Dr. Lawrence Driscoll

The Rose Revived: Derek Jarman and The English Tradition


"O Rose, thou art sick." - William Blake.

"Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also... "- Wilfred Owen

Much of the writing that addresses the work of Derek Jarman often begins by making the assumption that his work is characteristically anti-Establishment, controversial, and non-canonical. Simon Field points out that "Jarman is a troublesome case and appears to relish his role as a thorn in the official flesh of the British cinema ... He is no less troublesome to the avant-garde..." (The Face January 1991). What is interesting is that this position is agreed upon by those who are supportive of Jarman's work, as well as his adversaries. Both groups are correct, but not in the way that they would like to think. The image of Jarman as a controversial filmaker emerges, not because he is an iconoclast of England's sacred institutions and values, but because he has chosen to speak for a very old English tradition, placing his faith in cultural values which are primarily aesthetic and historical. Jarman is perceived as radical, because he is working in a post-war environment in which this particular British tradition is being eroded by both the Left and the Right.

In order to provide England with an opportunity to re-establish a sense of community, history and culture, he returns to an older tradition, aligning himself with a lineage of cultural criticism in such figures as Beowulf, Shakespeare and Blake, as well as Ruskin and Larkin. Jarman re-creates a viable cultural base which would move England through the cultural, social and political impasse which England finds itself confronted with. Jarman's oeuvre is thus perhaps best seen as a direct intervention which attempts to revitalise English culture by providing sustenance to its dessicated cultural roots, enabling England to become once again the rose revived.

Jarman describes how his father Lance (a New Zealander by birth) managed to preserve his integrity in the British Establishment; he reflects that his father "joined them outwardly, but inwardly rejected them" (LE 118). Jarman's work reverses his father's strategy and outwardly rejects the British Establishment, while inwardly feeling very much a part of its History. This outward rejection has led many critics to see Jarman only as an iconoclast. This essay however is concerned to read Jarman beyond these surface rejections, by seeing them as inseperable from Jarman's desire to forge an alliance to a British tradition. The British tradition to which Jarman connects himself is a particular kind of cultural formation: flickering consistently throughout Britain's history but commonly relegated to a subterranean and marginal existence. Alan Sinfield points out that at the end of the eighteenth-century the development of "enclosures, the factory system and urbanization helped to provoke the Romantic movement" (41). Jarman's critique of contemporary England emerges out of a felt alliance with the anti-industrial concerns of the Romantics, particularly William BlakeAfter Blake and Wordsworth's early opposition to industrialisation we arrive at the nineteenth century: the period during which capital consolidated its hegemony. Simon Watney has claimed that Jarman is "the Queer William Morris of the 90's" and at this point we can turn to the work of John Ruskin, William Morris and Oscar Wilde, who, as heirs of the Romantics, as Sinfield points out, "were registering the ills of industrial capitalism" (...). In line with the English tradition, they were doing so out of a desire to prevent what they saw as an open attack on "beauty, elegance and sensitivity" (39).

This tradition shares a notion of middle-class dissidence, and a binding spirit which Tom Nairn believes is always "nostalgic" (42). Jarman, I believe, occupies a prominent position in the twentieth-century manifestation of this inheritance. Sinfield suggests that Dissident middle-class intellectuals may be right wing, left wing or liberal: they may imagine a `return' to traditional structures, attempt an alliance with the working-class or other oppressed groups ... The consistent feature is hostility to the hegemony of the principal part of the middle class--the businessmen, industrialists and empire-builders" (41). Middle-class dissidence was marked by its insistence on `high' culture, and the need to preserve the aesthetic aspects of English culture. What is of particular relevance to our understanding of Jarman's place in this tradition is that middle-class dissidents are associated with being, if not homosexual, like E.M.Forster, then effeminate and somehow a threat to masculine values held by both the Left and the Right. As Sinfield points out "The idea that literature is `effeminate' goes back to the Victorians, and broke through in the 1890s; Bloomsbury and the 1940s only had to keep it going" (63). Englands Clause 28, by limiting the ability of public libraries to buy books by such authors as Radclyffe Hall, Woolf, Wilde, Forster, Marlowe and Shakespeare, which, in the opinion of the government revealed a tendency to `promote homosexuality', represents the 1980s continued resistance to this dissident English tradition. It is within this historical frame that we can understand Simon Watney speaking of Jarman's "dissident national identity."

