Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, England (Photo: Josh Jordan)
Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, England (Photo: Josh Jordan)

BooksJuly 13, 2021

A New Zealander emerges, changed, from lockdown in the UK

Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, England (Photo: Josh Jordan)
Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, England (Photo: Josh Jordan)

Sophie Jackson reads Modern Nature, a diary written by film-maker Derek Jarman 30 years ago – and resolves that she, like him, will carve out a joyful life. 

I spent England’s three lockdowns by the sea. Like a Victorian woman taking to a “seaside retreat” for a break from life, it felt vital to find joy somewhere outside the four walls of my house. I suddenly had vast expanses of time to fill that were once busy with commuting, working, seeing friends. I was bored, and in boredom had time to think about my life – was I happy before lockdown? Was I doing the things I wanted to do with my time? Wasn’t it nice to slow down for once? After the third lockdown ended, I booked a one-way flight home to Auckland. 

I was lucky that when the first lockdown began in March 2020 I already lived in Folkestone, on the Kent coast. This meant I had easy access to parks, forests and beaches. As restrictions eased I drove to other towns and hamlets along the coast, from Dungeness at one end to Sheppey at the other. As I explored, I learnt more about each part of the coast, picking up bits of local history and locating the most strange and beautiful spots to walk in. 

The place I returned to most was Dungeness. A hamlet once known as England’s only desert, it’s a bare landscape with a scattering of black-painted houses and an enormous nuclear power station. It was the one place where it felt normal to be so alone. In Dungeness I had often walked by Prospect Cottage, stark on the landscape because of its bright yellow window sills and its unlikely garden bursting through the pebbles and parched dirt. The cottage was the home of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who moved there in 1986 after being diagnosed HIV positive. I had seen this house many times before I decided to read one of Jarman’s books: Modern Nature: Journals, 1989-1990, a diary of his early years in Dungeness. The place was a retreat for him, an escape from the pressures of work and invasive reporters who had learned about his HIV status. 

The cover of a book showing a beautiful garden on a bleak landscape; black and white photo of a man in his home.
Jarman at home, 1988. He wrote Modern Nature over the subsequent two years (Photo: Brian Randle/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Our separate isolations – Jarman’s self-imposed and mine government-mandated – led us to the same conclusions about our lives and the world around us. We both spent far more time outside, and on creative activity. For Jarman this was painting and filmmaking, and for me writing and keeping a visual journal. His creativity was like a shield against “another reality … a defence against an everyday existence that was awry.” I felt that way too, as I absorbed myself in something that distracted me from my surreal pandemic life. 

Jarman’s original mission in Dungeness was his garden; much of his diary is documenting the life and death of the many various plants he attempts to add to it. I lost count while trying to list them: poppies, sea kale, violets, lavender, borage, fennel, crocuses, chives … Jarman trials dozens of flowers and herbs over the course of the year. His greatest challenges are the bone-dry soil and the harsh salt spray from the sea, which whips across the flat desert-like landscape on windy days. Throughout Modern Nature, Jarman explains the healing properties of many of these plants. Some are said to protect a person from curses, soothe the stomach, even cure cancer. He is emotionally invested in the success of this garden, his mood worsening when a plant is “scorched” or “dead” after a storm, and his pride obvious when a “brave” plant shows signs of growth. When the winds pick up, he is struck by dread for his garden: “The cold easterly that has blown throughout April set in again last night. It brings with it more depression and inertia.”

Striking black cottage with bright yellow trim. On a pebbled landscape, a garden of wildflowers.
Jarman’s house and garden, 2021 (Photo: Josh Jordan)

Jarman’s garden is a sanctuary, a dream fulfilled from childhood. It seems he was long kept from this dream by expectations from his family and society that he would live a more productive and impressive life. Jarman says: “I don’t remember my father having any use for the garden except in a purely utilitarian way. For him it constantly wasted time.” He comes back to the idea that gardening absorbs time, but in the sense that it liberates him from the structured time of work: “The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home.” His reconnection with the land in Dungeness separates him from the pace and priorities of life in London, where his friends and work are. This is a good thing. Throughout Modern Nature, Jarman mentions switching off or ignoring his phone, and “resisting” the pull of a busy life outside Dungeness. It’s like he is recovering from addiction. Jarman feels the shift in his priorities, and his personality shifting with it – on his short trips to London for friends and work, he writes: “However hard I try now I find it almost impossible to connect with others, let alone myself. Was it ever any different?”

My connection with nature, though less hands-on than Jarman’s, has changed how I think of myself and my life. Pre-pandemic I looked for only the most exciting and stimulating ways to spend my time – holidays and elaborate dates or days out. I avoided being at home because I saw it as a failure to be alone. I had only recently moved to the Kent coast when the first lockdown began, so I began by “discovering” the nearby hills and parks, where I’d never had time to explore before. I walked every street and direction from my house, spotting new flowers I’d missed and photographing them. I kept these in a journal, along with notes and photos of the books I was reading. I also began helping my partner make a book; even though he had lived here his whole life, he was turning his camera to Kent for the first time. Driving along the coast, I was – embarrassingly – shocked at the beauty of the beaches. I’d been led to believe that the only beauty to be found was in the popular tourist spots, not the small towns down the road from me. I also realised how many of these towns – in the parts that visitors don’t often see – were in disrepair. This fall from grace had already begun by the late 1980s, as Jarman laments: “Poor ruined Kent with its ugly commuter towns, there every field and hedgerow is under siege.” He went as far as to call the local mayors “pompous myops” he believed should be prosecuted for their lack of care for these coastal towns. 

