'Dungeness is England stripped naked.' Credit: The Last of England

April 26, 2024   5 mins

I spent St George’s Day watching Derek Jarman’s The Last of England. The film is an apocalypse of sorts. It reveals what is to come. More importantly, it reveals what is already here. An opening monologue tries to pin down the moment when soul leaves body: “We pull the curtains tight over the dawn and shiver by empty grates. The household gods have departed, no one remembers quite when… The oaks died this year. On every green field mourners stand and weep for the Last of England.”

In 1986, a year before The Last of England was released, Jarman purchased a home by the sea. Prospect Cottage is a small wooden house clinging to the shingle ribbon at Dungeness. The walls are black, the door and window frames gorse yellow. An excerpt from John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is picked out on one wall: “Sawcy Pedantique wretch, goe chide / late schoole boyes and sore prentices…” Today the cottage has become something of a meme. Its neat proportions and stark location do well on Instagram, and you can buy a Prospect Cottage model kit for the aspiring hermit in your life. Jarman, always suspicious of the heritage industry, would laugh.

Dungeness is a place for fishermen and ascetics. Stone, sky, sea. The place is bound by water, with the English Channel to one side and the flat weirdness of Romney Marsh to the other. Dungeness is England stripped naked. Everything is on show. The little cottages crouch in the lee of a defunct nuclear power station and the horizon is swagged with power lines. Migrants arrive in rubber dinghies every summer now. What do they make of it? Relics of industry, toy houses, the click and shift of shingle beneath their feet. Is this what they expected?

The Last of England was a response to the paint-by-numbers neoliberalism of Britain in the late Eighties. It was also the record of a personal apocalypse. Jarman was dying from Aids and so were most of his friends. He feared that England’s memory was being wiped, just as the collective memory of his own generation was erased by death. And what was left? Cold hearths and dead oaks. Some scenes, in which balaclava-clad men brutalise emaciated prisoners, could be spliced into a nuclear war film like Threads with ease. The departure of the household gods is not an end, but a chilling new start.

“Dungeness is England stripped naked. Everything is on show.”

A different man might have retreated to postcard England. A Cotswolds bolthole, perhaps, all buttery stone and Britain in Bloom awards. Instead he chose Dungeness. The bleak landscape pulled at him, as did the austere charm of Prospect Cottage. Although he still spent time in London, the city had become a degraded husk. Hampstead Heath seems to have been the only place in London he enjoyed, largely for its Arcadian atmosphere after dark. The rest of the capital was a drab blend of drunks and traffic.

The southern countryside wasn’t much better: “Poor ruined Kent with its ugly commuter towns, there every field and hedgerow is under siege.” Dungeness was different. While the busy-bodies had arrived — Jarman mourned the appearance of unnecessary fences and the replacement of the red phone box with a modern glass version — the place retained its essential character. Like Hampstead Heath, Dungeness had texture. It was still England.

Dungeness seems to have fed his growing apocalypticism. It is a provisional place. Jarman would have been amused by the recent discovery of a Tudor ship’s hull 300 meters inland, evidence of the coastline’s shifting nature. Between 1989-1990, Jarman worked on the journal later published as Modern Nature. The book is full of change and decay. It’s a record of loss in real time. In one passage, he delivers an elegy that would have been familiar to any Anglo-Saxon: “Now throughout the world stand windblown halls, frost-covered ruined buildings; the wine-halls crumble, kings lie dead, deprived of pleasure, all the steadfast band dead by the wall.”

There’s something off about Dungeness. He learns that the drinking water is suffused with lead and aluminium. The death of a grass-snake is an omen. Military exercises wake him in the middle of the night. The nuclear power station is “a 20th century Babylon”, its interior a “shambles of rusting pipe and escaping steam, with little men running hither and thither with spanners and screwdrivers”. Jarman noted that rising sea levels would swamp Dungeness within 100 years. He pictured the power station being washed away in a Ballardian rush.

This strange place has much in common with the world depicted in The Last of England. The film is titled after a painting by Ford Madox Brown. It depicts an emigrating couple taking one last look at England from the deck of a ship. Their gaze is fixed on coastline that we cannot see; perhaps Jarman imagined them watching Dungeness sink into the haze.

The Ness is blasted and surreal, a settlement cobbled together in the backwash of a great disaster, just as the film is cobbled together from images of despair and anarchy. In one sequence, Jarman filmed Tilda Swinton on the strand. She moans and twirls next to a pyre while the power station sits black behind her. This was the country that he wanted to capture. Not the hay wains and stately homes, but what would be left when England finally lost her memory. A land of cruelty, fire, and Little Chef franchises.

And yet things aren’t quite so neat. The film contradicts itself. In recording England’s mythological drain, it creates symbols that project great mythic force; the cadaver leaps up halfway through the autopsy. The final scene, where robed figures paddle a boat out into a torchlit sea, rocked by waves and the grain of Super 8 film, can be read as weary retreat or bold foundation myth. Even at his most despairing, Jarman was an accidental optimist.

The way he lived at Prospect Cottage also smacks of optimism. Pessimists plant nothing, and Jarman was a great plantsman. Gardens are ephemeral, and so the perfect medium for a place like Dungeness. This was no mean feat on dry shingle bleached by wind and salt. The plants were hardy and low: sempervivum, fennel, santolina, sea kale, rosemary, iris, some hopeful roses. Jarman constructed miniature stone circles and driftwood dolmens, turning the shingle desert into a 20th century Seahenge. These sculptures looked good ­— the shoreline is dominated by horizontals, you need some punchy verticals to frame the view — but there was far more to them than that. Jarman knelt on the ground and sculpted ancient forms as England withered behind him. Perhaps he was trying to tempt the household gods home.

Jarman died 30 years ago. Although his personal apocalypse came to pass, England staggers on for now. The Last of England is a powerful account of a nation’s spiritual decay, but the worst consequences are confined to celluloid — the men in balaclavas aren’t in charge just yet. Prospect Cottage and its garden were lovingly tended by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins, until 2018. Their little scrap of shingle has been recorded in two handsome volumes and is well worth a visit, if only as a reminder that if you want England back, all you have to do is re-make it.