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Gay icon whose courage was awesome: Simon Garfield has a cherished memory of meeting Jarman to talk about his final film

WHEN Rudolf Nureyev died of Aids last year, Derek Jarman called it 'a personal loss, not an artistic tragedy'. So it is with Jarman himself. His work - films, paintings and writing - was often inspiring, occasionally moving, sometimes funny, but those who met him will remember them far less than their creator.

I only met him once, last August, and the memory is vivid and cherished. I had arrived in his sparse flat off Charing Cross Road to talk about Blue, a stunning artistic interpretation of his illness. He knew it would be his last film, and he was happy with it: happy that he had 'given people an idea, at least, of what dying like this is like'.

I had taken him a couple of books, a big mistake. His eyesight was almost gone, the worst thing for an artist with so strong a sense of image and colour. He was a picture of wrecked beauty: rotten skin, muscles that would not perform as before. His partner had to button his cardigan.

Richard Salmon, his art dealer, reported that once he did see Jarman distraught, eager to end the misery soon. But there was no sign of this as he hobbled down to Chinatown for soup and duck. 'I do feel I've got some puff in me still,' he said. 'Every year I say 'maybe I've got another year', and it surprises me that I last long enough to say it again.' Then it was back to his place for a huge dose of pills and potions.

He was loved by so many. The famous used to come round for chats - Jodie Foster, David Bowie, Lady Helen Taylor - but they were heavily outnumbered by a young generation of gay men awed by his courage and outrage. Jarman became an icon, a saint even, for no one spoke with such eloquence of being gay, or having Aids.

'I've always maintained that I wasn't a spokesperson,' he said. 'I was just talking about myself really. It would be very hard to pop one's clogs without saying anything about it.'

(Photographs omitted)