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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 radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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