Jarman was born in 1942 and so grew up during a period which saw the introduction of the Welfare State by the Labour Party in 1945, and its dismantling by the Conservative Party since 1979. British political historian Perry Anderson suggests that by 1977 (the year in which Jarman's Jubilee was released), both parties had failed to create an acceptable cultural milieu in which the English tradition could survive, let alone flourish. For Anderson the English political system has emerged from two traditions which combine to form a peculiar kind of ideological `fog.' For Anderson "[t]he two great chemical elements of this blanketing English fog are `traditionalism' and `empiricism': in it, visibility -- of any social or historical reality -- is zero" (31). Anderson explains that while traditionalism "sanctions the present by deriving it from the past, empiricism binds the future by fastening it to the present. A comprehensive conservatism is the result, covering society with a pall of simultaneous philistinism (towards ideas) and mystagogy (towards institutions), for which England has justly won an international reputation" (31). In the face of this comprehensive conservatism from both Left and Right, Jarman's position as a middle-class dissident allowed him a space from which to see through this fog. In the wake of the collapse of the post-war consensus, there sprang up a general discontent which achieved a focus in the form of punk subculture. Jarman addresses this subculture in Jubilee but does not celebrate punk's anti-Establishment position or glorify its violent tendencies. The British Board of Censors attempted various cuts to the film, and it was cited in Parliament as an example of the controversial `video nasties.' But again, we see how Jarman's position was being misread. Punk subcultures felt that the film would be a testament to them, while the government assumed it was an attack on decency. However, both groups were misreading Jarman's position. As Jarman points out "For an audience who expected a punk music film, full of `anarchy' and laughs at the end of the King's Road, it was difficult to swallow. They wanted action, not analysis..." (DL 172). In contrast to the Government perceiving it as a `video nasty,' Jarman makes it quite clear that all of the violence in the film is "seen negatively" (DL 170). Jarman makes it quite clear however that Jubilee had a "healing function [which] harked back to Pearl and Piers Plowman." In the film, the character of Ariel, speaking from Elizabethan England, makes it clear at the beginning of the film that the scenes of nihilism that he will show us are not supposed to be admired, for they are "The shadow of these times." It is us, the audience, who live in the world of shadows, while the past is shown as a world of sympathy, culture and order. In contrast to the Elizabethan world order, the dislocation and violence of contemporary England has produced a generation cut off from History.

