Modern Nature by Derek Jarman

4 out of 5 stars

Prospect Cottage is a tiny place on the barren and windswept coastal headland of Dungeness. It is an unlikely place to want to live, mostly because of not one but two sodding great nuclear power stations. If it feels an unlikely place to live, then it is an even more unlikely place to create a garden. But that is just what Derek Jarman did.

He made that decision to create something beautiful on this headland in 1986 after he found out that he was HIV positive. At the time if you had HIV and the AIDS virus that it would almost certainly turn into there was nothing that doctors could do, apart from managing your symptoms. there was no cure and still isn’t but medicines are available to allow people to live with some dignity now.

He had bought the cottage on a whim having inherited some money from his father. This book is a diary of the time he spent working in this garden, battling against the elements to try to create something beautiful and finding the plants that could survive. He collected some of the driftwood and other objects that he found on the beaches to decorate the garden with. The gardeners’ Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd stumbled across it one summer and it became much better known.

His diary is also a nostalgic romp through his past life as a gay man. He was sent to public schools, places that had no humanity where older boys would torment the younger boys, mostly because they had had it happen to them and it was supposedly character building. There are details of his first experiences with other boys at school, fumbles in the grounds of the schools, that they would inevitably get caught at, and it would become another reason for the beatings. It didn’t stop him though. He remembers being presented with the bills for his education at Canford School, on the occasion of his 21st birthday; a hideously expensive school that is only a 10-minute walk from my home.

At the end of his life, he found love with HB, but his younger days had been a succession of encounters and lovers, often mentioned in detail in the diaries, as well as the trip he made to his studio flat in London and the 3 am walks out onto Hampstead Heath, and the police raids that he managed to avoid. There are lots of nostalgic entries about his life working in film and his support of the arts as well as moments spent in the garden alone and with visitors. The later part of the book is about his illness and time spent in hospital as TB in conjunction with the AIDS-ravaged his health.

He was to live another four years after the last entry in the book, before succumbing to his illness. I did like this book, the way he writes, you can sense his passion for the garden his friends and all the mini-projects that he has on the go. The later part of the book makes for fairly uncomfortable reading as he talks openly about his health and the opportunities that he may never get to take. Well worth reading for a very different view of life from my usual perspective.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    I grew up Kent and did my geography a-level field trip at Dungeness. I’ve never been to the garden but would love to and have read quite a lot about it: I’m sure I’ve read this at some point, too, although looks like Before The Blog if I did. What a super cover on that edition!

    • Paul

      I kept hearing about it on Twitter and the library had a copy. He was quite a character and I think that same talent that he used in films and art made this quite some garden

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