Walking along Charing Cross Road towards Chinatown he holds a thin brown stick, too short for his needs. On this bright August Sunday he wears black slippers, baggy blue trousers, a cardigan and a heavy wool jacket. His polo shirt is pink, his cardy yellow - loose, lounging clothes that were hell to put on. Occasionally, Keith, 27, his partner of seven years, will tuck in his shirt. As he reaches a crossing he asks Keith to hold his hand.
'They're always very kind to me in here,' he says at the door of Poons, 'they always say 'Hello Derek'.' And so they do. He orders duck, rice and mineral water. His new haircut means you can see more of his face, ruddy from drugs, dotted with small inflammations. At 51, he is a picture of wrecked beauty. One side of his mouth turns down, as if he's had a small stroke.
Four days ago he was in hospital, one of several recent visits, this time to fight pneumonia. Three days ago he was with an eye specialist who is trying to save the sight in his left eye; at the moment he can't read. Every morning and evening he is on a drip. He refers to his body as a walking lab, pills slushing against potions in his insides. One of his new eye drugs is called DHPG, which has the following potential side-effects: rash, fever, coma, nausea, anorexia, bleeding and 33 others.
Aids has mapped out his life for about a year. He tested HIV positive in December 1986, and he has become increasingly ill as the years have passed. Now his days are measured out in medication, and Aids informs all his artistic endeavours. 'I do feel I've got some puff in me still. At least I haven't got cancer, because that's a pretty lethal thing. I don't know how long I've got. Every year I say 'maybe I've got another year', and it surprises me that I last long enough to say it again. I'm tough physically. I got that from my father.'
Nothing if not blunt, he dismisses the PC concept of 'living with Aids'. 'A lot of these slogans are ludicrous. I wish you were living with Aids, but it's the opposite, only dying, dying with Aids. It's much better to face the facts. I'm still surviving, but I don't think I'm going to survive. It would be extraordinary if I did. God only knows what sort of state I'd be in. A sort of ruin. An Aids ruin.' He laughs, and chews his bony duck. He says it again: 'Ha, an Aids ruin]'
I HAVE come to talk about Blue, his new film. It is a remarkable work, even by his standards. For 76 minutes you sit in a cinema waiting for the action, but the only action is a blue screen, four reels of blue, unchanging blue, altered only when your eyes play tricks, or when dust and scratches invade the print. It's a great blue, actually, rich and bright, a blue you'd be proud to have on your new Vauxhall. But still - 76 minutes?
Thank God there's a soundtrack. This is structured around his illness, around his hospital diary. Told in tiny fragments with music and effects, Nigel Terry, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton and Jarman himself read out grim highlights: finding a vein, night sweats, drug trials. There are also some poems, some dreamy recollections, and many meditations on the theme of blue: on the metaphysical, monochromatic work of the French painter Yves Klein, on bluebells in the wood, the cobalt of the sea, blue-eyed boys of yore and the blue funk of fear. Sounds like death on screen, and so it is, but it is also gripping and positive stuff, never self-pitying, lots of gallows humour, terrible honesty.
The stewed greens arrive. 'I thought that it would turn out to be an interesting experimental film,' Jarman says, 'but it's bizarre that the film just became a film, rather than an experimental film. It's jolly difficult to make a film about illness. All those cancer films of the Fifties, all rubbish. It will be very interesting to see how people cope with this. It'll be interesting to see how the Sun copes.'
Blue will not just go arthouse and video. Next month Channel 4, which provided half the pounds 90,000 budget, screens the film late-night with a simulcast on Radio 3
(radio-only listeners can send off for a large blue postcard to look at during transmission).
I suggest that the film feels like an
'Oh yes. I think it will be my last. There are no plans to do another one. It's a good end film, so I'm not too worried about that. In fact I've made quite a lot of films now, about 11 or 12 of them, and enough is enough. I don't feel shortchanged. I've done everything I can do. I'm not an unfortunate person, thank God, who thinks that if I was given a few more years I would do this and this.'
Though it is easier to see his films in Japan than it is in Britain, Jarman believes he has had a good run artistically. He made some fascinating stuff - Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest - well before Channel 4 became the saviour of low-budget films. His more mature work, Caravaggio, The Last of England, Edward II and the recent Wittgenstein, explored issues off limits for almost all his contemporaries - religion, sin, redemption, philosophy, sex, our national decline. He glorified the art of elevated home movies; some of it was a little high-flown, some of it pretentious, but it was constructed with a painter's eye and much of it was thrilling to watch.
But now he says he's broke. Once he thought that Blue would not be his last film, but he has been unable to raise the money to make a film of Narrow Rooms, the James Purdy novel. 'This is a bit of a blow, because we've been working on the scripts for about a year. I don't have any income. Suddenly . . . I'll just have to paint. We sell just enough to keep me going. Someone came round the hospital last week and said, 'are you claiming any benefits?' I said no. Like most middle-class people I really didn't think about it. She said I could get disability benefit, this and that. I may be able to get pounds 100 a week, which would come in very useful now.'
On the way back to his flat Jarman says he would like some sweets, anything but mints. Keith arrives back with fruit-
flavour Polos and Opal Fruits, which Jarman consumes addictively for the next hour. It's a tiny, sparse flat, a real artist's lair - white walls, a couple of desks and chairs, a futon, some old dark paintings. He's been here for 15 years. His Prospect Cottage, in the shadow of Dungeness power station, the backdrop of his terrific journal Modern Nature and his film The Garden, he sees less and less - too much apparatus to cart, too far from the wards.
