Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping | Derek Jarman | Granta

Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping

Derek Jarman & Declan Wiffen

As his only known work of short fiction, Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping is an anomaly in Derek Jarman’s creative practice, adding another artistic form to his long list of experiments and accomplishments. But in another sense, the story serves as a foundational text, laying out many of the themes, images and styling of Jarman’s work in painting, film and design. By juxtaposing the beauty of nature with the reckless consumption of modernity, it is also haunted by the then emerging ecological crisis. Starting life as notes for a play, the story exists in multiple forms, housed at the BFI Archives amongst Jarman’s papers. It is no surprise that the final draft was written in 1971, the same year as Jarman’s first foray into filmmaking, as the narrative style is so cinematic that is it easy to imagine the tale as an early unmade film.

Described as a ‘literary acid trip’ by his biographer Tony Peake, the story falls somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, telling the tale of a blind king and his valet, John, who set off from a comfortable villa in a place called Fargo along a Superhighway through the titular Billboard Promised Land. Throughout the tale the King and John move through shifting scenes quickly, from a picnic on the lawns of paradise to the strawberry beds of the eternal present; from the ancient City of Disc to a landscape where pyramids rise out of a snowy plane. Along the route they meet a host of bizarre characters, including the Begum of flowered chintzes, who keeps a pistol concealed in her breast, to a sad Pierrot who throws sheets of newspaper into the air and sings ‘Due to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled’. They go onto attend a dance in Movietown, hosted by The Yellow Empress, and later at an evening’s cabaret in The Temple of Autodestruction performers appear out of exploding box and then dive into a large lily pond before the temple crumbles into a pile of sand.

Having begun somewhat in media res, the story’s sequence of events has almost no relation to cause and effect, the scenes coming and going quickly, which can leave the reader perplexed. It is similar to the effect described by Peter Fillingham of watching Jarman’s 1975 short film Sebastian Wrap: ‘Just at the point of understanding, of grasping the image … of fixing a time and a narrative, the image disappears and I want it back.’ Rejecting the temporality and idea of progress so aligned with heteronormative society,  Jarman’s story can be seen to offer us a looser, dreamlike relation to narrative that is poetic, filmic, even obscure.

In the tale’s penultimate section, the characters travel through a landscape of broken statues and obelisks, where wildlife is absent, and nothing grows. They see a vision of a Pharaoh killing a red moth and blue fire engulfs men in dinner suits as ice envelops the world. These symbols of power and wealth are brought low by forces of an apocalyptic climate, heralded by capitalist and colonial disregard for the earth’s ecology, Jarman offering this final vignette as a warning.

The story’s conclusion is ambiguous as we are told there are rumours of alternative endings – for who knows how tale of the earth’s demise will draw to a close? The narrator’s preferred ending is one where the King and John return to Fargo from which they came, having tea with the companions they have met, and sharing stories of their travels. There is a faint air of Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to this cyclical chronicle, but in Jarman’s world the rewriting and retelling of stories, motifs and images is not a curse, as with the Mariner, but a creative opening into seeing differently.

– Declan Wiffen




At tea time they arrived at a great walled garden, and walking through the open gate they found themselves in strawberry beds planted in a vast geometric pattern between small clipped box hedges; and in the garden a sad Pierrot wandered carrying a long golden banner which weaved round him as he danced in circles and wailed: ‘Owing to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled, you are now in the strawberry beds of the eternal present.’ And as he sang these words he danced and caught with one hand the sheets of a newspaper which turned slowly in the breeze, whirling the great events of the world over and over, over and over; and when he had caught them he smiled and threw them into the air again. Then he paused and spoke those same words again and again. ‘Catch!’ He threw John and the King a handful of the pages. ‘Where are we, John?’ asked the young King, as the pages floated round them; and John, unable to reply, stretched his hands up to welcome the sad Pierrot, but he gave a sign, and bowing, ran off down the path, and John and the King, hoping to explore further, followed him. And then, when they finally caught up with him, the whole event repeated itself, so that very soon they were both exhausted and sat down to rest in the warmth of the afternoon sunlight. Picking large handfuls of strawberries, they ate them, and after a while fell into a deep refreshing sleep.

