Palmer’s Kent. ‘Ah, I understand completely. You’ve discovered modern nature.’

 

This clip from the first ever series of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World (November 1998) features a tour of the Prospect Cottage Garden by Jarman’s partner Kevin Collins, with quotations from the journals.

Consciously landscaped to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the south-east headland, using indigenous plants and local debris as architectural flourishes, the garden has been largely preserved since the time of Jarman’s death, and is open to public viewing.

For a poignant take on the intentional survivability of Jarman’s design in this age of ecological uncertainty, see Thomas Rainer’s post on Gardening After the Apocalypse. The very nature of nature is changing. Do we continue to grow marigolds even as the emergency sirens blare?

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three short essays on the power of love

I. THANK YOU AND GOODBYE

Frankie Goes to Hollywood released debut single ‘Relax’ in October 1983. In January 1984 it finally hit number one. Then we all know the story. Mike Read, Radio 1, Top of the Pops. Widespread condemnation. Single of the Year at the Brit Awards in ’85 (can we ever imagine living in a world so slow?). Number one follow-up single, number one album. Infamy beyond the band’s (management’s) wildest dreams. In this original extended mix of third single ‘The Power of Love’ — which also hit the top of the charts for one week in November ’84 before being ousted by the Live Aid juggernaut — over lush string orchestration, actor Chris Barrie recites the DJ’s sputtered live-on-air rant. The barely-held self-righteous fury of that farewell. To be sure the band were courting controversy, and made its first million in those short twenty seconds, but they also came face to face with the thinly-veiled culture of institutional homophobia that decreed a mere glimpse of their desires, fantasies, and lifestyles unfit for social consumption.

To live in a world where one self-prescribed arbiter of moral culture can feel such a right to censor creative culture. Doesn’t it make you want to grab hold of the internet and never let go?

In Radio 2’s recent series The People’s Songs, hosted by the wonderful Stuart Maconie, contributors of all ages and backgrounds from around the United Kingdom reflected upon the music and culture of post-war Britain, and the soundtracks of their lives. (Unfortunately it seems all the episodes have been de-iplayered for the time being but they’ll pop back up eventually.) My favourite instalment by far was ‘Smalltown Boy‘, about the creative evolution of post-Bowie pop queerness, heavily featuring Bronski Beat, the Communards, Culture Club, and the all-reigning Queen. The glaring omission, however, was Frankie. Though it’s entirely possible the band have blocked the BBC’s use of their track to this day, to fail to refer to the incident even in passing while rhetorically cheering on the gay rights movement and popular representation was a huge misstep. To claim to be crystallising modern British culture in fifty choice records without pointing an elbow at one that remains in the top ten bestsellers of all time is quite ridiculous.

‘The Power of Love’ carries all the weight of that prejudice, down through the decades. It’s my favourite Christmas song, and never fails to make me super-emotional the first time I hear it each year. After so much hatred, to sing a song about love and only love.

II. THE POWER OF LOVE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

In November 1991, days before the death of Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead singer Holly Johnson was diagnosed HIV+. One wonders if he might have been even peripherally aware of the disease when writing ‘The Power of Love’. It was in 1981 that US media began to report on a “rare homosexual cancer”, and that the first known case of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome was discovered in the UK; July 1982 when Terrence Higgins suffered one of the first British AIDS-related deaths. Though prefiguring the terrifying heights of the western AIDS pandemic then — certainly predating any real understanding of the cultural and imaginative ramifications of the disease — in the wake of what was to come, I can’t help thinking of ‘The Power of Love’ as a kind of gay (im)mortality anthem.

I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw
Keep the vampires from your door
When the chips are down, I’ll be around
with my undying death-defying love for you

Though on one level evoking a kind of wilfully childlike (and therefore ultimate) version of heroism, particularly in tandem with Penelope Pitstop’s shapeshifting foe, the invocation of vampires in this context is culturally significant. Vamps are fundamentally queer beings, bonding bodily and fluidly with members of any sex indiscriminately, living literally in the shadows of normative society. The first wave of vampire literature in the west came toward the end of the eighteenth century, with the most enduring tale unarguably being Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which a homosocial band of brothers unite against the lascivious foreign bearer of a blood-borne plague that renders the infected incurably subhuman. Though syphilis is never explicitly mentioned in the novel, Stoker does name-check field expert Jean-Martin Charcot, and captures wonderfully the moral (and mortal) panic of the pre-penicillin era, when upto a fifth of London’s population fell victim to this highly-stigmatised sexually-transmitted infection. Indeed, Stoker’s death certificate suggests that his untimely death in 1912 was caused by complications related to the disease. That the vampire genre saw a resurgence in popularity around the early 1980s cannot be interpreted as mere coincidence. If, per Joseph Campbell, ‘myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths’, the same can be said of society’s nightmares, which tend to manifest in its monster du jour. As Katia Yurguis writes, After AIDS we found ourselves once again in ‘an era when fear of possible infection restrains human interaction, and concepts such as sex and blood have become synonymous with death’.