Jarman settles in a high-backed armchair that all but swallows him. He asks Keith for his 'Chinese gunk', his leftover bean curd, and Keith brings it in a Styrofoam cup with some pills and a white liquid. 'Will you do me a great big favour?' Keith asks, like a mother to a four-year- old. 'You want me to take those, don't you?' Jarman asks. 'These ones are especially good,' Keith says, 'especially good after food.'
He takes them and splutters and wipes his mouth on his sleeve.
'What am I going to do with the time I've got left? That's what goes through my mind now. Please God that I don't have another bout of pneumonia. I've got fed up with that after three bouts. I look at people in hospital, and they're very ill, most of them, the people who are unconscious, just lying there . . .'
JARMAN has become a saintly figure. He has actually been canonised, albeit by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of men who dress as nuns. He is revered by the gay community (although he lost some friends when he opposed Ian McKellen accepting a knighthood in the wake of much homophobic legislation). He has won countless friends for his fundraising work for Aids causes and his attempts to erect a statue of Oscar Wilde.
'I don't feel saintly. I've always maintained that I wasn't a spokesperson, I was just talking about myself really. I've always felt a responsibility. It would be very hard to pop one's clogs without saying anything about it. I've tried to give people a feeling of what it was like. I try to keep a balance, so that I'm a person who is making films, not just someone who is ill.'
Recently Jarman has campaigned against the closure of St Bartholomew's Hospital. Once again, he was just really talking about himself: 'There's a good deal of fun about the place. And I don't think you could get treatment like that anywhere else in the world. It's state of the art, both in the treatment, and in the freedom you're given. 'Derek, we're going to give you this, this and that.' But if you were to say 'I honestly don't want these, Mark', he'd say, 'It's up to you'. How long do you carry on against the inevitable? Do you let it happen? There is that freedom for you to say, 'end of treatment'.'
There is a line in Blue: 'We all contemplated suicide. We hoped for euthanasia.'
'I just wanted to know what my doctor would think,' Jarman says. 'He was very, very uncommittal about it. I said that I really didn't want to end up an absolute wreck, that I'd prefer to be quietly terminated. We discussed it, and he didn't really say anything apart from a tacit agreement that it might be a possibility. What's the point of hanging on grimly if it's just a few agonising weeks? The funny thing is, if you are very unwell you don't register everything, you just come and go, half-conscious. I told one of the sisters that it's worse when you get better, when you begin to feel the pain.'
You can gauge some of Jarman's despair from his paintings. Near the door there's a small black and glass assemblage that reads, in his own scrawl: 'Dear God, Please send me to Hell, Yours sincerely, Derek Jarman. Dear God, If you insist on reincarnation, please promise me that I will be queer - tho' I heard you don't approve, I'll go down on my knees . . .'
His larger, more recent, garish works exploit tabloid scares. These are called 'Spread the Plague', 'Blood', 'Sick', 'Panic' and 'Morphine'. According to Richard Salmon, his dealer: 'He still has more energy, even when he's got tuberculosis in his stomach, pneumonia in both lungs, measles in his right foot and half blind, than anyone else who happens to be in the room. He'll run to pick up your paper if you drop it. As long as he's not in bed and half-conscious, he's remarkable. He can even make people envious of his illness, people who without the illness do one-tenth of what he does.'
Salmon says his gallery receives a constant stream of letters from all over the world, from young people who are just really in love with the idea of what Derek does and says and makes. 'This doesn't happen with other artists. In the early Eighties I worked at the Marlborough Gallery and looked after Henry Moore and Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and somebody might write once in a blue moon. But with Derek he inspires a whole generation.'
'How often do you see him depressed?'
'The official answer is absolutely never, because he never uses the fact that he is ill or in a lot of pain to advance himself or seek sympathy. But I know him well enough to have occasionally seen him very depressed. I know that he can be terribly saddened by it all. He did say to me once last year, 'I just wish somebody would come and put a bullet through the back of my head'.'
'PERSONALLY, I keep on taking more drugs,' Jarman says. 'I take lots. I believe in conventional medicine. I don't believe in these therapies that people go off to Mexico for. I can't see that there's anything there that can help. If there was we'd know about it over here because there's such an urgent necessity. It's for the quacks. And, of course, I'm a target. I get these letters saying, 'Dear Mr Jarman, Come along to our clinic in Mexico or Paris. They want me to put my name to their thing, but I won't'
Jarman says the worst thing about his illness is the uncertainty. 'Suddenly my left eye is going, out of the blue. It makes you laugh in a way. So we'll cure this eye, no doubt. I hope we do, but I'm not that worried, except that it's going to be an absolute bind for Keith to have to look after a blind person. Another bloody nuisance. I have to say I'm very laissez-faire about it. I won't be the first person it's happened to. You try and make certain it doesn't win the day, you know?'
Jarman gets up from his chair and walks to his futon. 'I'll just have a little rest here.' I apologise for tiring him. He says: 'Not at all. Me and Keith wouldn't have had anything to do if you hadn't come round. Bloody things, Sundays.'
'Blue' receives its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 22 August, and opens at the Parkway, London, on 27 August. It will be broadcast on Channel 4 and Radio 3 on 19 September.
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