Learning About Life and Death in Derek Jarman’s Garden

Derek Jarman’s garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden and Prospect Cottage. Image: Howard Sooley

I want to tell you about a beautiful book I have just finished reading. 

It is not a visionary novel, nor a ground-breaking book of educational value. Nor is it a book of exciting short stories or high brow literature.

In fact, whilst I was reading it, at times I even considered putting it down, feeling bored and impatient by the detailed accounts of things I know nothing about. 

But yet, as I continued, something about it seeped into my being. Some mysterious quality captured me and worked its way into my consciousness for days afterwards.

I have found myself drawn to it again and again, opening it at random places just to reconnect with the simplicity and peace that the words and images emanate. 

This is a book I want on my bookshelf and maybe, after reading this review, you will too. 

Derek Jarman’s Garden 

My partner Sergio had picked up the book for me from the library as a surprise. “Derek Jarman’s Garden” the title read. I didn’t have a clue who Derek Jarman was but I liked the idea of reading about his garden. 

It was a cold, January evening and had been feeling stressed and tense about work and my future. I needed to relax and think about something else, ideally something to inspire me, nourish my dream and remind me why I had quit my secure 9-5 job in the first place. 

I have been fantasising about the garden I will one day create when I finally have my place in the Spanish countryside, so I was more than happy to indulge this fantasy a bit more.

As I opened the book I was surprised to see the image of a handwritten page of a garden notebook. Black scrawl covered the white paper. A list of flowers filled both upper corners and a pretty drawing of a daffodil in the centre.

photo by me

Witnessing someones’ handwriting is akin to visiting someone’s house and peeking inside their bedroom. Is it overly messy or anally tidy? Wildly colourful or clinically cool? Is the bed made and if so, how? With an informal air or an expert seriousness?

Seeing someone’s handwriting is an intimate revealing of their personality and their way of being. In an age of online communications and keyboards, the inclusion of these pages add a refreshing touch of personal charm which, as a keeper of many different notebooks on many different themes myself, I identified and resonated with.

I was curious to know more about the person who had written those pages. So I read on.

Prospect Cottage 

The next page reveals a photo of a little black cottage. It had the typical symmetrical design of that of children’s drawings: a simple rectangular shape with the door in the middle and a window at both sides. 

The window frames were painted a bright shade of yellow, giving it the look of a cute fairytale cottage made from black liquorice and yellow hundreds and thousands. 

The darkness of the house was offset by a colourful garden out the front, which pops with reds, greens, yellows and pinks and textures of all kinds. Indeed, this is no regular garden with a lawn and tidy rows of pansies.

Here there is a wild design, what Jack describes in the book as a ‘shagginess’. There are no straight edges but only shaggy curves and lines misshapen by bushy plants and draping flowers. 

There are also various rock gardens and stone formations that add mystery and intrigue. Unruly plants spring up and offset any attempt at clean lines and rigid structure. 

The image provokes curiosity: who is this man who lives in this little black and yellow cottage with this charming garden? And where is it, this strange house built on shelly-shingle with no concrete or tarmac paths? 

I love unique and original dwellings inhabited by equally unique and original people. Maybe that is why I felt drawn to finding out more about this man and his garden.

And as I read on, I discovered that this was in fact, no ordinary man and no ordinary garden. 

Derek Jarman’s garden
Derek Jarman’s garden and Prospect Cottage 1991. Image: Howard Sooley

Derek Jarman in Dungeness, Kent.

Born in London in 1942, Derek Jarman was a director, film maker, painter, theatre designer, poet, writer, campaigner and of course, gardener. Best known for the films ‘Caravaggio’ (1986), ‘Edward II’ (1991) and ‘Wittgenstein’ (1993), his work often centred around themes of sexuality and violence. 

He was not afraid of controversy, and this is apparent from the location of this fairy-like house with its magical garden. 

For this house was not built in the leafy suburbs of London, where he lived for most of his adult life, but on the flat, bleak and often desolate expanse of shingle facing a nuclear power station in Dungeness, Kent, UK. 

Not the idyllic setting that most of us would imagine for such a home! But this is what creates the artistry that holds you as the reader of this book. The power and magic of this simple tale is in the dichotomy and juxtaposition of its setting. 

