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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.