Preaching the vital importance of the ideal over the material, Johnson’s lyrics in ‘The Power of Love’ laud the sublime purity of love in the face of life’s dangers and darknesses, the necessity of believing in one’s own beauty and worth — despite what the world might have you believe. The vampire figure remains ostracised from society, will never regain “human status” among the living. But in invoking him, rather than monstrification of the HIV+, we might find a way to subvert the AIDS narrative, transmogrifying it from a story of tragic hypermortality to one of supernatural strength, immortal invulnerability, undying death-defying love.

III. THIS TIME WE GO SUBLIME

Half-comprising a selection of bizarre cover versions, including ‘Born to Run’ and ‘San Jose’ (!), Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984) is an underdeveloped album that sadly doesn’t live up to its incredible conceptual title. While still evoking the sweaty hedonism of the band’s debut single, the name pays direct homage to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan‘ (1816), a poem written from an opium-drenched dream, and which is in fact quoted in the record’s spectacular title track: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree. Wordsworth and Coleridge are commonly acknowledged as important figures in queer study, by virtue of their Romantic ideal of homosocial friendship, and Kubla Khan’s walled green, with all its ‘fast thick pants’ and ‘mighty fountain momently…forced’ certainly makes sense amongst FGTH’s highly-charged homoerotic aesthetic. Indeed, in the queer canon, the garden is often situated as a gay space (seemingly traceable to Jesus and Judas’s kiss in Gethsemene), with artists from Oscar Wilde to Derek Jarman bringing it front and centre in their work. (One might also note that the meticulously manicured lawn and pathologically preened rose garden are staple symbols of the dark-rooted repression of the unexamined, ultra-normative life.) This symbolic reclamation is interesting when compared to the Romantic glorification of wild untamed nature, stretching off to the horizon; per Jarman, the garden is not nature in the vein of ‘Constable and Samuel Palmer’s Kent’, but ‘modern nature’, cultivated nature, adapted nature, queered nature.


Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986) // American Beauty, Sam Mendes (1999)

 

For the Romantics, nature was the ultimate expression of the sublime: the overwhelming sensory experience of witnessing gestalt perfection, the ecstasy of the majestic spectacle tinged with the terror of infinity, the anxiety of unknowability. This preoccupation followed Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which works to outline a theory of the sublime, offering nature’s beauty as proven presence of the divine — something larger, more grand, than humankind. This religiosity is reflected in ‘The Power of Love’: in the Christian iconography of its video, the invocation of the Lord’s Prayer in its original mix. But rather than singing to the glory of God and nature — rather than making ideological amends for the body-centric, queer-as-in-fuck-you, bdsm spectacle of ‘Relax’ — ‘The Power of Love’ develops its rapturous hedonistic abandonment to holy proportions. This time we go sublime / lovers entwine: divine, divine. For Holly Johnson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the sublime is to be found Between Men. In love that indeed now holds the promise of not just pleasure and pain, but very real danger.

Society’s nightmares manifest in its monster du jour. In Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), another story famously shorn from a dream, Mary Shelley forewarns of the danger of man [sic] meddling in the affairs of God/nature, and arguably of woman-as-childbearer — creating monstrous life by scientific means. In the original iteration of the “myth of progress”, technological advancement is symbolised as fire, which is stolen from Zeus and delivered to humankind by the “fore-thinking” titan Prometheus, freeing the mortal realm forevermore from its reliance upon the whim of the immortal gods. (That Prometheus is a recurring referential figure in the literature of the Romantic period illuminates the anxious preoccupation with the link between the divine and the mortal; with the notions of subjection and agency in a time of great religious and political upheaval.) In supplanting god with man (more accurately: men) in ‘The Power of Love’, Johnson effects just such a cutting of the divine apron strings. What’s more, his lyric keenly evokes Promethean evolution in its vivid refrain — a love that feels like fire, with tongues of fire, that burns with passion while also healing. Baptismal flames, cleaning, purging the soul.

Despite its firm place in the Christmas canon then (and the beige, chronically hetero opine of Gabrielle Aplin’s 2012 hit cover version) ‘The Power of Love’ might in fact also be read as a deeply subversive queer anthem. Thematically linked to the secular, to the profane; to the death of the divine, in favour of the flesh.