I guess this is what makes an artist an artist. Most of us would shudder at the thought of having the views of a nuclear power station from our living room window, let alone contemplate the idea of making a garden in front of one. 

Derek Jarman’s garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden and Prospect Cottage. Image: Howard Sooley

But for Jack it was exactly this bleakness that attracted him in the first place. In the book, he writes that the garden seemed improbable at first. After all, what could possibly grow without soil amidst all this hostile shingle? 

An Unlikely Garden 

But with the help of some manure from a farm up the road, and the debris of plants that had been planted but hadn’t survived the test of this hostile environment, new plants began to grow. 

This, combined with the collection of driftwood, flint and other interesting finds from the nearby shore, marked the beginning of Jack’s unlikely garden. 

The book details the evolution of this magical space in an everyday manner. He writes about his daily garden observations, which flowers are in bloom, and his latest finds from his walks by the shore. 

It is true that his accounts are intensely detailed, and at times I found myself skipping over words that I knew nothing about. There are whole paragraphs filled with the names of plants I wouldn’t recognise nor may have ever seen.

During such moments, I wondered what the point was of such a level of detail and considered closing the book and reading something else. 

Strangely though, as I reflected on what I had read, I realised that this is actually where the magic is, in the intense detail of his day to day life at Prospect Cottage. It was this excruciating detail that has me going back to read those pages again.

Sofa reading. photo by me

At first I didn’t know what it was that was charming me in this way. But then I realised: being present to the details of an experience, means also being present to life. 

Life 

Sharing Jack’s experience of his garden was like being in the moment with him. The simplicity of the joy of tending to the plants and the flowers is contagious. It is the same simple pleasure that I feel when I am out in nature, on my bike, taking in the sights and sounds. I recognised my own experience in his.

It is the detail of the present moment that gives life its richness. 

When we are not present, the detail fades, taking the wonder of life with it. 

Derek Jarman’s garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden. Image: Howard Sooley

The opium poppy with the ‘delicate mauve petals’ with a white trim and ‘wonderful blue-green leaves’ becomes just a pink flower. 

Sea Kale, which ‘die away completely in winter’ and ‘starts to sprout again in Spring’ and has ‘an inky purple’ leaves which look great against the ‘ochre pink pebbles’, becomes just a weird plant that you step on as you walk preoccupied by other things. 

The vegetable and herb garden which Derek describes as having ‘thyme and oregano, hyssop, lavender, rue, fennel and rosemary, caraway, artemisia pinks, a few sweet purslane, peas, radish onion, lettuce, spinach and purple rocket’, becomes just be a standard vegetable patch with some plants in it. 

In my own life I am guilty of sweeping past the details at times. Especially when I am washing the dishes or doing the chores. I should learn to take a leaf out of Jack’s book, and bring the same awareness that I have when I am in nature to the ecosystem of my own home.

Death 

However, the book isn’t all sunshine and roses. In the same way that in his garden Derek teaches us about life, he also teaches us about death. 

Whilst he was writing the book he was slowly dying of AIDS. 

Howard Sooley
Derek Jarman’s Garden. Image: Howard Sooley

Interwoven between the (flowers) and the (plants), is the theme of death and dying, as he comes to terms with his own mortality and that of his friends who also passed during the time of writing his book. 

Yet, never do his words seem heavy or depressing, only thought-provoking and impactful. Again we experience his artistry as he weaves in beautiful poetry to the narrative. His sorrow, grief, anger and confusion are palpable but never dwelled upon. 

In the same way as the flowers continue to bloom, the tales of life in the garden also continue.

The beautiful accounts of the flora and fauna at Prospect Cottage are interspersed with details of hospital visits and AIDS related anecdotes as they relate to his experience as a prominent artist in the public eye.

Now the detail of the garden takes on a different hue, as we glimpse the ephemeral nature of life: one minute we are here in our garden, present with the details and noting it all. The next we are not. 

There is now a greater depth to the details of the garden and the greater surroundings of Dungeness. The full magnitude of the experience of this man and his garden are realised, as you sense that Derek is nearing the end of his life. 

