Wyrd prairies / by Sarah Wishart

© Tana West 2017

© Tana West 2017

I can’t remember how I first came across Derek Jarman. I feel like he’s always been on the periphery of my thinking.  I must have watched his films first? Right? I must have because Jubilee seems etched in my head.  I’m sure I’ve Alex Cox or the Channel 4 Banned programmes to thank for that.  Later VB1 would lecture/hector me about his films.  I have no recollection now whether he valued them or hated them, the difference in his delivery was always indistinct.

Later, much later, I think in the chaotic wake of finally leaving VB1 – I read Jarman’s diaries – and soaked up how vividly furious he was. Anger experienced as a positive element! What I initially took from the diaries though was a lot less abstract, I was reading about ACTUP and gay rights in the states, so I was drawn particularly to the timeline of his queer activism and I also found a different sort of London.  Derek came to represent London for me – his motion through the city were lines for me to trace out. His SoHo something I envied.  To be in the centre of it all – to work so close to the heat.  His battles felt like they all took place in London.  His route out of the war zone was to Dungeness, but at that point returning to any part of the south coast was difficult for me. That’s where my battles had been, and the anger and the fear were still really current.  I didn’t see it as an escape route, but rather something that might take me back into shadows. Other readers remembered their diaries with the gardens a bit more, the anger a bit less.  I always knew I’d get round to visiting though.  It was a trip I had been set upon for a long time.

In the photos I had seen in some book, Jarman’s studio looked like a New England shack, or at least something not quite British, black walls, yellow roof, the garden was flotsam framed, with twisted metal and sea-blanched wood, and he had planted up the shingle with an eye for survival. I read more about his garden, as in time I discovered my own.  This I planted it up with a more traditional hand, though I took joy in the weirder successes, the stone crop I had thrown onto the extension roof that slowly trundled into the guttering over the years, the passion flower that bored under the concrete and flowered along the pavement, giving fruits to passing Hackney squirrels.  Despite loving how specific his garden was to its location, and wanting to touch Derek in some way, there was a part of me that felt uncomfortable about going to visit his beach house.  At least when he was alive, he was there to chat or argue with anyone who might be difficult, but I read that HB, his partner, had not welcomed the hoards of horticultural tourists, and I hated the idea of people snapping pictures of their home from the road. It felt so intrusive, and perhaps that’s why I hadn’t got round to visiting Dungeness long after I found I could live with the vague threat from further along the south coast.

I hadn’t had a holiday in about five years due to the PhD, and although this was little more than a long weekend after I finished my research role at the RSA – it was a welcome break.  I’d brought my bike with me so I could trundle around the Kent countryside without having to rely on public transport. The description of Kent as the garden of England always makes me think of bucolic thatched cottages rose-heavy and honeysuckle-sickly.  And when I landed, I landed at Rye, a town full of cream teas, pensioners, cobblestoned lanes and baskets hung with geraniums, it was late in the day, so I fled the post-card perfect to wind my way through the countryside to my own beach house.  I had rented it in Camber Sands, with its miles of sand dunes and flats, where shrimp fishermen were everyday tiny dark shadows against shining seas.  The house was bright and comfortable and I slept and read and ran.  I had only one outing planned, and that was to Dungeness.

The morning before I set out – I had run along the beach on wet impacted sand, I skipped across streams running long down to the sea, and between bizarre fort-like constructions where preparations for new banks of affluent beach houses looking out to sea were being made. In the distance I thought I could see Dungeness’ nuclear power station.  I imagined the sea road curling around the coast and taking me in a line to Dungeness.  However when I checked the map – the cycle route alongside the main road, ran up into the country and then across Romney Nature Reserve.

The English countryside can be rolling and soft, gentle wending slopes and rich soil, like the Shropshire part of the Welsh Marches.  This is not that sort of English countryside. This is a slightly fearful and weird place. I saw no-one else my whole afternoon on the road. Not one soul.  The most constant presence was the wind. (And they call the wind Maria) It never stopped, it whipped sound away and added a strange hallucinatory quality to the landscape. Great pylons buzzed noisily as the wind picked up, quietened as it dropped. There were countless water-filled quarries here, the constant breeze carved up the surface, which made the white tops of the wave almost indistinguishable from great clouds of seagulls that the wind displaced intermittently. Bird? Or wave? Or bird? White clouds rose and fell. The land was flat, but with the effort taken leaning into the gale, I might as well have been carving my way through Yorkshire hills.

The eerie took on another form of attack in that I was reminded of danger every hundred yards or so. Glaring red signs everywhere warned how very close I was to military firing ranges.  The land on the map that I couldn’t cycle through, all the land to the horizon, is owned by the British army. Behind razor-wire fences were explosion-pocked fake towns silently waiting for bombs to fall. Broken windows, flapping plastic caught on broken glass, lonely sounds pocked against the hiss of the ever constant wind. This road is a key route for the nuclear power station at Dungeness, and roaring high-sided lorries ferry industrial material day and night.

(This land is bright and full of terror).

I reached Romney Marshes, the only European desert, and immediately took a wrong turning, perhaps grateful to be out of the wind for a second, and got stuck on a mile-long gravel road into the Romney bird sanctuary.  I had presumed that Dungeness was only accessible through it – and found myself buying a day ticket in embarrassment, not wanting to tell the RSPB lady chatting me through all the birds I’d see on my visit. I put the donation down to payback for being ditzy, sighed and set off back along the unruly gravel road which played havoc with my beautiful road bike’s thin tyres.  Once back on the main road, I sailed along to the coast, to the drumming road laid out in seven foot sections, bad-doom, bad-doom sounded out at the crossing points, bad-doom, bad-doom every few seconds. Bad-doom to the power of eerie.  I bounced over the dips, where the warnings shifted to watery dangers – flooding and unpassable roads. Wild, pungent, icy winters perils flew into view.

In amongst the shingle desert, I started spotting houses cropping up, and beyond them, the whiteness of the sea.  Dungeness leant into the wind and the spray – I curled into the village over the humps of the tiny steam train tracks.  Stopped for a while to look at a ruined greenhouse – blasted by a storm, it looked like it had been victim to a vicious single slam of wind, the hanging wood joints, looked less weather beaten than I’d expect if this was a gradual decay.

I found Derek’s garden really fast.  Here is the road, set back across a welt of shingle, and here early on is Derek’s house.  Here countless people had photographed his arid flowers, and I did pause. I laid the bike down and hovered on the road, but I found myself too unnerved to trespass.  I lifted the bike and cycled on, drawn on by the wreckages of boats and funny little ramshackle wooden paths onto the shingle dunes. Everywhere were tumbled lean-tos that, at some point, had stood straight.

Down towards the original Victorian lighthouse, decommissioned after the shingle blew in, piled up around it and drove it far from the sea.  It now grows up out of nowhere. The wind still did not stop. Not ever. My thoughts of bringing the red brick of Welsh wallsto protect gardens would clearly never work, the wind would just pick away at the mortar between the bricks and bring the walls down, carelessly.

Before I headed back, I sat on the verge at the end of the world, with the great concrete cloud of death at my back, drinking a dirty martini from a soup flask.  I was in the shallows of a sea of English prairies, unseen by the guardians of the Dover strait, made up of the long waves of scrubland, pools of wind distorted trees. The hiss of the wind of course, and yet, it was quiet, sun-muffled, too quiet.