Jarman considers the Welfare State as a screen which protected the life of the country from being totally sapped by laissez-faire capital. In the absence of any restrictions on his economic behavior, Borgia Ginz moves in for the kill, in the same way that Malcolm McLaren, the salesman of punk, spoke unabashedly of making "cash from chaos." In the dying moments of welfare capitalism, which simultaneously sees the emergence of the Thatcherite hegemony and a laissez-faire economic policy, Ginz perceptively notes that "Heaven has been replaced by Progress." In this atmosphere, where Jarman says "Values and qualities cease to exist..." (177 DL), it comes as little surprise to find that given the failure of the Welfare State and the greedy destructiveness of the Right, Jarman turns to the English tradition of middle-class dissent claiming that in the film it is "Viv, the artist, in many ways one of the most sympathetic characters of the film, [who] pleads for action" (DL 179). Other than Viv, it is only Elizabeth I and John Dee who have any perspective on the English situation. Ever since the English Civil War, middle-class dissidence has always turned away from the industrial middle-classes (the line from Cromwell leads straight to Thatcher) expressing a sympathy with the supposedly effete, effeminate, (and from the bourgeoisie's point of view), decadent aristocracy. Given this situation, it is understandable that Jarman would locate a sympathetic voice in the House of Lords: "In the Lords of course [Lord Hutchinson said] we're not dealing with a democratic government any longer, we're dealing with an authoritarian government..." (my italics). This link to the aristocracy is underlined when Jarman goes on to position his sympathies as being in tune with the Queen (as he does with Elizabeth I in Jubilee): "I'm sure the Queen agrees with me. She looks desperate these days. I haven't seen her smile for years." In order to find a way out of the British `fog' of conservatism, then, Jarman turns to Art and English History for his solutions. Jarman recalls taking his parents to see Jubilee, and as they were leaving the cinema, amid disturbance and disgust at the film, Jarman's mother, Elizabeth, told him that she found the film very accurate. Discussing the furor over Jubilee Jarman continues: I think about people like Winston Churchill going mad about this film ... because of course the film was the tradition, and my parents understood this, and Winston Churchill and that gang, those gangsters in Parliament are against all of this ... one's father fought for the Welfare State, in a way, that's what they were all fighting for, and these people are dismantling it, so I represent the tradition, and these people are the wreckers. It's as simple as that. And so they doubly hate it. And in an odd sort of way I feel I can unmask that.After only nine years of Thatcherism the image of a unified England was shattered by widespread rioting. At Tamworth, in 1988, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, attempting to smooth over a riot-torn community, suggested that what England needed was "social cohesion alongside the creation of wealth through private enterprise: these are the two conditions of our future progress" (Sinfield 296). Yet, as Sinfield points out, Thatcherism deliberately obscured the fact that `social cohesion' and `private enterprise' are "incompatible" (296). While the rhetoric spoke of unity and cohesion, the Thatcher years saw the government "systematically assault[ing] institutions associated with welfare-capitalism, the labour movement and middle-class dissent... " (Sinfield 306).

