In the steps of st derek
Sunday 02 June 1996
When we first came to Dungeness, a regular Bank Holiday jaunt for the past five years, Jarman was still alive; on our way to the lighthouse, we kept an eye out for his fabled lair in the shadow of the power station. We didn't know quite what to look for: the garden was well-known, but not the colour-supplement cult it has since become. But it was unmistakable: a black shack with window sills picked out in yellow, standing in a garden of stones and weird sculptural forms like bones bleached in the bright sun (Bank Holidays were hot in those days).
After a brief "we're not worthy" obeisance from the road, in case anyone was watching from inside (I discovered later that Jarman was in hospital in London) we shuffled self-consciously on the margins, and took a couple of shy photographs. Then I saw something tacked on the side of the house: twisted bits of driftwood set out in a jumble of lines. Emboldened, I took a step further, then another step, and the driftwood shapes began to resolve into half-remembered lines of poetry: "Busy old fool ... unruly Sun ... why dost thou thus ... through windows and through curtains call on us?" By the time I realised the words of John Donne in this setting acted both as an invitation to and injunction against peeping, we were too close for politeness. Retreat over the pebbles was speedy and ignominious, though we had to laugh later at this clever conceptual dig.
I only met Saint Derek of the Ness once, and it was such an emotional experience I had to go and have a sit-down in a cooling draught straight afterwards. It was shortly before he died, when he looked like a very elderly Chinaman in his long robe and tall hat embroidered with the word "Controversialist". Introduced by a friend, I clasped his hand, which was dry as paper and hot with beatitude. "How kind ... how kind," he beamed benignly as I babbled good wishes, then, turning back to our mutual friend, launched with malicious delight into a scurrilous anecdote about the actor Michael Cashman.
Going back to Dungeness today, I can see this spikiness surviving in the landscape. Behind its charm, it is almost a psychotic's garden: at the rear of the cottage, a skeleton army of menacing metal implements stands to attention, grown from nuts and bolts rather than dragons' teeth. All saints must have a certain hardness of character, and Jarman's fierce sanctity bristles visibly round the cottage, though a bench has now been installed by the road for the comfort of admirers.
Perhaps the most remarkable testament to Jarman's extraordinary influence and charm is the fact that several other beach-gardens are now sporting motifs such as flint circles and driftwood displays.
Right next door is what amounts to a sculpture park, and damn me if it isn't more witty, though inevitably less profound, than the original. Constructed from jetsam and plastic rubbish are a huge clock, a fish with a hook and line in its mouth and a boat. Mottos have been painted on pebbles and arranged in quirky patterns; heaps of junk turn into rudimentary figures, mournful or jaunty, one with a battered mop-bucket for a head. It seems appropriate that Jarman's ideas, like seeds, are being propagated by the wind into his neighbours' gardens. He loved Dungeness for its lack of hedges and barriers, and his garden expands to take in the sea, the sky, and the pylons which march steadily to the horizon, taking electricity from the power station.
That's another thing you can do here apart from admire the gardens, and eat at The Pilot: visit the power station, or rather stations. I can unreservedly recommend Dungeness "A", the old station with control rooms out of Dr No. Part of a determined PR job, the tours are free and preceded by a whizz-bang film about the fantastic cleanliness and cheapness of nuclear power. Then it's hard hats on for a tour round the turbine hall and a look at the linoleum floor, sinister in its banality, which covers the reactor. We are all ceremoniously counted into the site and counted back out again, and the guide's scrap of film, worn as a kind of brooch, records how much radioactivity she and we are exposed to. The insistence on safety procedures is not so much reassuring as slightly camp.
The nearest to hot nuclear action we get is watching operatives taking spent fuel rods out of the core by remote control via a fuzzy screen. But there's an exciting Silkwood moment at the end of the tour when we all have to push our way through a complicated turnstile, which will refuse to release us if we've been contaminated. Slightly disappointingly, we're all in the clear. So much for living dangerously on the Ness - something Derek Jarman at least knew all about.
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