‘You might as well be on the moon’: Writers move into Derek Jarman’s home | Books

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Out on the shingle plains of Dungeness, Prospect Cottage is easily spotted: the black clapboard, the yellow paint, the lines of John Donne written on the gable. There’s the garden, planted with sea kale and driftwood, and close by, the nuclear power station, massive and gray against the pale Kent sky. Today, like most days, there are also a handful of visitors, wild hair and billowing coats, here to view the spot where Derek Jarman spent the last years of his life.

Jarman moved from London to this unlikely corner of the country in 1987, after his father died. The director, artist and author had first seen the fisherman’s cottage during a visit to Dungeness with his friend, actress Tilda Swinton. He bought it, tore its chintzy interior and filled it with his own artwork and that of his friends – including Maggi Hambling, Gus Van Sant, John Maybury and Richard Hamilton.

After Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, the cottage was bequeathed to his friend, Keith Collins, whose care and companionship had enabled Jarman to continue working as his illness progressed. . In 2018, Collins’ own death meant the chalet’s future was in jeopardy, until the charity Art Fund stepped up to keep the property.

When another arts charity, Creative Folkestone, became caretakers of Prospect Cottage two years ago, they were determined that the building would not become a place for day-trippers to wander and exit through the gift shop . Instead, they envisioned a vibrant new life for the cottage, opening up its rooms for creative residencies.

Among the first residents of Prospect Cottage are writers Juno Dawson and Deborah Levy, who have each visited this year as part of a project launched by the Folkestone Book Festival. This week, as the festival kicks off, the writers will perform new works inspired by their time in Dungeness.

“The point of saving the cottage wasn’t to keep it frozen,” says Alastair Upton, standing in the cottage’s scullery, drinking a cup of tea. Upton is managing director of Creative Folkestone, and today he and Folkestone Book Festival co-curator Liam Browne joined me on this rare tour inside the property, pointing out all its quirks and unusual objects. “There’s a wonderful beach feeling blowing through the house,” says Browne. “All these stones and wood and everything.”

Throughout the cabin are objects Jarman made from the seashells and driftwood he collected nearby and repurposed into garlands, sticks and religious iconography. The walls are lined with thick canvases of glossy paint, glass bookcases and photos from the director’s shoots. Glass panels in the doors between rooms have been etched with ferns and poetry lines. In the studio, on a splattered workbench, pots of paint stand, lids removed, filled with blues and greens and fiery oranges. Beneath the workbench is a pair of Jarman’s clogs. There is a feeling of a home that has been lived in and loved. “There’s a difference with, say, 19th or early 20th century artists,” Browne says. “You go to their house and there is a distance there because of the weather. But with Jarman, he’s in living memory, and it feels immediate in a very powerful way.

Jarman in 1992. Photo: Geraint Lewis/Rex

Browne and her co-curator Séan Doran approached Levy because of an unexpected connection to Jarman that she had previously discussed in a radio interview. “She said when she was younger she worked at a cinema in London where they screened Blue,” Browne explains. “She met Jarman, and he encouraged her when she didn’t know what kind of job she was going to do. This meeting was a source of inspiration for her, it defined her direction.

They thought Juno Dawson, author of This Book Is Gay, might find the residency interesting, but also liked the idea because she lives in Brighton: “We decided the contrast would be interesting,” says Browne. “Almost everywhere you live in Brighton, you are surrounded by people; the whole landscape [here is different] – color, the calmer presence of humanity. Dawson asked if her husband could accompany her to the residence. “I’ve seen enough horror movies not to be alone in a cabin,” she says when I talk to her. In daylight, however, she developed a new appreciation for Jarman through the cabin’s interior. “He had pretty specific tastes, and they could be morbid and macabre, but he also had a sense of humor,” she says, referring to Jarman’s crucified action figures and artwork that he made from pills and hypodermic needles towards the end of his life. . “Even the darkest of these works are always witty.”

She tried to work in Jarman’s office, but was unable to settle, instead moving to the back of the house. “As soon as I stepped onto the veranda, I felt my shoulders relax,” she says. “It faces a wasteland, a desert, and I wrote in there.” She was there the day the Queen died – there is now wifi at the cottage, so she couldn’t escape the news. “But it was the best place to be, because you’re so far away there – we felt sheltered, we couldn’t see the reaction. You might as well be on the moon. gave a new perspective on Jarman and isolation more broadly.

“I started to understand why he went there,” she said. “I think there’s a difference between loneliness and loneliness. And I started to think that maybe being away from the world wasn’t a bad thing. That’s the main thing that bothered me. remained – the power not to participate in public debate.

On the conservatory today, writer and director Topher Campbell sits facing the garden, with a view of the power station. Campbell, the current artist-in-residence at Prospect Cottage, is just two days into his stay, although it won’t be his first visit to the property.

Thirty years ago, then in his late teens, he traveled to Dungeness with a friend who knew Jarman. “He was very charismatic and very jovial and very welcoming,” he recalls.

However, he was struck by the strangeness of the place. “It was a crazy place to come. It still is,” he says. “The weather, the dull sky and the gray sea, and the clear landscape, and the wind. It was like, ‘Why the hell do you want to be here?’ Later, Campbell got to know and understand Jarman a little better – they would meet at the Soho Apollo’s restaurant, have a meal and talk. “He was someone I thought I wanted to be like, I wanted to do work.” He didn’t know Jarman was sick. “He was just this older, fun guy with a lot of energy. He was one of the liveliest people I have met.

When he saw the call for applications for the residency, it seemed like an opportunity to go back “to Derek”. Campbell notes how quiet and well-preserved the property is compared to her previous visit. “It was a busy space at the time,” he says. “There were so many materials we were working on at once. Everything was out – paints, woods, metals. It was as if everything was happening. »

Jarman also wrote. “He had an open diary, I remember. This big book, like a Bible, and a big inkwell with one of those ink nibs, and the writing was intense and beautiful.

Almost 20 years after his death, Jarman’s only work of narrative fiction was recently published by House Sparrow Press. Written in 1971 and only 36 pages long, Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping tells the story of two men, the blind king and his valet John, on a quest through a surreal version of America. His themes of displacement and exile surfaced often in Jarman’s work, and at Prospect Cottage, the location of his chosen exile, they resonate strongly.

The writers and artists in residence here aren’t expected to react to Jarman’s work or themes, but they often find their place regardless. Campell is working on two writing projects while there, one of which explores HIV status and desire – he is also HIV positive.

There is the feeling for Campbell to continue a legacy. So many gay men of Jarman’s generation were stricken with AIDS in the 80s and 90s. “Derek is someone who symbolizes this legacy of creativity that we have lost,” he says. “We have lost generations. So I feel like I respect that too.

As he settles into his own days in exile here, Campbell says it’s not strange to work in a place that’s pretty much as its former occupant left it. “I feel respectful about it, I’m celebrating something,” he says. “And I don’t feel alone here; I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of a giant.

The Folkestone Book Festival runs until November 27.

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