‘Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children – spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals.’
– Derek Jarman
I loved the film, which was more nightmare than narrative, equal parts beauty and horror, full of distorted and disturbing religious iconography. It has been haunting me ever since I saw it, and so has the phrase paradise haunts.
It seemed oddly relevant, when I googled it, that from an etymological perspective, Paradise is located in ancient Iran. The old Iranian language, Avestan, had a noun pairidaēza, meaning a wall enclosing a garden or orchard, composed of pairi (around) and daēza (wall).
It occurred to me one night, when I woke from one of my own nightmares, and lay awake panicked and saddened at the state of my country, and the world, and fearful for the future, that the Bible story about the snake and temptation, and humanity being banished from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit, worked much better as prophecy than it did as history.
Because the world I know, the real world, the one that has escaped man’s dubious appetites, is paradise, or it was. Paradise is increasingly derelict, and it haunts me more every day.
I still live in the rural coastal backwater where I grew up, for better or worse. I can never work out which it is, or exactly why I’m still here. Part of me longs for the city, even though I’ve never lived there. I’m always hassling my friends with jobs and houses in London to let me feed their cats and walk their dogs when they go away. I like London. There are shops and art galleries. The gardens are made of astroturf. The houses have central heating and bath tubs, and as much hot water as I can waste. I don’t know whether it’s oil or gas or coal-powered electricity that makes the water hot, and I don’t care.
Back home the ghosts won’t leave me alone, and I can’t afford not to care. I’m up against it all the time, chopping logs, collecting firewood, feeling the tension between love and loss.
Back home the ghosts won’t leave me alone, and I can’t afford not to care. I’m up against it all the time, chopping logs, collecting firewood, feeling the tension between love and loss. Repressing my anger towards the farmers and their noxious chemicals. Containing my rage at holidaymakers who come down for a couple of weeks every year to visit their empty houses, clogging up the roads with their SUVs, polluting the air we all have to breathe, running over badgers and hedgehogs and leaving them half-dead on the side of the road. Children of concrete and tarmac, spoilt by their parents. They are not haunted by paradise, because they never had it, or never noticed it. There’s no future for them, either, with or without their SUVs (especially with them). They don’t care.
I have a friend who died. She was ill with cancer for several years before it finally killed her, and she survived several months after her terminal diagnosis. She was a talker, and so am I, and we spent hours in her kitchen discussing life, gardening, politics and death. I was struck by how healthy my friend seemed, during those final months. She told me she felt completely normal, apart from one thing, which was that now she was living outside of time.
We normally locate ourselves in the present, she explained, between our memories of the past and our expectations for the future. She could afford no expectations for the future, and had no time to waste in the past.
Like Derek Jarman, who was already dying of Aids when he made The Garden, my friend seemed to be living in the eternal present. It was a warning and an education. Some of us know that our future is being cancelled out by the greedy behaviour of bad children. Dulled and stricken with grief, we turn away from the eternal present, and live as if we are already dead. But my dying friend was committed to life, and full of love. She glowed with it. She dedicated her final weeks and days to loving with her whole heart all the birds and the people and the gardens she knew she had already lost.
My friend’s husband asked me to play a song at her funeral. When someone asks you to play music at a funeral you can’t say no, even though it’s the last thing you want to do. I was out of practice, and scared of messing up. Picking up my guitar would mean confronting myself in my most naked and vulnerable state, and feeling all that inexpressible sadness.
I had turned away from music … because it reminded me too painfully of the specific paradise I had lost – the garden where I had been young, and still living in time, with expectations for the future
I had turned away from music, which used to be at the centre of my life, because it reminded me too painfully of the specific paradise I had lost – the garden where I had been young, and still living in time, with expectations for the future, and travel plans, and no idea of the harm I would cause with my over-watered crazy dreams, or the suffering I would experience when they turned out to be untenable.
The loss of music hurt me every single day, haunting me with a persistence I couldn’t overcome. My guitar glowered at me from the wall, where it had been hanging, untouched, for a year. I chose the radio over my records, because idiots arguing didn’t hurt the way music did. Idiots arguing made me cross, but they didn’t make me cry.
But I couldn’t say no, so I picked up my guitar and forced myself to fall into the rhythm of a song I had never finished writing.
I don’t know how I lost you
I used to hear you whispering
And the world is full of heartache
But the grasses are still singing
And there is sunlight in your smile
The words didn’t make sense, but that didn’t matter. Music, like things which are dead, and things which are dying, and things which are yet to be born, is outside of time, and therefore bigger than language.
In my friend’s kitchen there was a quote by Audrey Hepburn hanging above the window
To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow
I’m struggling to believe in tomorrow, but I’ll plant my garden anyway, and, this year at least, food and flowers will grow.
Music is painful, but I’ll carve space for it in my life. Because pain is better than the kind of slow death that comes with listening to idiots arguing on the radio.
Paradise doesn’t argue. It sings, and it haunts, and we’d do well to listen, and sing along, however much it hurts.
‘Sparrows’ from Catrina Davies new album BELAN, a collaboration with Andy Mac, featuring songs, loops and field recordings. https://rwdfwd.com/products/
IMAGE: Photograph of Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness by Howard Sooley from the upcoming exhibition. ‘My Garden’s Boundaries Are the Horizon’ at the Garden Museum, London. This will be the first exhibition to focus on Jarman’s love of gardening, and the role of the garden in his life and work. Displaying works of art and film alongside personal artefacts including diaries, sketchbooks, his ‘Garden Notebooks’, tools and furniture borrowed from inside Prospect Cottage, which is not open to the public, The exhibition will run from 24th April – 12th July 2020.