There is a reason that both Jarman and I had only “discovered” nature again as adults; unthinkingly we had accepted the rules and structures of modern life even when it did not make us happy. I think most people can relate, to some extent. This life was loud and fast, working 40 hours a week to survive, choosing between an expensive house or a long commute, making yourself busy and productive because that’s what everyone else was doing. 

Bleak scene of a road with pebbled driveways, flat horizon, powerlines. Dungeness in the UK.
Dungeness, 2021 (Photo: Josh Jordan)

Isolation, then, became an opportunity to feel discontent and then anger at the lives we had led based on what was expected of us. Jarman rages against all politicians, from town mayors to the prime minister (who was Margaret Thatcher at the time he was writing Modern Nature). He blames them for the state of modern life, for upholding “the fatuous rules and dead principles which yet demanded the blind obedience characteristic of a totalitarian regime”. I quickly realised that if I could hold onto any of what I had gained from the pandemic, I would do so against a current of expectation that life return to “normal”. 

This fast-paced disconnected life that was normal before the pandemic does not make sense. The things that people value most – family, friends, physical and mental health, fun, hobbies, nature – are deprioritised entirely. Work is, whether we like it or not, the priority in the structure of modern life. Not only does this lifestyle not work for most of us, it doesn’t work for the planet. Jarman was hyper aware of how tenuous his haven in Dungeness was. He believed that politicians would sacrifice the planet “as the necessary price of progress” even as he recalled government ministers attending a seminar on global warming. His fear for Dungeness was visceral: “Dungeness is to disappear in 100 years’ time beneath the waves along with its power station – which, it’s said, will take 100 years to dismantle. A meteor passes close to the earth, and the ozone hole shifts over southern Australia.” 

What he wrote in 1989 is all the more relevant 32 years later. Remember the headlines (which became memes) about the “healing” of the planet at the beginning of the pandemic. Our global impact on the environment had dropped drastically because we were not travelling, were buying fewer packaged foods out of convenience, and were relying less on international exports. Jarman feared that the comfort of ignorance would lead people to be passive. Alongside his anger toward politicians, he felt anger toward the “spineless” people of England who would not hold their government to account. I can’t help but feel a similar fear and frustration watching people celebrate their upcoming “freedom day” as all of the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions are lifted on 19 July, including the wearing of masks. 

Photo of scrubby landscape, blue cloud-swept sky, looks cold. In the distance, a nuclear power plant.
Dungeness nuclear power station, 2021 (Photo: Josh Jordan)

I know I am a different person than I was in March 2020. In the quiet of isolation, I learnt how I behaved when no one was watching. I learnt what I enjoyed spending time on, when more of my time was my own. The transition back to “normality” has been abrupt. Like going through a breakup, everyone was so ready to appear unaffected, to move on. The trauma of three lockdowns is brushed aside and we are thrown full-force back into commuting, working, shopping, drinking, dating. The time we gained back during lockdowns, which allowed us to adjust to a slower lifestyle, disappeared without thought. Even more abrupt will be my move home to Auckland in October. A friend of mine moved from London to Auckland just before Christmas 2020 and warned me: it will feel like the pandemic never happened. You will feel the effects but no one around you will understand them.

The joy I found in a slower lifestyle was of course tempered by the pandemic, which always seemed close by. I feared for my family and my own health, and watched as the national death toll rose dramatically each day. My ability to explore the Kent coast was restricted, not just by time (we were only allowed out of our homes for an hour at one point in the first lockdown) but by people. If there were more than a handful of people on the beach when I visited, I had to leave. We did not yet know how much being outside reduced the risk of transmission of Covid-19, so we simply avoided all human contact. For Jarman, it was already too late. He had moved to Dungeness after receiving the news that he was HIV positive. When he wakes each day, the love he has for life in Dungeness is haunted: “Could I face the dawn cheerfully, paralysed by the virus that circles like a deadly cobra?” Even in his happiest moments with friends at his cottage, Jarman cannot shake the knowledge of his sickness, though he tries: “It should have been happy and carefree. Maybe it was.” 

Landscape photograph, poppies and tussocky grass in the foreground, grey sky.
Dungeness, 2021 (Photo: Josh Jordan)

Reading about Jarman I learnt that his father, Lancelot, was born in New Zealand to a Māori mother. Derek believed his father was a reluctant immigrant to England who “could at times scarcely conceal his dislike for a system in which he was an outsider”. Perhaps it makes sense that Derek and his father felt excluded from English society as Māori men, where their non-whiteness was the target of racial abuse, and they experienced a forced disconnection from the land. As Derek became engrossed in his Dungeness garden, his friends noticed that he was drifting from them. One friend told him, “You’re an outsider, even at your own party, Derek.” This was hurtful, but did not change his commitment to the solitude and slowness of his new life. The few times that he left for work, Jarman found himself regretting it and losing hold of what it felt like in his Dungeness haven. He preferred the slower times: “Life was much simpler, pleasures fewer and perhaps for that more intense. There wasn’t the competition for our attention – it was easier to bring your life into focus.”

Derek Jarman died in 1994 of an Aids-related illness. His cottage and garden are cared for by an arts charity and kept in excellent condition. You can walk around the outside, but interaction with the space is highly controlled – police patrol the area and intermittently shoo people away. Some days the cottage is far too busy to get close to; it’s a destination for lovers of Jarman’s work, sort of a cult tourist spot. I asked my partner’s dad, who worked at the Dungeness Power Station for 40 years, whether he remembered anything about Jarman’s life there or the changes to the area over the years. “I don’t know,” he told me, “I just worked there.”

Modern Nature: Journals, 1989-1990, by Derek Jarman (Vintage Classics, $28) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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