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At Your Own Risk ➖ A Saint's Testimony

Christopher Owens reviews a pioneering book from the world of gay culture.



Since his death from AIDS in 1994, Derek Jarman has been consistently hailed as a visionary artist. One so openly political and unapologetically gay in the face of tabloid homophobia and Section 28 outlawing the teaching of such things in schools.

Also a prolific writer, At Your Own Risk is a book all about his sexuality. As he makes clear, for "...the first twenty-five years of my life I lived as a criminal, and the next twenty-five years was spent as a second class citizen..." So this book is going to shove this pivotal aspect of his life and philosophy into the conscience of what he terms "herosoc" e.g. heterosexual society.

From his beginnings as a young man with a strict, World War II veteran father through to his discovery of the Beats writers, documenting the first wave of punk in his seminal 1977 film 'Jubilee', becoming a crucial voice in Queer cinema with, among others, 'The Angelic Conversation,' living with AIDS and the renewed attack on gays via the Conservative government and the tabloid media. All while relating tales of one night stands, cruising via Hampstead Heath and being able to see his sexuality as something completely normal to him while porting this message to others he meets on his travels.

The chronological narrative is told via short anecdotes, long essays, borrowed texts (from newspapers and leaflets) and conventional reminiscing. Not quite the cut up technique, but it's enough to divert the storytelling into areas that allow for extended musings and allow the reality of the situation to hit home. Such an example is the section dealing with the 60's, where Jarman's initial struggle to find himself in a deeply stereotypical "gay" English scene, where he contrasts his experiences when travelling America and seeing the vast difference, leading him to conclude that Antony and Cleopatra could never be played by an English couple, as the English have no concept of passion.

One section that makes for uncomfortable reading in this day and age is the discussion about:
boys who’ve had the good fortune, at fourteen or fifteen or even earlier, to meet older men are nearly always more at ease with themselves sexually.
Consider the recent comments from Milo Yiannopoulos about how the age of consent rule is “...not this black-and-white thing...” and that relationships “...between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences”, and the subsequent allegations (strenuously denied) that Yiannopoulos was in favour of paedophilia. With this in mind, it's very difficult to read Jarman's comments and not come to a hasty conclusion.

In this case, context is everything. The man himself writes:
I was aware of my sexuality at nine, which makes a nonsense of an age of consent of twenty-one and of the ideas of CONVERSION, PERVERSION and CORRUPTION of youth.
He then goes on to mention that he could not "...remember ever seeing an article in the British press which didn't see my sexuality in a negative light" and how other friends of his had wishes to be carried away by a man and looked after forever.

For Jarman, the personal truly was the political and, in this case, he turns the trope fairytale style ending told to children so that it applies to him escaping prejudice from mainstream society. In that context, his argument makes perfect sense to his experience but, obviously, it's a position that many will still find tricky to read about (especially in this day and age when gay rights have advanced at such a rapid pace where Ireland can have an openly gay Taoiseach).

With all that considered, it's important to bear in mind the reasoning for the book existing:
We were given so much practical advice...but so little understanding. Understanding does not appear on the drugs list, but it is as vital as a hospital drip. Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law.
So consider the fact that such a discussion exists in the book as an attempt at such understanding.

At Your Own Risk is a book filled with love for Jarman's people, anger at the mainstream world's attempt to demonise his passion, sadness that his time on Earth was nearing the end, and optimism that future generations will not live the way he had to for years.

Times may have changed, but Jarman's righteous fury still exudes from every page.

Derek Jarman, 1993, At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testimony.Vintage Classics ISBN-13: 978-0099222910


➽ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212





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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

12 comments to ''At Your Own Risk ➖ A Saint's Testimony"

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  1. Christopher , slight adjacent point. I read those Milo quotes in the context of those that also seek to re-label paedophilia as “minor attracted persons” or differentiate between those paedophiles who act on their impulses and those that don’t. He was funded for that exact i reason i suspect, look at what happened to him when it was clear this was one cultural aspect he couldn’t “zhuzh up”. He was dropped. The constant sexualising of children is a deliberate choice, we are shamed if we admit we are horrified at “Desmond is Amazing”.

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  2. DaithiD,

    with Milo being such a provocateur (indeed, I've always seen him as a gay Jeremy Clarkson), it's difficult to know his proper motivation. Didn't he also reveal he had been abused as well?

    I had no idea what "Desmond is Amazing" was until I Googled that phrase. Wish I hadn't now.

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  3. Christopher, Desmond is Amazing made me think ISIS had a point.

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  4. Just googled 'desmond is amazing' what the fuck's going on how is this acceptable? Is it true or a hoax?

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  5. I don't think it is something that Jarman would have approved of. When he wrote about his desire as a young child/man to have an older man whisk him away, I suspect there are many things going on there:

    - a desire to show how criminalised he felt at such a young age
    - trying to show (one way or another) that a lack of sex education, mixed with a burgeoning sexuality, can lead to teenage pregnancies
    - provocation

    What happens with people like Desmond is, I would argue, parents looking to make money from a savvy YouTube kid.

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  6. Jarman being of his generation and having had a classical education had little interest in or understanding of ‘youth culture’ - the many shortcomings of ‘Jubilee’ show that up too well. But he was part of an older alternative London Warhol like scene that had created the space where the young artier end of punk could exist in 75/76. An early Sex Pistols performance at an Andrew Logan (Alternatiive Miss World organiser) party was filmed by Jarman.

    I think Jarman as a visual artist was great at filling a screen with beautiful and compelling imagery but was not a great storyteller as a director. The videos he shot for The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys still look fantastic though.

    I always liked the way he described himself as a conservative. He said he had no choice in the matter because as he got older he saw so much of what he valued being destroyed.

    I went to see Milo Yiannopoulos give a talk a couple of years ago. The young educated audience he was speaking to were receptive and responsive to what he had to say except to flippant remarks/jokes he made about the sexual abuse he says he suffered as a teenager. Milo either didn’t notice this negative reaction or chose to ignore it leaving the way for him to crash right into it at a later date.

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  7. David , I’m afraid you join AM on the naughty step for that comment. (He has been on there since admitting being colour blind to race). Not accepting 10 year old drag queens is trans misogyny. Older men leering at gyrating lithesome young things is empowering.
    Of course I’m being sarcastic, but this is the next battle site of the culture wars, my gay friends are horrified their community has had its wagons hitched to such degeneracy.

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  8. That kid Desmond recently appeared at a gay club and it was reported that some of the punters there walked out when they saw others throwing/offering money to the kid. His parents should be arrested for child neglect but alas he and his parents are rewarded with t.v talk show fame. The suggestive power of media is a real problem for some weak minded folk.

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  9. PaulJPMN,

    He was also involved with Throbbing Gristle as well as early Psychic TV and Coil, which is how I came to discover his work. You're not a fan of 'Jubilee' then?

    Agreed about the visual aspect of his work ('The Last of England' is astonishing in this regard), and I would half agree about the storytelling aspect. I don't think he was really interested in the traditional aspect of telling a story via beginning-middle-end, but was more taken by the cut up technique pioneered by Burroughs and Gysin (which arguably reveals more to an audience than a straightforward narrative). Nonetheless, I do think something like 'Blue' (despite it ONLY being the colour blue on screen) does tell a story in a poignant and angry manner.

    Music video wise, I love 'Rent' (for the way it captures and contrasts the world of exuberance and the desolate) and 'It's a Sin' (because it revisits his amazing work on Ken Russell's masterpiece 'The Devils.'

    Yes, that line is great. Once again, it's Jarman (at face value) taking a stance and seemingly subverting it for homophobes. But he knows the history of England and it's deep, repression of sexuality so he genuinely saw no differentiation between his use of the term 'conservative' and the popular use of the term.

    Milo's an interesting character. He's a slippery customer in how he deals with facts and his provocation can be quite funny. I'm really not sure about his (as you say) flippant attitude when it comes to his supposed abuse. Surely, he of all people would know that the circle of people he hangs out with (and his enemies on the opposite end of the political spectrum) would perceive any such remarks in a negative manner?

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  10. Christopher

    I wasn’t aware of Jarman’s involvement with the Genesis P crowd but he was hanging out with Peter Christopherson and other Coil associates in the 80s so that figures. ‘Jubilee’ came out in early 1978 and things had been moving so quickly with punk/new wave that it seemed so dated by then (just six months after it was filmed). I have not seen it for a long time but the dystopian vision always irritated me because to me punk was such a positive thing despite the violence at gigs or ‘DESTROY!’. Jordan who played Amyl Nitrate and was one of the very early punks remarked how punk came to be associated with negativity but that the overwhelming feeling among the early punks was the opposite of that. ‘The Last Of England’ is the high point of his work I think. He understood what Thatcher had done to the country by then (he wasn’t London centric) but also the damage by those who preceded her as well. Jarman used to go to a Kings Cross pub called The Bell in the 80s and most of the males who appeared in his 80s films and videos were regulars there. In addition to the videos you mention Jarman also did films which he projected on to a big screen behind the Pet Shop Boys on their 1989 tour. They varied in style and were not always what one familiar with his work would be expect. Jarman was very critical of public figures of his generation like Ian McKellan who he felt kept their heads well down in the 70s when he was copping the moral outrage for ‘Sebastiane’.

    Milo has plenty of interesting things to say especially when he is interviewed by someone prepared to listen but also to challenge him. Journalist and writer Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher) has described Milo as having Icarus like tendencies which I think is true.

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  11. PaulJPMN,

    Yes, TG did the soundtrack to 'In The Shadow of the Sun.' The film is OK (a load of Super 8 footage shot at various points edited together) but the soundtrack is immense.

    Interesting take on 'Jubilee.' I did like the dystopian/apocalyptic feel, but that's probably because I was viewing it with retrospect on my side so it almost felt like a forewarning. I certainly understand the point you and Jordan have about it being a positive movement (which it still is to me, despite some of the more dogmatic elements in the scene).

    I would say 'The Last of England' and 'Blue' fight it out for his best film. followed by 'War Requiem' and 'The Angelic Conversation.' 'Blue' was like being punched in the stomach, first time I saw it.

    That's actually quite an apt description of Milo. It's amazing how he's managed to generate such outrage through being a blatant provocateur. Jordan Peterson is slightly similar, as I believe he's trying to import a positive message to a dispossessed population, yet according to his enemies, he's Hitler!?

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  12. 'The Last of England' is the only Jarman film I have ever watched in the cinema which is maybe why it has had more of an impact on me than any other film of his. ‘Blue’ I don't get as I think it could just be audio only on the radio, though sitting in a cinema it may be a transfixing experience.

    Jordan Peterson being an academic is more of a scholar than Milo and maybe due to that and his age chooses his words much more carefully. Though Milo is certainly an educated person I don't think he has much of an attention span. Peterson as his public persona is now is something of a self help guru who has managed to reach a very large audience. Before all that he gave long lectures on You Tube covering topics like Christianity, Jung and Nietzsche which were brilliant. Stefan Molyneux is another voice on You Tube who is more controversial than Peterson and has a disregard to adhering to the boundaries of what is and is not currently permitted to be said or thought.

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