This article contains references to suicide, AIDs and transphobia. All quotations are from “Pharmacopeia”, a posthumous collection of Derek Jarman’s writing.
Safety. I’ve been thinking about that word a lot recently. It at once implies something basic, almost at the bottom of a faded poster in a middle manager’s office. It’s distinct from security, a word that replaces comfort with locks and surveillance systems and rent-a-cops. Safety, independent of the dictionary definition, implies to me a feeling of warmth and stability, a baseline we would prefer to take for granted, a ground beneath our feet that lets us do more than just survive.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.
Because I don’t feel safe.
And I don’t know how to.
A DEATH IN DUNGENESS
Last week I took a trip to London with one of my best friends. We visited art galleries, lost hours in the Bishopsgate Institute and their Museum of Transology, saw the Barbie movie with some of their friends, and I somehow ended up with two notebooks. All of that was wonderful, but not the real reason we were there. Almost two years ago I first saw the name “Dungeness” in a news article on Twitter. Something about the power plant, I don’t know, but that name. Dungeness. It didn’t sound real, perhaps the setting for a cosy crime novel, an unreality that only got stronger when I searched and found “9 really great things to do in Dungeness”, with images like this:
I had to visit. When I shared them online, I found my friend was already interested in going, admittedly for smarter reasons than it looking like the end of the world.
They wanted to visit Prospect Cottage.
I’m not going to get too much into the biography of Derek Jarman. There’s no amount of words I could write about the late great queer artist, filmmaker, costume designer, stage designer, writer, gardener and gay rights activist that would not feel inconclusive and reductive. Taken from us far too soon at the age of 52, he is one of the few people I consider to be a legend. And towards the end of his life, he lived in Dungeness, in Prospect Cottage.
It is a beautiful place. I can understand why he bought it so suddenly, seeing it with a For Sale sign on a trip with Tilda Swinton must have felt like serendipity. As he describes it:
Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge - one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door threatening to swallow it… Now the sea has retreated leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air, they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map. Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks through the flat ochre shingle. Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, long abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative. There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is only broken by the wind, and the gulls squabbling round the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.
This description gives a better sense of it than any photograph could- Dungeness is an intense sensory experience, for better and worse, the wind constantly whipping about your ears, boots sinking into the shale, the spit of land seeming to grow and shrink away from your eyes, impossible to discern the size of it. My friend lent me the book “Pharmacopoeia”. It’s a collection of Jarman’s writings on the cottage itself, Dungeness, flowers, and death. A pharmacopoeia is a book listing medicines- how they are used and where to find them. He described the garden surrounding the home as his pharmacopeia- therapeutic both in its planting and the medicinal potential of the plants. The colours are striking amongst the grey- a beautiful refuge in an ocean of shale. When I look, I could not yet picture Derek amongst the rocks, chipping away at the arduous task of transforming wasteland into beauty.
We went inside.
I cannot narrow down any one thing that struck me in that TARDIS-like house. To enter was to be visually and emotionally overwhelmed, to wade through the psychic miasma of anger and death and love, a love of art and nature, of power stations and of his partner, Keith Collins. We were not allowed to take photographs- a student guide provided a vaguely confusing statement about copyright. It doesn’t matter, exactly- I am happy to keep the house as a memory, one replayed and remixed as items (old First Aid tins used to store clothes, a writing desk chipped and stained with a rainbow of paint) and artwork (a curse to Margaret Thatcher under broken glass, his daily pills burrowing out of thick acrylic) go walkabout in my Prospect mind palace. Here I could feel Derek’s presence- he had extended himself onto every wall, every room so full of personality. I certainly relate to his hatred of white-
The wind has blown without end for five days now, a cold north wind in June. The sea, whipped into a thousand white horses, attacks the shore. Plumes of salt blow in veils coating the windows with brine and burning the flowers. Leaves are blackened and the red poppies too, the roses are wilting, here today and gone tomorrow; but the white perennial pea is untouched. In the distance the white cliffs appear briefly before they are swallowed in the haze. I am Shut in, to walk in the garden hurts my tired lungs. The white seahorses have brought a madness here, imitable, straining at the bit. I hate white.
-the colour of my apartment walls. All of my apartment walls. Landlords can’t get enough of it- I suppose to most it is inoffensive. To me, it is the alcohol-washed stench of the hospital. I wonder if they like white because it shows marks better, and makes sure a tenant cannot get away with any minor infraction. I was not thinking of my apartment in Prospect. But I was thinking about safety. I could not sleep on my return to the hotel, comfortable as the bed was. I told my (very patient) friend about how much the visit had affected me and how much I did not want to return home. To the place where I am not acknowledged unless I am wearing stereotypically masculine clothing (transphobia or misogyny, take your pick), the place where every barely working appliance takes weeks of void screaming to fix, the place where across the hall, a violent ticking timebomb has forced out multiple people on our floor, with only me remaining as a person he hasn’t threatened. Of not feeling safe. I also told them about a passage from Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, when the protagonist is on a business trip following a long period of trauma, one that stuck in my mind because I wrote about it before
The food at this inn had been hideous, but the next day we were planning to get in the van and move on. As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place. If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely. Still, it just might be the life for me. When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene. In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing. But I’m not free, I realized; I’ve been touched by Yuichi’s soul. How much easier it would be to stay away forever.
