Olivia Laing: ‘There’s no book I love more than Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature’

Wild, honest, riotous, the film-maker’s diary showed me what it meant to be an artist, to be political – and how to plant a garden

There’s no book I love more than Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. There’s nothing I’ve read as often, or that has shaped me so deeply. I first came to it a year or two after its publication in 1991, certainly before Jarman’s death in 1994. It was my sister Kitty who introduced me to his work. She was 10 or 11 then and I was 12, maybe 13.

Strange kids. My mother was gay, and we lived on an ugly new development in a village near Portsmouth, where all the culs-de-sac were named after the fields they had destroyed. We were happy together, but the world outside felt flimsy, inhospitable, permanently grey. I hated my girls’ school, with its prying teachers. This was the era of section 28 (of the 1988 Local Government Act), which banned local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality and schools from teaching its acceptability “as a pretended family relationship”. Designated by the state as a pretended family, we lived under its malign rule, its imprecation of exposure and imminent disaster.

His capacity to write honestly about sex and death ​​makes much contemporary nature writing seem prissy and anaemic

The deepest source of his happiness was the Hinney Beast, the nickname he bestowed on his companion, Keith Collins

The diary ends in hospital, the opening litanies of plant names replaced by those of the drugs keeping him alive

Related: Derek Jarman’s hideaway


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