As these assaults continued, from Thatcher's election in 1979 onwards, Jarman becomes increasingly vocal as the tradition which he defends is now under attack openly. Many aspects of Thatcher's ideology became focussed in the Government's implementation of Clause 28 in 1988. On this issue Jarman clearly positions the government as criminal, and himself as the honest center. He points out that insofar as one in ten gay people start life as part of a heterosexual family, Clause 28 is paradoxically, "a direct attack on the family... This is the irony of the clause" (A Night With Derek). Jarman says that at this point he knew, finally, that " ... one was dealing with criminal elements ... that this government is criminal..." This reversal of criminal/innocent is relayed into Jarman's application of metaphors of disease to politics. He situates the Thatcher government as the "virus' which "attacks creation" (DL 229) establishing a framework whereby monetarism and its followers are seen as eating away at the body politic. Drawing upon Blake's symbolism in his poem `The Sick Rose,' we can suggest that Jarman and the tradition come to represent the rose while Thatcherism and its media becomes the maggot that "doth your life destroy." For Jarman, the prophylactic that can protect the Rose against the virus is located in the culture of the tradition: "The Sonnets and the Symposium are a cultural condom protecting us against the virus of the yellow press" (MN 163). Jarman has offered the analysis that Thatcherism, far from being something new, in fact represented something that had always been embedded in the culture. He describes it as "a turning away" (A Night With Derek) and I think that we can read this not only as a turning away from people's needs but also as a turning away from, and rejection of, the middle-class dissident tradition. If previous governments had always tried to accomodate the tradition, Thatcher openly rejected its values. She misrepresented her aims to the public and convinced the country that she was in fact turning the country back on course, returning it to `tradition' claiming that there was `No alternative,' and that `No U-turns' were possible. For Thatcher, the only way to revitalize England was to let laissez-faire capital hold sway. The desire to pull away from the English tradition was always present in English history, but for Jarman Thatcherism represented "absolutely the worst in British tradition and British history, and it has been brought into the center and encouraged. There is absolutely nothing in Margaret Thatcher which is patriotic, intelligent or honourable." By contrast we see Jarman representing and upholding these values. Jarman has said that "[d]ecadence is the first sign of intelligence" and here we see how Jarman and the English tradition occupy a space which, although characterized historically as decadent and effeminate, is intelligent and honourably English. When asked if he was a patriot, Jarman replied with a resounding "Yes" (LE 211). While deploying a rhetoric of unity, family values and community Thatcherism results in a society diametrically opposed to the fulfilment of such goals. I want to re-frame Thatcherism so that we can see that while it appears centripetal at the level of ideology (a bringing together of self, history, culture, family), its economic socio-political effects are centrifugal (decentralization of public spending, dismantling of the Greater London Council and the Welfare State). By contrast, what we see regarding Jarman's oeuvre, in both film and painting, is a strategy whereby the surface rhetoric, while appearing centrifugal (which accounts for the various misreading of his work as `anti-establishment' etc.) has highly centripetal objectives. At a time when Thatcherism is operating on a centrifugal path: a breaking up of form, and an antipathy to history (as is the Right's Modernist inheritance), Jarman's insistence on the historical unity of the English tradition consequently infuriates the Thatcherite hegemony. Jarman's message can therefore be lost (or misread) if one equates `the tradition' with ideology in the Marxist sense of mystification. For Jarman, however, the middle-class dissident tradition is not `an opium of the masses' but instead it is what allows one to see through the mystification of ideology and into History. Discussing the return to an historical sensibility that was ushered in by the 1953 Coronation, Leon Higdon notes: "Lord Altrincham more pointedly emphasized the concept of continuity, an important reversal from the earlier discontinuity, the recognition that the future is vitally related to the past, and an awareness that tradition was not in and of itself a reactionary concept" (7).The turn away from History, ushered in by Modernism and continued by Thatcherism, has therefore created a group of writers who have felt the need to return to History as a way of reinscribing English culture into the tradition. Jarman affirms his role as nurturer, gardener, craftsman and upholder of unity and form: "I am the pivot who gathers the communal threads and creates the pattern" (LE 197). As he points out, sounding a little amazed that he has been so consistently misunderstood: "Shakespeare, the Sonnets, Caravaggio, Britten's Requiem, what more traditional subject matter could a film maker take on?" (MN 189). The same misunderstanding occurred regarding the reception of The Tempest. At the opening of British Film Year, Jarman was approached by a man who suggested that they "make an alternative festival for films like The Tempest at the NFT", to which Jarman comments "The Tempest alternative? Where do these people leave their minds? Try explaining to them that I don't make underground films, I have never made underground films ..." (LE 136).

The Last of England (1987) also signals this need to reconnect to an historical continuity. In spite of the film's implicit messages, it was sorely misunderstood, again by Jarman's fans and his critics. Responding to a sympathetic viewer who praised the film as a successful attack on England Jarman strongly disagreed: It's a love story with England. It's not an attack. It's an attack on those things that I perceive personally as things without value. Things that have invaded the mainstream of British life. That's not an attack on England. It's the opposite (A Night With Derek). Another critic argued that "It's very pessimistic", to which Jarman responded "Not at all. The act of making the film is the opposite..." (LE 167). David Hirst perceived the film as presenting the viewer with "very little hope" (LE 108), to which Jarman replied "They are the hope, the activity is the hope. I don't think I should project false hope if I don't feel it ... But I don't think negativity is negative" (LE 108). A series of overlapping images from the film can serve to illustrate Jarman's position. In The Last of England we see black and white footage from the 1980s of city buildings burning and collapsing in the middle of a riot, into which Jarman inserts a sequence in which Spencer Leigh, dressed in the pointed hat of the heretic, holds up a lighted torch. Like the outspoken heretic who refuses to collaborate with mainstream ideological positions, Jarman is aiming to keep alight the cultural heritage during a period in which England runs the risk of losing its culture completely. Jarman suggests that "With The Last of England ... I'm going back to my roots, to lay bare the contradictions" (LE 179). Jarman traces the tradition as far back as Beowulf, (widely perceived as one of the roots of Anglo-Saxon literature), as a way of explaining what he was doing in The Last of England: "think of the mead hall in Beowulf ... think of that mead hall full of the junk of our history, of memory and so on; there's a hurricane blowing outside, I open the doors and the hurricane blows through, everything is blown around, it's a cleansing, the whole film is a cleansing" (DL 208).Given the centrifugal pull of contemporary culture Jarman speaks of the need for something around which to concentrate his centripetal energy: "I need a firm anchor in that hurricane, the anchor is my inheritance, not my family inheritance, but a cultural one, which locates the film IN HOME" (DL 208).

