Modern Nature

Derek Jarman

University of Minnesota Press — 1992 (this edition 2009) / 320 pages / Paperback / ISBN 978-0-8166-6594-5 / $18.95

IN BRIEF: Part of filmmaker/artist Derek Jarman‘s multi-volume memoir.


Derek Jarman (1942–1994) was a rare artist who succeeded, at times fabulously, in several media. Although he is best known for his eleven features, including the landmark homoerotic historical drama Sebastiane (1976), and the experimental biopic Caravaggio (1986), he is also acclaimed for painting, theatre and film design, poetry and prose, and even his masterful gardening.

His reputation as an author continues to grow, with some critics considering him one of the finest postwar British writers. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, Modern Nature (1992), the third volume of Jarman’s unique autobiographical saga, returns to print to North America (At Your Own Risk and Chroma are forthcoming). Largely in diary form, Modern Nature begins a year after his life-changing HIV diagnosis, when Jarman was still at the height of his creative powers.

Arguably, this is Jarman’s single finest book, for the powerful beauty of its language, intriguing form that interweaves the intensely personal with the political, even at times prophetic, and for its humane understanding. In examining himself, Jarman strips away the blinders of modern society, even as he reveals our collective ties to the natural world, and to each other. It is at once spellbinding and liberating.

The twenty-one months covered here move from richly detailed entries that begin in January 1989 at his beloved Prospect Cottage, and end in September 1990 in London’s St. Mary’s Hospital with laconic, and defiant, fragments. In fact, Jarman would live to create major works for over three more years. We follow his creative process during the production of The Garden (1989), his celebrated stage and film concert tour for the Pet Shop Boys in Hong Kong, Japan, and Britain, and the early stages of Edward II (1991), his riveting adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the doomed gay monarch. And with the benefit of hindsight, we know — even if Jarman at the time did not — that his quick references to a certain philosopher and a project referred to as “Blueprint,” would flower into his extraordinary final films, Wittgenstein (1992) and Blue (1993).

Even if you have never seen a Jarman film or painting, or garden, you can savor the passion and grace of his writing. Jarman cross-cuts the diary portions of Modern Nature with a fragmentary, almost Cubist, memoir focused on his childhood, including the lives of his mother, father, and a few eccentric relatives. He uses this basic technique in other books — including the first two parts of his autobiography: Dancing Ledge (1984) and The Last of England (1987; later retitled Kicking the Pricks) — but here the technique feels like an organic part of the whole.

He varies the dimensions of his entries, extending some to several pages, while compressing others into gnomic vignettes. And he lets the subjective filter of memory guide the temporal shape: As he writes on 24 February 1989, “Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present…” Jarman also judiciously applies his experimental approach in the film The Garden to this book, wherein “the story is told somewhere else. The most evocative moments are those that are disintegrating: the debris, the camera faults, the act of preparation….” (21 October 1989). This heady mix, including the form, makes the book feel like it’s a living thing, breathing in and out. But even when he darts rapidly from childhood to his present (1989–90) to the swinging ’60s London of his art school days, we remain grounded by the diary format. We know when and where we are, day by day.

Although the narrative is accessible, it can be a bit confusing when Jarman refers to friends only by their first names: is that the actor Julian Sands (A Room With a View) or another Julian? (usually, the latter). It helps to have a copy of Tony Peake’s indispensable, and compelling, Derek Jarman: A Biography (1999) on hand.

The loss from AIDS of people he held dear both saddened and galvanized Jarman. As he wrote on 15 April 1989: “So many friends dead or dying — since autumn: Terry, Robert, David, Ken, Paul, Howard. All the brightest and the best trampled to death — surely even the Great War brought no more loss into one life in just twelve months, and all this as we made love not war. The terrible dearth of information, the fictionalisation of our experience, there is hardly any gay autobiography, just novels, but why novelise it when the best of it is in our lives?”

And so he has heeded his own call, by writing his multi-part memoir. But Jarman, also an acclaimed poet, sometimes moves from prose into verse. Often he quotes other people’s poetry, including even long-forgotten medieval nature odes, although sometimes he shares his own poetic voice. Here is the first stanza of his heartbreaking lament, written two weeks the after passage just quoted:

I walk in this garden
Holding the hands of dead friends
Old age came quickly for my frosted generation
Cold, cold, cold they died so silently
Did the forgotten generations scream?
Or go full of resignation
Quietly protesting innocence
Cold, cold, cold they died so silently

Part of Modern Nature’s strength comes from how Jarman gives full play to his enormous intellectual, emotional and spiritual range. He moves, as we all do in our in everyday lives, from moments of pathos, like those we’ve just seen, to incidents that show Jarman’s wonderful childlike innocence, his boundless curiosity about the world we live in. To take just one example, I’m astonished that, through the easygoing power of his empathy and prose, he made — or allowed — me to bond with… sea kale! On the last day of January 1989: “Planted a handful of sea kale seedlings about the garden, they grow rapidly, making luxurious plants within the year; large grey-green leaves catch the summer dew like pearls; their perfection untouched by predatory caterpillars. They fringe the sea, their frilly leaves dance a Can-Can amongst the flotsam. At this time of the year they are nearly invisible, but if you look closely they are already sprouting their sturdy purple leaves. By April they will have turned a glaucous green, which in turn will be submerged in June by a froth of white flowers.”