“O Paradise, my garden dressed in light, you dissolve into the night”

Derek Jarman’s Garden
World of the living. photo by me

Paradise 

As well as the accounts of the flowers and stones formations that grace his garden, Derek also includes his ideas of paradise.

Within his ideas lies the repugnance of hyper-structured and clinical gardens, whereby ‘not one flower touches each other’. 

He is clear in his dislike of lawns and immaculate garden beds, which he says are like “bad children – spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals”.

Paradise haunts gardens and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. 

Derek Jarman’s Garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden. Image: Howard Sooley

I have had experiences in my life whereby this sensation of paradise has been present, notably when travelling in the Azores or swimming in the wild rivers of mountains of Spain

In search of this paradise, I often spend time in the botanical gardens of Madrid and get lost in the details of the biodiversity there (although I admit that I can never remember the names of the plants afterwards!). 

I wonder if this garden would appease Derek’s vision of paradise or whether he would consider it haunted by the failed attempt.

“If it isn’t shaggy, forget it”, he says.

Perhaps the gardeners at the botanical garden in Madrid should read this book.

Final Thoughts 

I started out this book with low expectations. With only 140 pages, I wrongly considered that I would read it quickly for some light inspiration and put it down, never picking it up again. 

However, the opposite has happened. 

I have picked it up again and again and enjoyed reading the same passages. Each time I have taken something in that I hadn’t picked up before. The photography by his friend Howard Sooly is exquisite and brings the text to life in a poetic and vibrant way. 

I am also taking away a renewed sense of beauty in my life. I may not have a garden or an outdoor space to grow my own herb garden, but that isn’t to say that I can’t create a place of beauty with the space that I do have. 

After reading the book, I have the sense of having travelled to that little back liquorice-coloured cottage with the yellow hundreds and thousands on the coast of Kent. I feel that I have sat there on the shingle, observing the plants and the nuclear power station, present with Derek with the detail of the simple pleasure of daily life. 

If he could create such beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power station, then I too, can create beauty in the midst of the concrete jungle in my industrial warehouse home. 

More than anything I have a greater appreciation of the simple day-to-day pleasures of my life. How easy it is to get lost within worries and preoccupations! I endeavour to follow Derek’s example of living in the detail more often.  

Recommendations 

I would recommend ‘Derek Jarman’s Garden’ to anyone who has a deep appreciation of the natural world and enjoys reading books that stimulate your own deeper reflections. 

I would also recommend it to those who, like me, dream of creating their own slice of paradise. It would be especially interesting if you already have some botanical knowledge (unlike me!).

For those who enjoy travelling to magical places and taking some of the magic home with them – this book is for you. 

Derek Jarman’s Garden
Derek Jarman’s Garden. Image: Howard Sooley

Book Club Conversation starters!

Have you read or heard about Derek Jarman’s garden before? What do you make of it?

Have you ever been to a magical garden? What was so special about it? How did it make you feel?

Do you agree with Derek that garden’s should have a ‘shagginess’ about them?

What is paradise for you? What would your little slice of paradise be like?

Do you know of any other places that are create unexpected beauty amid the paradox of ugliness?

Comment below with your answers and let’s get the conversation started!

This is the first book review I have written but I will write more in the future! If you enjoyed this one then sign up to my newsletter below and get my next one delivered straight to your inbox.

You can also find me Instagram and Facebook @shared_earthliving. I’d love for you to join me on this journey.

If you would like to contact me directly, the best way is via the ‘contact me form’ on this blog. I check this email regularly and will be able to respond more easily and thoughtfully 🙂 I’d love to hear from you).

Olivia Grundy

Join me as I transition from the city to the country, following my hearts desire for a more sustainable life based on respect for the Earth and all the creatures in it.

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Sandra

I’ve never heard of Derek Jarman before. It sounds amazing. Created with love.

I do agree gardens should have a shagginess about them. I’ve always loved cottage gardens for this reason.

My little slice of paradise would be in the countryside. With running water. Growing my own fruit and vegetables. With space to live and be free

My magical garden was the garden belonging to my childhood home. It was unkempt after many years of belonging to an empty house. To me it was magical. It made me feel free and alive, full of wonder. Life circumstances meant we had to leave. I have spent my whole life trying to find that feeling again.

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