For Jarman, as for the contemporary London-based artists Gilbert and George, and before them William Morris and Blake, Englishness, for Jarman, is synonymous with the landscape. As Jarman says "Blake and William Morris ... all of them look backwards over their shoulders--to a Paradise on earth. And all of them at odds with the world around them. I feel this strongly..." (MN 25). Jarman is expressing sentiments which we associate with more conservative figures. For example, in 1971 Phillip Larkin wrote `Going, Going,' a poem written for the Department of the Environment in which he notes his concern that the landscape will be destroyed by monetary interests: And that will be England gone,The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, The guildhalls, the carved choirs. ... but all that remains For us will be concrete and tyres (Larkin 190). Given the tendency to read Jarman as radically queer and controversial would appear to preclude thinking of him as working alongside Larkin, or, as Simon Watney tells us, that Jarman could be friends with a conservative figure such as Sir John Betjeman. History often produces figures who cut across the demarcations which we want to establish, and Jarman is a case in point.

In an interview, David Hirst compares Jarman's work to that of Humphrey Jennings, whose films "merge landscapes with action in a very poetic evocation of England" (136 DL). Jarman agrees, and goes on to say that he has seen the destruction of the English landscape "through commercialisation, a destruction so complete that fragments are preserved as if in a museum" (DL 138). In Rye, for example, he notes old English villages "have been made `historical' -- busily manufacturing themselves as picture postcards of their past" (DL 138). The same tragedy has befallen the destination of Chaucer's pilgrims: Canterbury, which is now a `historic centre' "taken over by twee boutiques selling superfluous goods. The market town is dead ... The city of pilgrims has become an empty `theme park.'" (DL 138). Nostalgia for a lost paradise is thus crucial to The Last of England as Jarman said, it lies "behind" the whole film, "even if it's not seen, its sort of lurking there."

To Perry Anderson, it is apparent that Thatcherism was "calculated to reshape the British social landscape" (301). But if recent changes to the landscape can be laid at the feet of Thatcherism, Jarman feels that the Left fared no better in providing a decent home for England's people. Jarman makes clear his irritation with the failure of the Labour party to uphold the values which he sees as being central to British culture. For example, in Jubilee, Kid (Adam Ant) and .... (Karl Johnson) are on the city rooftops looking down over London. .... comments on the ways in which state intervention in the form of Council Housing (as well as Modernist architecture) fails to offer nourishment to any of the senses: everything in that tower block is regulated. Planned by the social planners to the lowest common denominator. Sight: Concrete. Sound: The Telly, Touch: Plastic, Taste: Plastic. Seasons regulated by Thermostat.As a result of these political failures Jarman finds himself essentially trapped in a political system which is really one overarching political `fog' of hegemony, as he says: "There is no longer any decency or consistency of vision in British politics, we are left in the tender hands of the loons of the Left and Right" (MN 163). This destruction of the landscape entails a metaphorical concern for Jarman as well as a lived one: for he is concerned, above all, with England's `roots.' While the Labour governments of the 1970's failed to establish any firm cultural roots, under Thatcher what was left of those historical and cultural roots, which had sustained England for so long, were finally dug up:"Young bigots flaunting an excess of ignorance. Little England. Criminal behavior in the police force. Little England. Jingoism at Westminster. Little England. Small town folk gutted by ring road. Little England. Distressed housing estates cosmeticised in historicism. Little England. The greedy destruction of the countryside. Little England" (LE 81). Jarman asks what Pasolini would have thought of Little England. He remarks that while Pasolini's enemies saw him as a radical "in fact he fought for traditional values" (LE 81). Jarman reflects that both Ezra Pound (the manly Fascist) and Pasolini (the homosexual Marxist) were in some sense "allies" (LE 18) in that both were trying to protect Italian civilization from being destroyed by post-war democracy: "These corrupters [The Allies] lay waste the mental and physical landscape of dear Italy in a sea of rubbish" (LE 18). In the face of the erosion of England's roots, Jarman spent his last years living in Dungeness at Prospect Cottage in the shadow of the nuclear power station. Following Jarman's concern with a vanishing English landscape it is significant that he tells us how Dungeness "has been declared a conservation area..." (MN 64). Jarman and the tradition that he represents is quite literally an endangered species in danger of becoming extinct. Jarman finally died of AIDS in January 1994 and the ways in which he approached his illness brought AIDS into the forefront of English culture. In the same way that Jarman has spent his work re-appropriating the canonical English tradition and re-presenting it, so with AIDS, Jarman tells us in Blue, "the virus has been appropriated by the well." Jarman's later work and his commentaries on AIDS thus operate in order to re-appropriate the illness. In the same way that Jarman felt that the government was criminal and sick, and that it had reversed the polarities of disease so that illness becomes displaced onto the margins of society. While contemporary England has demarcated the line between Thatcherite individualism and health on the one hand, and iconoclasm and illness on the other, Jarman weaves together patriotism and AIDS so that iconoclasm is healthy, and Thatcherite individualism becomes a deadly illness.

