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