Book Review: Derek Jarman – Modern Nature

Derek Jarman – Modern Nature


Six years ago Derek Jarman, the brilliant and controversial film-maker, discovered he was HIV positive and decided to make a garden at his cottage on the bleak coast of Dungeness, where he also wrote these extraordinarily candid journals. Looking back over his childhood, coming out in the ‘60s and his career in films, MODERN NATURE is at once a volume of autobiography, a lament for a lost generation and a celebration of gay sexuality.

prospect cottage

I knew absolutely nothing of Derek Jarman before reading this book, and have to admit I was hesitant to start it. The blurb (above) sounded interesting, but I was worried it would focus a lot on his illness and the physical symptoms – I didn’t think I could face anything too bleak. Add this to my general uneasiness towards “diaries” and I wasn’t sure it was my cup of tea. However this is a beautifully written diary, packed with evocative natural imagery that at once manages to span the breath of Jarman’s life whilst keeping the reader aware of his worsening condition.

Jarman ‘s memoirs span eighteen months through 1989 to 1990. The entries start as long passages, sometimes several entered for the same day but towards the end when he is ill and struggling with severe medical problems (being the first in medical history to lose sight in both eyes due to toxoplasmosis) they become short terse entries detailing endless rounds of night sweats, weight loss and increasing physical fragility. Though this was the part of the text I feared reading, I think as I grew to like Jarman through his entries the emotional investment was bitter-sweet; I felt guilty at being so captivated by someone’s real pain. However I was immensely relieved to learn that he lived for three years after these were written – during which he continued to produce work.

I’m not familiar with his films, so I can’t pass comment on where he was with producing them or the impact his illness had. However through this you get a sense of the struggles he has had through coming out as gay, whilst being a film director; he refers to one actor who after appearing in one of his early films never including it on his resume and indeed ignoring Jarman himself.

The awareness that these diaries are going to be published and the potential that this affords shapes Jarman’s crafting of this text. Having embarked on the creation of a garden on the coast of Dungeness the earlier part of Jarman’s memoirs weaves together descriptions of the garden, and the forces wreaked upon it by the elements, with memories of his childhood – growing up and coming out to his friends and family. For me I felt that the garden was a way for him to almost work through his memories – as he does in this text; he sifts the beach for articles to put in his garden much as he sifts through his memories and orders them. It is this blend of description and memory that really captivated me, made me empathise with Jarman – I end up wanting to know more about him. This blend of memory and natural imagery is captured perfectly in the following passage –

Childhood flowers, dewbowed peonies, dark red, along the paths at Curry Malet. The ivy stencil veins of the crocus purple and white, stamens yellow for painting. The buddleia covered with tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock and humming-bird hawks. Purple mulberry – should you eat it? Scarlet geraniums, jasmine, scent of the night stock, Aloe variegata, the camellia – exotic in February; wisteria on old stone walls, wallflowers – wild and draught-defying – balsam poplars brown purple; celandine with yellow brimstone flashing across the lawn…


Have any of you read this book? I found this review difficult to write, because there wasn’t a straightforward plot to explain! I’ve tried to put my feelings across as honestly and clearly as possible as this book really captivated me. The pictures included are just ones I found on the internet of Jarman’s garden – isn’t it an amazing thing?