Just push your way through

Prospect Cottage – filmstill from the documentary ‘Derek’ by Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton

A pebbled garden. Blueish shrubs. Wind. A black house. Yellow window frames. A distant sea. A voice over of a woman. A blond woman. Tilda Swinton, hands in her pockets, silently caresses wooden poles in the garden. Titles.
That’s how ‘Derek’ starts.

Then all of a sudden, we’re inside the wooden house. My heart missed a beat instantly, my sight got blurred. For what I saw, was what I had witnessed with my very own eyes… A wooden seat, an antique cupboard, hundreds of small objects, crucifixes. Cut. A second room. A painter’s desk dotted with colors, open jars, the brushes, a neatly folded overall. It was all there, in this documentary, what I had touched with my very own hands.

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Two years ago I was on my way back home on my motorbike from friends in Weymouth, Dorchester. It was one of the worst periods in my life and before coming here, I had just returned from a long stay in Eastern China. I wasn’t through it as yet. I was fighting, falling, struggling, trembling, heartbroken. So I kept moving – my proven method to deal with issues of this magnitude.

I left early that day, since I wanted to ride more or less along the coast, and planned another visit to that amazing place in Dungeness: Prospect Cottage, the house of the late Derek Jarman.
Even in the abscence of signposting, it didn’t take me long to find it back on that barren peninsula, devoid of most life. The black shed with its yellow window frames looked tidy, and so did the garden, despite of the suitably grayish, foggy weather and the never ceasing winds. Last time I was there must have been ten years before. I smiled at the renewed acquaintance. I was alone; I didn’t expect anyone else to show up as Jarman, who died in 1994, must have faded from people’s memory at least to some extend, or so I thought. Besides, it was in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

I parked my motorbike, slung my helmet over the mirror, and in full gear slowly walked towards the house with the poem on its wall. I strolled along the outsides of the garden. None of the gardens here have fences, nature and gardens fade into one another. Junk, either weather beaten and washed up from the wild sea, or plainly dumped from scrap yards, finds its way as if it moves by itself. Some of the lonely houses look like scrap yards themselves. But not Jarman’s garden, though he too frequently went beachcombing and integrated his finds in his garden.
Many people must find this garden not to be one. In a traditional sense, it does indeed look weird. The shrubs, the flowers are uncommon; the soil consists of pebbles only. The Japanese surely understand its beauty immediatly. It’s uncommon like Derek Jarman was: a unique, great artist. A film director, stage designer, theater maker, painter, gardener, author, and AIDS and gay rights activist of the very first days. And from what I read and heard, a charismatic, extremely generous, funny and warmhearted person.

I strolled slowly. I wasn’t in the mood for photographs, though as always I did carry my camera. I looked at the nuclear power plant at the horizon. At the sky, trying to judge if or not rain was heading my way. I was at a half an hours ride from Dover with ample time. From a distance I glanced very briefly through the windows and noticed someone was home. Music came out, hardly audible. I kept a distance from the house, even turned my back as to not enter too much of the privacy of whomever was there.

Close to an hour went passed. I properly looked at all sides and corners. Hadn’t seen the large boat before, or couldn’t remember it. Thoughtfully I walked back to my bike, as all of a sudden a man in blue overalls came out of the front door. He carried some garden tools and firmly walked to a large shrub. He was slim, his long dark hair in a pony tail. He squat and started to work the pale blueish shrub. I inhaled the crisp air, watched in awe. I wanted to know. I had to know. And I knew without knowing that this was his boyfriend and noone else.
I stept in.

– Hello. (me)
– Hello.
– You must get annoyed with people walking in your garden all the time.
– I do.
He knows that I know that I’m one of those people, but he doesn’t sound unfriendly, to the contrary even.
The conversation stutters. This is a literal reproduction of the dialogue. Each time there is a pause. Not uncomfortable, rather thoughtful, sensitive.
– This is the third time I’m here. Last time was about ten years ago. It’s a very special place; I like it very much.
– Are you fond of gardens or Derek?
– Both.
– …
The man rises and makes a sign to follow him. I doubt, follow a few steps, then stop. I didn’t quite understand his last words. He walks to the front door of the house, and turns around, waiting for me. Or so it seems. He waves.
– Are you coming?
I’m speechless, baffled.
Incredulous, I walk to the house. He opens the door. He truly invites me in.
Just push your way through. It’s full of art, he adds in a matter-of-factly way.
He lets me in, then turns around and goes back to his gardening.
I’m not sure I said anything, but I am sure my mouth was open too long to pass unnoticed.

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Below are some of the few images that I took.

Prospect Cottage, the house of a great and warmhearted artist opened up for me by his generous and warmhearted boyfriend, as seen from the inside.

To this day I can recall every single second of this encounter. With Keith Collins, with the house. And I smile every time.

Dungeness, UK, 15 September 2009

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