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20 years after his death, we still know so little of Derek Jarman

A facsimile of his only book of poems, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, and a new book of sketches, thoughts and quotations, brings Jarman's art into fuller and more luminous perspective.

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth
Derek Jarman
Test Centre, 148pp, £12.99

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks
Ed. Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall
Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £28

These are two beautiful books, diverse records of an artist who transformed every element of his life into beauty. Indeed, Derek Jarman, who died 20 years ago this week, ended his life with a perfect metaphor of his art by creating a garden in Dungeness in Kent, the only small area of Britain that is geographically classified as desert.

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is a facsimile edition of the only book of poetry Jarman ever published, at the age of 30 in 1972. He apparently took efforts to destroy all known copies for reasons that are not clear. The poetry is that of a young man who has read deeply in both the Beats and T S Eliot. In Venice, we hear old Tom – “we could see the rain drifting in from the dead Adriatic” – and in Manhattan, Ginsberg: “I have walked through lives littering the east side”.The poems are placed in montage with a series of postcards that expand the text both geographically and historically. The whole effect is both charming and interesting but nobody would claim that the book is more than juvenilia, which is how Jarman described his own poetry.

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks brings Jarman and his art into fuller and more luminous perspective. From early on in his life, Jarman kept large, elaborate sketchbooks in which he would pursue his ideas and images. Thoughts or quotations written out in Jarman’s elegant italic hand were juxtaposed with typed pages from the books he was writing and pressed wild flowers. Images from classical painting and tabloid newspapers were placed beside personal photographs or drawings, and all this riot of word and image was arranged with an insouciant care. The process of investigation was itself a thing of beauty.

This collection of sketchbook pages, painstakingly edited and strikingly reproduced, is punctuated by revealing texts by some of Jarman’s closest collaborators, from Tilda Swinton to Neil Tennant, and an acute and informed running commentary provided by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins. My first and most valuable lesson in film came from Derek, after I had spent three months closeted with lawyers persuading Nicholas Ward-Jackson to give up his ownership of Jarman’s Caravaggio script and thus let the BFI produce the film that Derek had dreamed of for seven years. “What you must remember, Colin,” Jarman said, “is that the finished film is only a by-product. What matters most is that everybody working on it is having fun.” And what fun we had.

In 2004, when Derek had been ten years in his grave, one could have been forgiven for thinking that he had disappeared forever. The loathsome UK Film Council openly boasted that its only policy was “not to make Derek Jarman films” and his work seemed to have been largely forgotten. Ten years on, the Film Council has been abolished, the British Film Institute is mounting a full retrospective of his films and King’s College London is staging a series of events, from an immersive exhibition to a conference on Jarman’s multiple investigations of the Renaissance.

But even all the current attention does not seem fully to take the measure of a man whose talents were so many and multiple and whose engagement with the history of his time so varied and vital. Jarman’s writing, in the series of books that he produced from Dancing Ledge (1984) onwards – part autobiography, part queer manifesto, part reflections on history and politics – may be among the finest English prose ever written (certainly there is little from the 1980s and 1990s to match it).

The films seem to me to have not yet been differentiated out from one another. Sebastiane and Jubilee are essential documents of the social history of the 1970s but it is difficult to claim them as great films. It was only after Jarman was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986 that he made a series of films – The Last of England, Edward II, Wittgenstein, Blue – that mix politics and philosophy, history and sexuality, form and self in one of the greatest cinematic experiments of all time.

And even with this praise we have perhaps not yet taken the full measure of Jarman. He trained as an artist and in the last years of his life devoted as much time to painting as film-making. Let’s hope the reappraisal of his work continues – in another ten years, perhaps Tate will have a full Jarman retrospective.

Colin MacCabe is executive producer of the Derek Jarman Lab, Birkbeck, University of London.

Image: pages from Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks, courtesy of the Derek Jarman Estate.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood