Derek Jarman: England was where he wanted to find a home, among gay kings, queer soldiers and punk queens

The legacy of the radical queer filmmaker on the anniversary of his death

Derek Jarman’s concern with England runs throughout all his films, surfacing more clearly in some. In War Requiem (1989), to the soundtrack of Benjamin Britten’s music and choral setting of the same name and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, Jarman composed a visual story of a veteran remembering his time in the trenches of the first World War. It is hard, at first, to see what unites the turn towards the sounds and images of the most sentimental kind of Englishness with the shattering of nationalist pieties that energises his earlier punk films Jubilee and The Last of England. Or with Jarman’s claim to have spent his life in a constant battle against what he called “Heterosoc”, the entire social system propped up by making heterosexuality the imaginative norm: capitalism, imperialism, war, the whole rotten lot.

Taken as a lament for “the truth untold, the pity of war”, where the story of the suffering of an unknown English soldier is interspersed with a montage of footage of war from across the 20th century, the film’s antiwar message makes a certain kind of sense. Compulsory heterosexuality is not just violent, it is violence, an act of domination and source of pain right to its very core. And so too does the historical parallel the film implicitly draws between one entire generation of young men extinguished by the indifference of generals sending them to die in the trenches, killed by the indifference of the government, to the lives of gay men as HIV spread throughout the 1980s.

But to focus a lament on the pity of war on the death of a beautiful young man is to fuel the nationalism that is part and parcel of “Heterosoc”, the kind of nationalism that measures its strength against the young man as a measure of male virility. When, in War Requiem, an officer cries over the body of a young infantryman while the German soldier who killed him lies dead in the snow behind them or when that German soldier reappears to lay a wreath of poppies at the feet of that infantryman, now resurrected as Saint George holding his red and white crossed flag, one wonders whether the problem with war is that it kills, or whether it kills Englishmen.

As in Edward II (1991), Jarman sought to weave queer desire into the history of English power, not to destroy that power. This film adapts Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play of the same name, making explicit the subtext widely believed, then and now, that Edward II had a sexual relationship with his courtier Piers Gaveston. In order to rewrite history for his present or write it properly for the first time, the film mixes contemporary and historical costuming and props, as in Jarman’s previous film, Caravaggio (1986), which similarly attempted to bring to the surface the same-sex desire of a historical figure. Yet, if Caravaggio is a stilted museum piece, Edward II brings past and present into a time-bending collision, as when Jarman cast his fellow queer activists of the early 1990s as Edward’s rebel army, supporting the king with their signs: “Silence = Death”, “Gay Desire is Not a Crime”.


Jarman’s queerness is not just English. It is used to desire England: its innocence, its stoicism, its gardens and, above all, its beautiful young men.

These films betray an erotic fascination with male power and male suffering, with men who have the power to inflict suffering and men who have the power to endure it. The soldier dying in the trenches is an unemployed factory worker and is Saint Sebastian bleeding on the stake. The figure of the king and the imagined community of the nation is a means of amplifying the intensity of that power and suffering to extend the bounds of that power’s reach and to bind those suffering into a brotherhood of men. This is why Englishness is inextricable from Jarman’s vision of queer sexuality and why his sexuality was inextricable from his Englishness.

Jarman’s queerness is not just English. It is used to desire England: its innocence, its stoicism, its gardens and, above all, its beautiful young men. It only cares for women when they tend to these men, as with the nurse in War Requiem or when they take the form of queens for them to worship: Amyl Nitrate in Jubilee, Tilda Swinton as a post-industrial Britannia. This came from his love of illusions, and this was what taught me that England is the most illusory of places. The leisure of country estates was built on the labour of slaves; immaterial wealth is conjured into existence behind the stone pillars of the Bank of England; a vicious sense of superiority hides behind the politest of smiles; all the languages of the world flourish behind a façade of received pronunciation.

Maybe Jarman’s saving grace is that he knows these illusions are illusions, that he is like Prospero in his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979), who knows when to put down his wand and accept ‘our revels now have ended’. But maybe he is more like Shakespeare’s contemporary, the alchemist and magician John Dee; maybe he truly believed he could turn base metal into gold, maybe he truly forgot the emptiness behind his illusions of England.

“God, the English are a queer bunch,” announces the boy in Wittgenstein (1993), Jarman’s penultimate feature-length film. Wittgenstein is a biopic, of sorts, charting the philosopher’s lifelong attempt at “trying to define for us limits of language, and what it is to have communication, one with another”, a journey that saw him shift from viewing language as a picture of the world towards seeing it as the expression of a form of life. This was his discovery, as he tells his lover Johnny in bed, played by Jarman’s own companion, HB, that: ‘There is no private meaning. We are what we are because we share a common language and common forms of life.’

Two images of solitude bookend the film. Near the beginning, the boy Wittgenstein sits at a sewing machine, surrounded by a cacophonous circle of adults reading books at him until he can no longer stand it and covers his ears and closes his eyes. ‘I was to spend a lifetime disentangling myself from my education’, he tells us. To the extent that Wittgenstein has a lesson for the English, this is it: if they are ever going to be able to live with one another, they will first have to undertake a lifetime of unlearning. They will have to dispel themselves of their illusions. They will have to remember their past for the very first time, so they can tell it to others so they can decide whether to make England their home. The second is an image of an adult Wittgenstein in a giant birdcage, sitting with a bird in a smaller cage, reflecting on the contradiction between trying to live a philosophy where meaning is simply the common use of language in public and living in a world where the public expression of his homosexuality is impossible.

England was where he wanted to find a home: among gay kings, queer soldiers and punk queens. We all need illusions in which to feel at home. England was his. But his England wouldn’t be mine.

Wittgenstein tells us that he wanted to move philosophy away from being a picture of the ‘lonely human soul, brooding over its private experiences . . . locked out from contact with others by the walls of their bodies’. But he could only do so, the end of the film reveals, by moving to Ireland to live alone in a cottage by the sea. In order to learn how to speak to others, he had to first be alone.

The English aren’t half as queer as Jarman would have liked to think. In the end, he never dispelled himself of the illusions of Englishness. England was where he wanted to find a home: among gay kings, queer soldiers and punk queens. We all need illusions in which to feel at home. England was his. But his England wouldn’t be mine. England, Jarman taught me, perhaps despite himself, has always been a kind of illusion. In this country, I could live my own illusion. I didn’t need to copy his.

This is an extract from Kevin Brazil’s essay collection Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness? (Influx Press)