May 11, 2012

Derek Jarman and New Zealand

I already knew that Derek Jarman’s father was a New Zealander but until I read Dancing Ledge – Jarman’s mix of memoir and diary, written in 1984 – I didn’t know how deep the connections went. In fact, not just New Zealand but Christchurch (this blog’s current setting). This is from Jarman’s “A Short Family Mythology”, in Dancing Ledge:
Both my mother and my father, Lance, had an artistic bent. Dad’s father, Hedley, was the first violin and a founder member of the first symphony orchestra in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Jarman biographer Tony Peake provides a fuller account of those origins here.
With only two exceptions, the eight children of Elias’s and Mary’s third son, John, forsook Devon for New Zealand. The last to leave was the eldest, also John, who set sail in 1888 and eventually acquired a smallholding in Riccarton, now a suburb of Christchurch.
It was in this most English of colonial cities that the second of John’s four sons, Hedley Elworthy, met and married Mary Elizabeth Chattaway Clarke, a carpenter’s daughter. Hedley worked for the Tramway Board, first as a clerk, finally as general manager. In his spare time he played the violin in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, sang in the church choir, acted as churchwarden. He was a Rotarian and Grand Master of the Riccarton Masonic Lodge, deviating from this civic-mindedness only to indulge his passion for dancing the waltz.
The second of Hedley and Lizzie's five children was a son, Lancelot Elworthy, born on 17 August 1907. Obliged from a relatively early age to make his own way in the world, Lance left school at fifteen to become an engineering apprentice with the Christchurch Tramway Board. Meanwhile he attempted to improve his prospects by embarking on a part-time course in mechanical and electrical engineering. In October 1928, underwritten by money scraped together by his family, he sailed for England aboard the SS Ionic to pursue his engineering career in the Royal Air Force.

Regular letters home provide a vivid picture of Lance’s first ten years away from the certainties of New Zealand. Of his first encounter with an official at the Air Ministry, he wrote: ‘They do not like New Zealanders being trained unless they are going to live permanently in England.’ Although he was almost immediately granted a temporary commission as a pilot officer in the RAF, at his second training school, where he acquitted himself admirably, the comment was: ‘A very conscientious and hard worker Colonial who has brains and power of application.’
Thanks to the miracle of Papers Past – the National Library’s newspaper digitising site – the trivia of New Zealand daily life is archived forever. These early Jarmans make brief appearances. A quick search for Hedley Jarman throws up a couple of references.

On December 20, 1890, the Christchurch Star reports that Hedley Jarman is awarded a proficiency prize at Ferry Road School (he was in Standard V). He gets another prize the following year – as do a Stanley Jarman and a Stewart Jarman.

More than 30 years later, the same Hedley Jarman makes one more appearance. The Ellesmere Guardian – another defunct newspaper – reports on February 8, 1922, that “Mr V. Hedley Jarman, accountant to the Christchurch Tramway Board, and brother of Mr F. S. Jarman, secretary to the local Electric Power Board, was in Leeston on Monday. He is enjoying a fortnight’s holiday.” It’s hard to know why that was news.

As for Lance Jarman – future RAF pilot and future father of the artist and film-maker – he makes just one newspaper appearance, again as a child receiving a prize. The Press on December 29, 1914, has him winning a first-class good attendance certificate at Wharenui School in Riccarton, where he was in Standard 1. At the same school, there is a Ronald Jarman, one year ahead (the school’s most famous ex-pupil is still Rewi Alley, who was there just a few years earlier).

As Tony Peake says, a key part of the Derek Jarman story was that New Zealander Lance Jarman had a tense relationship with the notion of Englishness, and its condescending attitude to colonials. Jarman touches on this in Dancing Ledge, when he writes about his education at Canford School:

That summer holiday my father told me I could leave the school if I wished. I realised that this was a considerable concession on his part as he took immense pride in the fact he was seeing me through a public school. But his attitude was strangely mixed; as a New Zealander who had worked his passage to England he could at times scarcely conceal his dislike for a system in which he was an outsider, and his correspondence with my housemaster was to say the least edgy. But I had already made my decision … and declared I would soldier on.
How much of the attitude of Jarman’s 1987 classic The Last of England – an attitude both oppositional and (in a good sense) conservative – started to take shape at those moments, and through the writing of the book more generally? The Last of England, of course, was named for a Ford Madox Brown painting of emigrants leaving for Australia in the mid-19th century, a few decades before the Jarmans left for New Zealand:


Dancing Ledge was written as Jarman waited and waited to get Caravaggio going. Behind him were three features – Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest – and a series of more experimental, occult-flavoured Super 8 shorts (occasionally revived). The political and cultural climate of the UK was also influencing the thoughts – sad, angry, nostalgic – that were expressed so powerfully in The Last of England. In the 1980s British “heritage” cinema was gearing up – “… from the visually ugly vacuity of Brideshead [Revisited], to Chariots of Fire, a damp British Triumph of the Will,” Jarman writes – and the preceding decade’s British mavericks (excessive, personal, surreal, more European) Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg began to struggle.

Jarman collaborated with Ken Russell as a set designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah (“There was no better director to learn from, as he would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence”), but turned down work on Tommy. In 1975, Jarman chatted with John Gielgud about a version of The Tempest that doesn’t resemble the film he made a few years later, but is closer to the eventual Gielgud/Greenaway version, Prospero’s Books:

[Gielgud] said if he did it he would film it in Bali. I’ve made a script of it. Prospero’s a schizophrenic locked into a madhouse – Bedlam. He plays all the parts – Miranda, Ariel and Caliban; the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan and the rest of them visit him and watch his dissolution from behind the bars. It works very well but uses less than one third of the play.
There are celebrity sightings and fascinating film-maker detail. It helps that Jarman was a terrific writer (Alan Bennett said that he liked Jarman’s writing more than his films). He meets Patti Smith in New York in 1972 – the Just Kids era – and gives her packets of Passing Clouds, “which I told her were Virginia Woolf’s favourite cigarette, which amused her”. In the same year, he meets Alice Cooper (“like a praying mantis in bondage”) and proposes a concert staging in which Cooper arrives “on a huge articulated black widow spider … with Alice at its helm holding a gold and leather harness, dressed in rubies from head to foot, like Heliogabalus entering Rome”. It appears that Cooper’s camp didn’t take him up on that idea. In 1979, Jarman makes a promo for Marianne Faithfull (“elfin, difficult to get to know”) and tries to get his apocalyptic, Bowie-starring script Neutron going – “A dream treatment of mass destruction.” (I wrote about Neutron back here). He works with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV and, through them, films William S Burroughs on a visit to the UK in 1982 (Burroughs is “tortoise-like … he stoops like a cadaver in the catacombs of Palermo and talks of mummies and immortality … his readings are immensely funny”). The resulting film, Pirate Tape, is here.

Against the quaint and historic British film – your Bridesheads, your Chariots – Jarman argues for another tradition: THE CINEMA. He puts it in caps. You have heard of Antonioni, Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder, etc, “but here it is quite likely you have not heard of Peter Watkins, Bill Douglas, Robina Rose, Terence Davies, Chris Petit, Ron Peck – and forgive me if I include myself – who are their counterparts”. There is also Roeg, there is John Boorman and there is the then-new Neil Jordan. And within this argument, there is also that healthy antagonism that his father would have recognised:
For the English, locked into their institutions struggling for preference, always kill with a smile; and the critics with nothing to write about will continue to replace THE CINEMA with the cinema. That which was made with love will remain a footnote until the Oblivion Digits are finally added up and darkness envelops our world.