Jarman said that he was a pivot around which to weave the scattered threads of English culture, and his work can be seen as creating a space in which the traditional is exposed as the marginal, and the marginal is revealed to have been the traditional. By then making the terms equivalent Jarman moves towards creating a cultural vision in which apparent contrary traditions (iconoclasm and patriotism, homosexuality and health) can co-exist, having been revealed as parts of one pre-existent tradition. It is this drive towards a larger cultural synthesis which explains Jarman's comment that he is "not interested in political statements" (A Night With Derek): Jarman's vision is historical and cultural not simply `political.' Jarman's posthumous release, Glitterbug, is essentially a collection of home movies, and I would like to make the case that all of Jarman's films are `home' movies in so far as they are in search of a place where we can put down some roots. For Eric Hobsbawm the period 1973 to the present constitutes "a sub-epoch of disintegration and disorientation" (Times Literary Supplement Sept 17 1994, 23) and in the midst of this Jarman has been trying to locate somewhere for us all to live, to re-orient us, to take us all back home. As Jarman said "Home is where you should be ... in all home movies is a longing for paradise" (LE 54). In fighting for Blake's Jerusalem (as opposed to the public school/Chariots of Fire version appropriated by the Right) Jarman becomes like the young man in Rupert Brooke's poem `The Soldier': "A body of England's, breathing English air/Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home." In spite of the attempts of the government to turn England into a wasteland, Jarman always fought to make it into a place where culture could take root and thrive. For Jarman, the English `garden' has the ability to accomodate a rich variety of difference, for it offers a plurality of identities, sexualities, and histories. Jarman felt that it was his task to yoke together this culture of contradictions, enabling all of us to feel at home in a place which could once again be `forever England.'

In a recent interview the British artists Gilbert and George suggested that while Jarman appeared to be a left wing person making right wing films, they were in fact, "the same, but opposite" This linkage to GG allows us to draw out the tradition as we see how GG speak of their work as not being political, but moral. Like J, GG develop a body of work in which patriotism, unity, Nature, sex and the Spirit are all on a continuum. Their ability to move beyond categories of Right and Left is also indicated by the ways in which the media has misread them: accused by the Left of being Tories/Fascists and accused by the right of being paedophiles there work asserts the need not only to reconnect to the tradition in which Jarman is working but to reconnect to a cultural position which permits the development of the idea of nation without nationalism, patriotism without fascism, conservatism without Thatcherism, and a unity built from perversity.