-and how I related to it quite deeply. It had probably been the reason I moved to Huizhou in China, and then Guangzhou, and then to the Lake District, and then so quickly to Liverpool. I crave that serenity.
Before the rot seeps in. Before the impermanence of any one of these places reminds me of how little of the standard checkboxes I’ve filled.
All this had rushed into my brain because of Prospect, a place shaped to bring serenity to its occupant-
Prospect Cottage is the last of a long line of ‘escape houses’ I started building as a child at the end of the garden: grass houses of fragrant mowings that slowly turned brown and sour; sandcastles; a turf hut, hardly big enough to turn around in; another of scrap metal and twigs, marooned on ice-flooded fields - stomping across brittle ice. Ice flowers left out overnight in glasses, chrysanthemums suspended in frozen water - pink with cold.
a safe place to extend into
a place to __
I awoke in the early morning hours with all the useful thoughts that usually brings. I eventually will myself back to sleep with the knowledge that nothing I am worried about can be addressed in a London hotel. I sleep for another hour. This is enough time to have a nightmare.
glasses under a bucket hat
a shapeshifter of roots
a figure is chasing me
something wants me to die
and will change itself anyway to kill me
a couple who had offered me shelter in the real world
shelter me from death.
I wake up. Alive. I tell my friend about the dream. They seem interested, or more interested than people usually are when you tell them about your dreams. We have a good day in art galleries. A picnic by the river. A warmth fills the day, from sunshine to my gratitude for the friend standing next to me, for the friend I’ve had for over a decade.
And finally a train home
H O M E
are the foundations stable
what am i building
there’s a rot
i broke my mirror. not on purpose. if it was on purpose i would have smashed in the centre, spiderweb my reflection. i stepped on it with my now ruined boots.
r u i n
what is the opposite of safe
(i hear the yelling of the person across the hall and know i cannot enter the kitchen he threw chairs in tomorrow)
is this danger
am i alone
that doesn’t make sense. i was just with someone. a friend. ten years. i am not.
so why do i feel…?
do i want to
do i want to __?
am i ___ already?
these four walls
am i building anything
my hair reflecting in shattered glass
is it growing out
am i establishing roots in this
Restless night. Fell asleep at dawn as the sun cast a rosy glow into this room. Across the marshes a full moon, white in a pale blue sky. My fever has brought a deep, almost comforting lethargy. Spring remarked yesterday that I was unusually calm - it seems ridiculous to worry.
Let’s go back to the garden. It was only after we’d left the cottage that we spent more time in it. That I grew to understand it. As much as Prospect was an “escape house”, the garden felt like the real project. Amongst the extensive library of film, philosophy, science, theosophy and art books, there were guides to taking care of daffodils. A large portion of the book Pharmacopoeia is a list of plants and Derek’s thoughts on them. Yes, the book was collated after his death, but that so much of his material on Dungeness focuses on the garden and not the house feels telling.
I really love the garden. It’s so far from the austerity of manicured lawns. It bristles with possibility. It is curated but not entirely controlled. Wildflowers are allowed to bloom amongst the cacti. And the metal-
The garden is full of metal: rusty metal corkscrew clumps, anchors from the beach, twisted metal, an old table top with a hole for the umbrella, an old window, chains which form circles round the plants. All this disappears in the burgeoning spring. The twisted grimace of the wartime mines, an arch, a hook, a plummet, a line, a shellcase - warlike once; a chain that has rusted to form a snake by the front door, more chimes made of triangles of rusty iron; all this - and the float that looks like an exotic fruit - introduces a warm brown which contrasts nicely with the shingle.
-scrap rendered into something beautiful. A small amount of control in the chaos, but not a separation. Not an escape.
A collaborative work with the world.
Derek Jarman died in 1994, a month and a day after I was born. Even then it could not really be said that we shared this world- I was unaware of him for most of my life. I am sure that my friend’s connection to him is deeper- they know more of his work, have written and engaged with his art in ways I simply have not. But I do feel changed. Unsettled. This week back has been worse than many. I do, in fact, need a better place to live. A job that doesn’t make me pretend I’m someone I’m not for very little money. These material things would make a big difference. Safety is important. But that’s the house, not the garden, the outside world. A year into my new life, my real life, and there are still fragments of the old my mind holds on to. Aged defence mechanisms built to survive a world in a skin I was desperately uncomfortable in. Routines that no longer help, but constrain.
Too much time spent in rooms.
I have used the word limbo to describe this period. But now I think I prefer flux. It’s an awkward, frustrating time. I don’t know if my old self will ever die. Perhaps it will always be there. Maybe that’s how it should be. I have changed a lot. I will continue to do so. I will build my Prospect, in my heart and in the world, and as hateful as it can all be, as much as I do sometimes want to give in, I won’t. I will never stop.
Will my voice echo till time ends? Will it journey forever into the void? Is black hopeless? Doesn’t every dark thundercloud have a silver lining? In black lies the possibility of hope. The universal sleep is hugged by black. A comfortable, warm black. This is no cold black, it is against this black that the rainbow shines like the stars.
Because nothing stopped Derek.