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BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of Derek Jarman’s journals remind us of the director’s unique mind

By Antonia Quirke

Twenty five years since Derek Jarman’s death, I often find myself looking hopefully for traces of him in new British films. That whiff of a school play, as though imagined by William Blake. Listening to Rupert Everett reading extracts from Jarman’s journals, Modern Nature (24 June, 9.45am), made me miss the director even more.

It was recorded inside Prospect Cottage, a fisherman’s shack on the shingle at Dungeness that Jarman moved to in 1986 after his HIV diagnosis. It sits in an idiosyncratic wilderness of stone and hares and driftwood. Listening, you sense the wind against the yellow-framed windows, the rustling of the sea kale and rosemary in his famous garden, and the oddly romantic gloam of the nuclear power station in the near distance.

The entries are so full and effortless, noting, say, the crow who came to dive-bomb his cornflakes at breakfast. Or how most days the sea would deliver up new and startling artefacts (he even found old beds on the shingle). There are flashes of consternation over the “cash sloshing around” his filmmaking contemporaries. Sudden fragments about ex-lovers, or the happy arrival of the first bumblebee of spring. The increasingly heavy anticipation of being “trampled to death” by HIV. (“I live on borrowed time,” he writes.) The memory of “congealed Saturday herrings” at his Dorset boarding school.

It’s all read by Everett (who knew Jarman) in a pointedly conversational way: his tone never trembles with sentiment. One entry details “the world of royal fagdom” cooing over a West End production of Noël Coward’s The Vortex starring… Rupert Everett. Everett merely pauses at this point, giving in to a soft near-giggle. It’s nicely done.

Jarman managed to see and wrest life and verdancy from everything – especially his kingdom of stones at Dungeness. There are scenes in his 1990 film The Garden where he reimagines handfuls of the tide-smoothed shingle outside the cottage as both glimmering mushrooms and delicious biscuits to be shared with friends. Those are some of the best and most startling moments in British film, hands down. Wit, tenderness, absolute singularity. Who is there to compare with Jarman – still? Who? 

Book of the Week: Modern Nature
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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order