The celebration of this remarkable man at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the continual screening of his final great work, Blue, at Tate Britain, brings to mind what will always be one of my favourite book launchs, for his autobiography, Dancing Ledge.
On 28 February 1984 Quartet celebrated the publication of Dancing Ledge by throwing an outrageous party at the Diorama in Regent’s Park. All a guest needed to do to gain entry was buy a copy of the paperback edition of the book for a cut price of five pounds. A large proportion of London’s gay community converged on the venue in a state of high anticipation and were admitted so long as they were clutching a copy. The numbers who gained access rose dramatically till they reached a figure later estimated at twelve hundred. The crush became so intense that there were fears for public safety and damage to the very fabric of the building. It was far from being an exclusively gay affair. The crowd was made up of a heterogeneous mix of literati, aristocrats, Sloane Rangers, showbiz personalities and punks. Collectively they represented the most colourful of London’s hedonistic high-camp society, as well as its most illustrious. All the beautiful people stood side by side with the ugly, the profane and the bizarre, and were letting their hair down without the least regard for propriety or convention.
The all-night event turned into an orgy of excess resembling a saturnalia. Into the midst of this phantasmagoric confusion and merriment there erupted a surprise cabaret organized by Derek Jarman, the star of which was Elisabeth Welch, the sultry-voiced singer who, at seventy-six years old, was a veteran of numerous musicals and for many a living icon. Escorting Miss Welch was a troupe of fire-eaters who set off total panic among the crowd. The observer who best summed it all up was Auberon Waugh in a piece in Private Eye, written in his uncannily insightful style and accompanied by a cartoon by Willie Rushton (the original of which still hangs in my office today):
Latest entertainment idea to hit the London scene is a group of hideous naked women and one man called the New Naturalists. I saw them at a party given by Naim Attallah the Lebanese [sic] philanthropist, but now they are everywhere. They come on stage completely naked except for combat boots, their bodies painted in green and blue. Also painted blue is what could be described as the man’s generative organ, but might more accurately be called his willie.
They start peeing all over the stage and everybody shrieks with laughter. Those who stayed on at the Quartet party – for a sensitive autobiography called Dancing Ledge by 1960s raver Derek Jarman – had the enjoyable experience of seeing it all cleared up by Miss Bridget Heathcoat-Amory, one of the most enduringly beautiful of Naim’s string of delicious debs. I wonder if the Church of England should consider a Thanksgiving Celebration Service of Relief along these lines.
The party was widely covered by the press, with pictures of the Marquess of Worcester with Lady Cosima Fry, Aileen Plunkett with her granddaughter Marcia Leveson-Gower, and Viscount Althorp, now Lord Spencer, brandishing cash in hand to acquire his passport to entry.
Dancing Ledge was Derek Jarman’s first major work of autobiography. He was already established as Britain’s most controversial independent filmmaker and the book gave a kaleidoscopic account of his life and art up till then, from sexual awakening in post-war rural England to the libidinous excesses of the 1960s and subsequently. He told his story with openness and flair, describing the workings of the imagination that lay behind the making of the films Sebastiane, Jubilee and The Tempest and the frustrations he was suffering over his as yet unrealized project, Caravaggio. This was to be made in 1986 with Nigel Terry, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton, the same year in which he discovered he was HIV positive. Dancing Ledge was republished by Quartet in 1991 in response to public demand. Working in the shadow of his diagnosis, Derek Jarman managed to fulfil himself as a unique creative spirit, with an extraordinarily productive output in various fields, in the few years he had left. He was a prophet of punk who linked homoerotic imagery and thought with increasingly profound themes of time and death. More films were produced and he painted and wrote poetry. He died from the effects of AIDS on 19 February 1994 at his Prospect Cottage on the shingle banks at Dungeness in Kent, where he created an extraordinary garden in his closing years. It mixed indigenous maritime plants with stones from the beach and sculptural objets trouvés washed in by the sea, and it makes a strangely haunting and touching memorial.