‘You might as well be on the moon’: the authors taking residence in Derek Jarman’s home | Books

Out on the shingled plains of Dungeness, Prospect Cottage is easily spotted: the black clapboard, the yellow paintwork, the John Donne lines written on the gable end. There is the garden, planted with sea kale and driftwood, and in the near distance, the nuclear power station, hulking and gray against the pale Kent sky. Today, as most days, there is also a smattering of visitors, hair wild and coats billowing, here to see the place where Derek Jarman spent the last years of his life.

Jarman retired to this unlikely corner of the country from London in 1987, following the death of his father. The film director, artist and author had first seen the fisherman’s cottage when visiting Dungeness with his friend, the actor Tilda Swinton. He bought it, tore out its chintzy interior, and filled it with his own works and those of his friends – among them Maggi Hambling, Gus Van SantJohn Maybury and Richard Hamilton.

Following Jarman’s death from 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 cottage’s future was threatened, until the charity Art Fund rallied to conserve the property.

When another arts charity, Creative Folkestone, became custodians of Prospect Cottage two years ago, they were determined that the building should not become a place for day-trippers to traipse through and exit via the gift shop. Rather they imagined a vivid new life for the cottage, opening up its rooms for creative residencies.

Among Prospect Cottage’s earliest residents have been the writers Juno Dawson and Deborah Levy, who each visited this year as part of a project launched by Folkestone book festival. This week, as the festival gets under way, the writers will perform new work inspired by their time in Dungeness.

“The purpose of saving the cottage wasn’t so it could be kept in aspic,” says Alastair Upton, standing in the cottage’s back kitchen, drinking a cup of tea. Upton is chief executive of Creative Folkestone, and today he and the Folkestone book festival’s co-curator Liam Browne have joined me on this rare visit inside the property, pointing out all its oddities and unusual objects. “There’s a wonderful sense of the beach blowing into the house,” Browne says. “All these stones and the wood and everything.”

Throughout the cottage are items Jarman made from the shells and driftwood he collected nearby and repurposed into garlands, staffs and religious iconography. The walls are lined with canvases thick with bright paint, glass-fronted bookcases and stills from the director’s film sets. Glass panels in the doors between the rooms have been etched with ferns and lines of poetry. In the studio, we have spattered workbench, pots of paint stand, lids off, filled with blue and green and blazing orange. Beneath the workbench lies a pair of Jarman’s clogs. There is a sense of a home that has been lived in and loved. “There’s a distinction from, say, 19th- or early 20th-century artists,” Browne says. “You go to their houses and there’s a distance there because of time. But with Jarman, he’s within living memory, and this feels immediate in a very powerful way.”

Jarman in 1992.
Jarman in 1992. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

Browne and his co-curator Séan Doran approached Levy because of an unexpected connection to Jarman that she’d once discussed in a radio interview. “She said that when she was younger she was working in a cinema in London where they were screening Blue,” Browne explains. “She met Jarman, and he encouraged her when she didn’t know what kind of work she was going to do. That meeting was inspirational for her, it set 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 an interesting one,” Browne says. “Almost wherever you live in Brighton, you’re surrounded by people; the whole landscape [here is different] – the colour, the quieter presence of humanity.” Dawson asked whether her husband might accompany her to the residency. “I’ve seen enough horror films to not stay in a cabin by myself,” she says, when I speak to her. In the daylight, however, she developed a new appreciation of Jarman through the cottage interior. “He had quite specific tastes, and they could be morbid and macabre, but he also had a sense of humour,” she says, referring to Jarman’s crucified action figures and the artwork he made from pills and hypodermic needles towards the end of his life . “Even the bleakest of those works are still witty.”

She tried to work in Jarman’s office, but couldn’t settle, relocating instead to the back of the house. “As soon as I went into the sunroom I felt my shoulders unclench,” she says. “It faces a wasteland, a desert, and I did my writing in there.” She was there the day the Queen died – there is now wifi at the cottage, and so she could not escape the news. “But it was the best place to be, because you’re so removed there – we felt sheltered, we couldn’t see the reaction. You might as well be on the moon.” It gave her a new perspective on Jarman, and isolation more broadly.

“I started to understand why he went there,” she says. “I think there is a difference between solitude and loneliness. And I did start to think getting away from the world might not be a bad thing. That was the main thing that’s stayed with me – the power of not participating in public discourse.”

In the sun room today, the writer and director Topher Campbell sits facing the garden, with its view across to the power station. Campbell, the current artist in residence at Prospect Cottage, is just two days into his stay, though this is not his first visit to the property.

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness.
Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. Photograph: UrbanImages/Alamy

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

Still, he was struck by the strangeness of the location. “It was a mad place to come to. It still is,” he says. “The weather, dull skies and gray sea, and open landscape, and wind. It felt like, ‘Why the hell d’you want to be here?’” Later, Campbell got to know and understand Jarman a little better – they would run into each another at Soho restaurant Apollo’s, have a meal and a chat. “He was someone I thought I wanted to be like, I wanted to be making work.” He did not know Jarman was ill. “He was just this fun older guy with lots of energy. He was one of the most alive people I’ve met.”

When he saw the call for residency applications, he felt like an opportunity to return to “Derek’s place”. Campbell notes how calm and well preserved the property now feels compared with his previous visit. “It was a busy space then,” he says. “There were so many materials being worked on at once. Everything was out – paints, woods, metals. It looked as if everything was happening.”

Jarman was writing, too. “He had a diary open, I remember. This big book, like a Bible, and a big ink pot with one of those ink quills in, and the writing was intense and beautiful.”

Almost 20 years after his death, Jarman’s sole work of narrative fiction was recently published by House Sparrow press. Written in 1971, and just 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 across a surreal version of America. Its themes of displacement and exile often surfaced in Jarman’s work, and at Prospect Cottage, the place of his own chosen exile, they resonate strongly.

Those writers and artists taking residencies here are under no expectation to respond to Jarman’s own work or themes, but they often find their way in regardless. Campell is working on two writing projects during his stay, one of which explores HIV positivity and desire – he is also HIV positive.

There is the feeling for Campbell of continuing a legacy. So many gay men of Jarman’s generation were struck down by Aids in the 80s and 90s. “Derek is somebody who symbolizes that legacy of creativity that we’ve lost,” he says. “We’ve lost generations. So I feel I’m honoring that as well.”

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

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