The honesty of his revelations makes the transitions — in tone, form and time — seem natural, as in, say, Thoreau’s Walden (a book that may have inspired Jarman, although he only briefly mentions it once). Page after page, Jarman’s sensual prose and provocative, at times iconoclastic, ideas — on everything from flowers to politics to religion to cruising Hampstead Heath — keep you engaged. His goal, to “provoke… but not trap… the audience” (16 October 1989), applies as much to this book, and all of his works, as to source of that comment with his controversial art installation in Glasgow.

Jarman’s words, including the feelings produced by their rhythms (also a key feature of his films), capture experience with at once emotional immediacy and aesthetic distance. His writing, like his works in other media, lets us enter into something like the fullness of lived experience. In one notable passage, Jarman reveals his range — it’s not always pretty, just real.

In the entry for 11 June 1989, he writes about a “hapless reporter” for the tabloid, The Sun, that Jarman believed degraded people with AIDS and the entire gay (Jarman preferred the term queer) rights movement. Not only that, all of the London tabloids had recently written that Jarman was dead (I’ll spare you the Mark Twain “greatly exaggerated” quotation). The Sun was doing its penance with a piece on Jarman. The unnamed paparazzo doesn’t seem to care about his job, let alone Jarman, saying “I’m only a snapper.” Jarman says that “this is your chance to take a decent photo.” Between the lines, you can hear the photographer’s Who cares? Jarman then mentions his diary “which I’m publishing. You’re today’s entry. When all is said and done what I choose to write will, I expect, be the only trace of your life. Your memory is in my hands…. The Sun‘s not kept by the British Museum, the paper destroys itself itself it’s so acid…” Whatever you may feel about Jarman’s arrogance, or standing up for his own dignity, he’s right about The Sun on two counts: its cheap paper is so acidic that it will soon crumble to dust, and its sneering acid tone towards GLBT people degrades and damages real lives.

In his next entry, Jarman comes down off his high horse (if he was ever on it), when he confesses one reason why he’s so fond of jeans and t-shirts. “I find clothes shops intimidating, rarely venture into them, and never alone. The moment those self-assured assistants set eyes on me an overwhelming shyness swamps me. I duck and avert my eyes at ‘Can I help you, sir.'”

The book is also filled with Jarman’s wit, that is more satirical than corrosive. Incredibly, it can be even on occasion seem Disneyesque, as with a series of mini-adventures he has, at Prospect Cottage, with a mischievous crow named Jet. But humor can also be poignant, as when Jarman seems near death, in St. Mary’s Hospital in March 1990, but can still joke that “My temperature chart looks like a child’s drawing of the jaws of a shark.”

Maybe the wittiest line belongs to his close friend Tilda Swinton (who starred in many of his films, long before her Academy Award), on 14 October 1989. Late at night, they pass “a crowd six deep along the entire length of the Central Station. As I did so a voice rang out, ‘There’s Derek Jarman’ and the whole crowd turned to look. I didn’t know whether to run. Tilda said I should have shouted back ‘Where?'”

“Where?” indeed — but it feels like much of a full, lived life has found its way into Modern Nature, and then some. Jarman recounts how his friend Maggi Hambling suggested the title for the book at a gallery opening, when he was talking about his garden in connection with British artists Constable and Samuel Palmer; and she said, “You’ve discovered modern nature.” (3 February 1989). But it could be argued that the title is an ideal fit. Although the book is obviously, and penetratingly, about himself — and the love he shares with Keith Collins (affectionately called “HB” for ‘Hinney Beast,’ referring to ‘honey’ or ‘flower’) — it also, like all of Jarman’s works, encompasses larger themes. The “Modern” can also refer to time, both personal and collective; the book is filled with fascinating historical snippets, ranging from medieval guides to horticulture to avant-garde art, often by defiantly gay artists like “Anger, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Rauschenberg,” whom Jarman singles out on 29 August 1989. And the title’s “Nature” reminds us of our place in the world, not only among works of aesthetic brilliance but, to take just one humble example beloved by Jarman, that sea kale that we met earlier.

One of the book’s most moving passages comes at the final entry for March 1990, when a hospital cleaning woman named Mildred comforts the gravely ill Jarman in a way that brought him, and me, to tears: “When she passed by I called out to her and she came in; I said ‘Your song is wonderful’ and she smiled. She said the spiritual was called “Spirit of the Living God,” she placed her hands on me and very quietly, with a voice of great beauty, sung to me. It was the most moving moment, I couldn’t hold back the tears. She smiled, blessed me and carried on with her round.”

Few autobiographical works, from the respective Confessions of St. Augustine (397 CE) and Rousseau (1769) to, say, Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest (1995), feel as warmly open as Modern Nature. Uniquely, Jarman gives an indefinable sense that he doesn’t just want to hear himself, he also wants to listen to each of us readers. While Augustine preaches, Rousseau ponders, and Vidal excoriates, Jarman makes me feel like he’s saying, between the lines, Come on in, sit down, I’ll tell you my story if you’ll tell me yours. It’s as if Jarman — the iconoclastic critic of organized religion in The Garden who yet can connect deeply with a pious woman like Mildred — wants to inspire a dialogue with all points of view, through his own openness and honesty. For me, that’s what makes this book an affirmation of life — from the ocean to the sky with us in between. There’s really nothing so limited as “modern nature;” we’re all part of nature, just as it’s all part of us, body and heart and mind and imagination joined.

LGBTQ+ Literature
Jim’s Book Reviews / LGBTQ+ Literature

Reviewed March 12, 2006 / Updated February 27, 2022

^ top