Derek Jarman’s personal commentary on the decline of his country in a language closer to poetry than prose. A dark meditation on London under Thatcher.
“Do you remember Norman Stone calling to arms about us all in the Sunday Times? Saying The Last of England and Sammy and Rosie get Laid and Raining Stones and I can’t remember what else were a damaging and misleading series of slanders on the British character and profile? ... those were the days.”
“So: the last London. It has to be said with a climbing inflection at the end. Every statement is provisional here. Nothing is fixed or grounded. Come back tomorrow and the British Museum will be an ice rink, a boutique hotel, a fashion hub. The familiar streets outside will have vanished into walls of curved glass and progressive holes in the ground. The darkened showroom of the Brick Lane monumental mason with the Jewish headstones will be an art gallery. So? The Victorian theatre on Dalston Lane is already a windblown concrete slab with optional water jets propping up a reef of speculative towers nobody can afford on a buttress of failed enterprises, themed restaurants forever changing their allegiance and retail opportunities nobody is rushing to take up, despite those elegantly faded CGI panoramas of satisfied customers who never lived in the world as we know it. So? I’m trying to teach myself the grammar of a terminated city in which every sentence begins with a confident clearing of the throat: ‘So …’ That’s the entry code. It’s as if you’ve been shoved onstage, without lines, in a play you’ve never read. Smile brightly. Bluff like a politician in a glass booth being manipulated by semaphoring black-suited attendants with clipboards. So? ‘All for the best in the best of all possible Londons,’ says the mayor, says the minister, says Joanna Lumley. ‘All for the best,’ say the entitled, the connected, the stakeholders, the investors and the profit-takers.”
“Thatcherism discovered a powerful means of translating economic doctrine into the language of experience, moral imperative and common sense, thus providing a ‘philosophy’ in the broader sense – an alternative ethic to that of the ‘caring society’. This translation of a theoretical ideology into a populist idiom was a major political achievement. [...] Thatcherite populism [...] combines the resonant themes of organic Toryism – nation, family, duty, authority, standards, traditionalism – with the aggressive themes of a revived neo-liberalism – self-interest, competitive individualism, anti-statism”
“Even although it acknowledges the collapse of liberal optimism, Jarman’s radicalism never in itself seems indulgently pessimistic. In The Last of England (1987), a film that openly suggests Thatcher’s Britain to be a dystopian bombsite run by thugs, there’s something about its imagery that feels rebellious in a celebratory way, a cathartic release of rage. When Tilda Swinton, adorned in a regal wedding dress, screams as flames lick the Dungeness horizon, it feels oddly optimistic - rage could not even be extinguished by the banal blanket of neo-conservatism.”
“A pivotal moment arrived when Derek Jarman, in The Last of England (1987), violated memory by overlaying "innocent" home movie footage of his own RAF-sponsored childhood with a downriver apocalypse of bare-chested punks, culture deviants, and Kenneth Anger satanists with flaming torches ritually cleansing the ground for Thatcherite development. Millennium Mills, the decommissioned flour factory in Silvertown that looked as if it had been christened by William Blake and delivered by Albert Speer, was the perfect symbol for a cinematic endgame.”
“For all the subsequent theorising over his work, his was an almost entirely anti-theoretical approach to filmmaking. Tilda Swinton cuts her wedding dress with shears in The Last of England. Why? It would seem stupid not to! It was a style geared to open interpretation and experimentalism – not commercialism or box office takings, and it is greatly missed in the current British cinema.”
James Marcus Tucker6
- 1Tilda Swinton, “In the Spirit of Derek Jarman,” a keynote speech at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Saturday 17th August 2002, as published over at Vertigo.
- 2Iain Sinclair, “The Last London,” London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 7, 2017. 7-11.
- 3Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. (London: Verso, 1988), 47-48.
- 4Adam Scovell, “In An English Country Garden: The Much Missed Radicalism of Derek Jarman,” The Quietus, 2019.
- 5Iain Sinclair, “Tales from mean streets,” The Guardian, 2009.
- 6James Marcus Tucker, “Derek Jarman,” Vertigo, Vol. 3, No. 5, 2007.