Jarman, D. (1992) Modern Nature The Journals of Derek Jarman Vintage Press ISBN 0 09 911631 6
I picked up a pen and started to write what I rather grandly called my Journal 1. when I was fifteen, back in 1978, for my sins I’m now writing Journal 36.
Over the years I’ve come across a number of books that opened doors in terms of the way I wrote and the themes that I wrote about.
Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature was one such a book. I read it at a time when I was turning my back on an career explicitly focused on art production and moving towards teaching and documentary.
I came to Jarman through this book, knowing little of his previous eclectic output as a British cinematic maverick who pushed the boundaries of taste, challenged cosy perceptions and refused point-blank to be pigeon-holed.
In 1986 this controversial film-maker discovered he was HIV positive, and decided to make a garden at Prospect Cottage on the bleak coast of Dungeness.
After moving to Prospect Cottage, Jarman began keeping a diary. Extracts from 1989 and 1990 were first published by Century Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman in 1991.
After several false starts the garden is on its way. The roses are looking healthy – the exceptions are Foetida bicolour and Frühlingsmorgen. Last year’s plants have established themselves: the burnet roses are covered with buds, and the pale yellow flowers of canary bird are out. In the front garden the bugle is in flower.
I chain myself to this landscape.
I find it difficult to write each day, but if I don’t I’m swamped wit guilt. Where does the compunction come from?
Perhaps I inherited it from Dad – he could never keep still for a moment; even when reading a newspaper he would tap his foot keeping time to silence. Back and forth I go into the garden, like a boy with anorexia who weighed himself every five mites. At rest, a nervous pit quickly develops in my stomach and overwhelms me, forcing my mind to change direction.
From the entry for Sunday 14 May 1989 Modern Nature pg 77
A second collection, covering the final years of his life, were edited by Keith Collins and published posthumously in 2000, also by Century, as Smiling in Slow Motion. The Times said the latter was the life-affirming expression of an artist engaged in living to the full.
Jarman chose to end his days living on a strange coastal stretch that could not have been further removed from the urbane creativity of the London of his youth and middle age. At Prospect Cottage Jarman was able to subvert the quiet mediums of journal writing and gardening, and make each a vital, potent, political polemic his rage against the age. Both gardening and writing became an integral part of Jarman’s hugely creative endgame, the book being, not only a volume of autobiography, but also a lament for a lost generation and a celebration of homosexual life.
Modern Nature offers the reader sometimes startling honesty. Nothing is hidden from us, and as such we enter into his disintegrative world, and his everyday life. No brave face is put on, no politeness offered. Instead, he writes with truth and compassion, and at times pure, honest, anger.
The result is a potent, valuable book pulsing with emotion and life. Yet the diaries are also very readable, portraying rich humanity, creativity and optimism despite his declining health; there’s wistful recollections about his past (his parents and his youthful years in the London arts scene) but perhaps more importantly there’s the story of his passion for the garden he plants in the unforgiving Dungeness shingle – his late masterwork, creating new life in a seemingly barren physical and psychological landscape.
Modern Nature won’t appeal to everyone but to me it speaks of a life lived with courage, imagination, creativity and hope, a life less ordinary. As such I find it an inspiring and moving read, one I return to time and again.