How memorable the morning I came away from Manchester Art Gallery clutching a packet of sea kale seeds from the gallery shop. I also carried with me newly purchased copies of Derek Jarman’s Garden and the polymath artist’s Modern Nature, the first an illustrated memoir of how he created his unique garden in the challenging terrain of Dungeness, Kent, the second his journals from January 1989 onwards, meshing his horticultural project inexorably with the AIDS-related complications that would eventually claim his life eight years later.
Derek Jarman Protest! is a remarkable retrospective of a multifarious creative career, on until April 10 2022 (free but you must book a slot). Alongside, from January 30, the 80th anniversary of his birth, all 11 of his feature films and a further 11 shorts will be shown as part of the collaborative Derek Jarman at HOME season at the city’s First Street arts venue.
The whole package is the first time in 20 years the diverse strands of Jarman’s practice – as painter, writer, avant-garde filmmaker, set-designer, gardener, pop video innovator, gay rights champion, political activist – have been brought together. In truth, I’ve never hugely warmed to his cinematic output, even with the luminous presence of Tilda Swinton (pictured below in Caravaggio, my favourite because I love the artist) alongside a still from challenging final work Blue.
In contrast Jarman’s late return to painting, inspired by the jewels inside a seemingly barren landscape and in response to the emotional aridity of the Thatcher years, is sublime. So too his set designs. His writings will also last as a poignant record of what it was like to be a homosexual in times of persecution and plague. And then there is that garden…
At the exhibition, to get to the apparent serenity of of a huge wall portraying a bucolic Prospect Cottage – albeit against its backdrop of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station – you have to pass through the most politicised aspects of Protest!.
Here’ll you’ll find dark, deathly ‘Assemblages’ such as ‘Mrs Thatcher’s Lunch’, where the cutlery is stained with blood and scratched into the surface are the words ‘GBH promises, promises, promises, The Affluent Society’. Interpretations of the cryptic GBH include ‘Grievous Bodily Harm’ or ‘Great British Horror’.
At first this artistic agit-prop and his residual gregariousness (he was crowned drag-tastic Alternative Miss World in 1975 for his Miss Crepe Suzette) seem at odds with the fisherman’s hut he retreated to, shortly after being diagnosed HIV positive in 1987. Yet around the distinctive black dwelling with its yellow window frames and John Donne’s great poem The Sun Rising emblazoned on an outside wall, he created a rustic work of art in its own right that has become a place of pilgrimage. When we visited a decade ago the great garden was still profuse but in 2018 when Jarman’s companion HB died all was placed in jeopardy.
Thankfully, Prospect House was rescued for posterity by fund-raising £3.5m. We pray its current custodians, Creative Folkestone, can restore the garden to its to its glory – an unfenced riot of flotsam and jetsam, driftwood and flints, Japanese-like pebble patterns and the hardiest of plants. Jarman hated lawns and over-manicured habitats. So do I.
Sea kale – nature’s work of art I hope to cook and eat
Generally rare, Crambe maritima (cabbage of the sea) flourishes on the Ness as nowhere else in England and it was one of the plants that survived best on the saline shingle surrounding the blackened clapboard of his Prospect Cottage.
In the Manchester Art Gallery shop there is a selection of nine seed packets for sale, each £2.75, ‘carefully hand-packed by Thomas Etty Esq’ , a Kent-based heritage seed supplier. Populating your own garden with the likes of sea campion, rock samphire, sea carrot and wood sage is the plan but I feel they may not necessarily thrive in my part of the world. And I’m never letting the invasive viper’s bugloss anywhere near my flower patch, however pretty.
Still as a tribute to Jarman I shall plant the sea kale seeds in my loamy Yorkshire raised beds this March. It will take patience as, after thinning the rows, you must allow a further year for them to acclimatise. Even then you must blanch by covering with a bucket.
One concern I will be spared is raised early in Derek Jarman’s Garden. “Crambe maritima are edible, but a radiologist told me that they accumulate radioactivity from the nuclear power station more than any other plant.” It’s just the slugs I’ve got to worry about. Or maybe not. According to Jarman with roots 20ft long, tough enough to resist caterpillars and snails, a sea kale plant can live up to half a century.
The symbolic importance to Jarman of ‘sage green’ sea kale is evident when it is the first plant name-checked in Modern Nature, but this rhapsodic Garden entry captures it best: “It is the Ness’s most distinguished plant… they come up between the boats.
“They die away completely in winter, just a bud on the corky stem. In March they start to sprout – the first sign of spring. The leaves are an inky purple, which looks fine in the ochre pink pebbles, but they rapidly lose the purple and become a glaucous blue-green.
“Then buds appear; by May these turn into sprays of white flower with little yellow centres – they have a heavy, honey scent which blows across the Ness. The flowers then turn into seeds – which look like a thousand peas. They lose their green and become the colour of bone. At this stage they are at their most beautiful – sprays of pale ochre, several thousand seeds on each plant. The autumn winds return, the leaves rot at the base, dry out and blow away; by November the Crambe has completely disappeared.” Until the next year.
Let me confess: I have little aptitude for beachcombing/foraging. If I go off, I first consult the essential Edible Seashore by John Wright (£14.99), fifth in the River Cottage Handbook series. This warns you off picking more than a few leaves from a sea kale plant in SSSIs (Sites of Specific Scientific Interest). Which is no hardship when you consider they can grow up to two metres in diameter.
What deters me in my quest to cultivate and cook it comes in Edible Seashore “How to cook” section: While it is possible to eat a mature cooked sea kale leaf, it may require a day or two to accomplish the task. It has the flavour and texture of a damp thick face flannel. As the Victorian horticulturalist, Charles McIntosh lamented, this kale cannot be too much boiled.”
They recommend picking when the leaves are purple and tiny. On the bitter side at this stage, it’s best to blanch. Better still try the young flower spikes, which taste like broccoli. Or you can dig up and steam the shoots (though this is counter-productive to having a crop next year!) The taste is said to resemble asparagus.
For an exotic recipe check out this combo on the Great British Chefs website – steamed Scottish sea kale and white sprouting broccoli with crab, smoked cod roe and seaweed. Find sea kale on the menu at any restaurant and it will be cultivated stuff not wild because of the picking restrictions. I know an asparagus farm in Scotland that sells a limited amount of Crambe wholesale and the irrepressible Raymond Blanc grows it in his walled garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, putting it on the menu in season, serving it like asparagus. Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin has created a sea kale and blood orange salad.
Did Jarman himself ever eat sea kale? In Modern Nature he writes about gathering elderflower, frying it in batter and sprinkling it with sugar for supper, but food never seems a priority
Those journals, which began with ecstatic lists of plants, end in a litany of the drugs that keep him alive. As he gradually loses his sight and his body shrinks he spends more time in hospital than at Dungeness, but a companion to the end at Prospect Cottage is sea kale.
February 10: “Replanted a row of sea kale in the back garden, my first gardening this year.
Then settled down to put the voice-over for the film (Blue, his last) in order. In the afternoon I walked to the sea and found the storms had washed away the shingle, exposing the sea kale. I gathered several very large specimens and replanted them in the front garden.”
May 6: “A week has passed without a cloud in the sky. At dawn the sea kale, a froth of white flowers, is covered with small copper butterflies drunk on nectar. They freeze as my shadow falls across them.” And on August 10 a last, frail mention of “bone-bleached sea kale”.
RIP Derek Jarman.