‘Are you there, John?’ said the King. ‘Can you hear the sea in the roar of the surf on the shingles embracing the earth? Can you see the white headlands and the white breakers in the sun?’


‘And can you hear the horses’ hooves in the mimosa groves between the old sea walls worn by the wind, and the flowers, just look at the flowers of spring, the new nettles and dog violets. Listen to the sound of the blossoms dropping, the silent sounds in the dawn, the tangle of clouds which sorts itself out into new knots and collisions, sudden disappearances juggling in the sky. Are you here in the springtime by the sea with me, John? In the mimosa groves?’


‘I am the Pierrot
of the present.
I am the Pierrot of the moment
Tomorrow has been cancelled
Ours are the golden pavilions of today.’


A dog barked off the shore, and there was a sound of preparation, and the Pierrot, down by the sea’s edge, shouted up to the cliffs, and John and the young King came with him down to the shore.

Everywhere was laughter and the children danced round the ship as the sails were set and they plunged into the breakers. Oh! This is a tale of gardens, of flowers and of fabulous nights and dawns. The King’s long hair blew in the breeze, gold and silver, and his clothes were transformed; the bandages fell away, and diaphanous silks and embroideries floated in the air and sparkled round him. And then a young girl came up to him with violets, which she placed on his eyes, and smiling he took them, and in an instant saw her and the ship with its pearls of light, and the colour of his eyes was dyed violet from this time on.

And the Pierrot sang of the young man with violets in his eyes, and John whistled and floated into the air, and the King followed him with his eyes, shouting: ‘Follow, follow the seagulls, you are free, free.’ And the air rushed about them, cold and electric, and the ship plunged on through the breakers towards the ocean. And John saw it was a garden, walled like the strawberry beds, with flowers of gold. This is a sacred valley, a garden of paradise, he thought. And the girl, who had joined them again, sat and sang of the golden flowers and insects, and they dived down to meet her through the spray; and she laid the King’s head in her lap, and sang of the past and the glorious seafarers who had wandered the ocean, the perfect rings and the holy cup of life, and she called the King a Wanderer and sang his life. And John looked at the King and saw his eyes sparkle like amethysts. And the girl sang: ‘In the common silence of this world, the white poppies of my love are dancing,’ and she called him Wellfound, Amethyst, and the violets whirled around him in a vortex, and John caught him in his arms and called him Amethyst.

And suddenly it was raining, and a rainbow stretched in a great arc in front of them, and the ship sailed through the centre of the arc, and the bands of colours passed over them reflecting in the rain, and they sailed into calm waters.



In the south, where the night sparkles with a score of stars for each of ours here in the cold north; phosphorescent sea creatures sparkle in the turbulence behind a ship, and glow secretly in the sand where a traveller places his foot. Now, in front of them, lay a pale coral sandbar, which wound like a snail’s shell through the still jade of the sea, and the water at its rim sparkled with these silent sudden fireworks.

The young girl told the King that they had arrived at the path that would take them home; and they waded through the sea to the shore, and mysteriously the ship spun round and slowly drifted out of sight, and all the while they could hear the sound of the song praising the King’s journey. When the ship had disappeared and the last notes of the song died away, they turned towards the shore and started to walk, slowly at first and then faster, until they were running; until they saw as they climbed the dunes two figures who beckoned, and found new footprints in the sand.

The sandbar stretched into a vast desert, and the small ripples where the wind had blown grew into mountains, and so they were caught in the vast tidal sweep of the earth. The sun set and rose, and in every step they seemed to grow smaller, and the sand expanded in all directions, now blotting out the two distant figures, now spreading infinite planes before them and cascading around them. And at last, when they seemed to walk in eternity itself, they stumbled up a dune to be greeted by the two figures who had always been before them; and recognising themselves in a moment which was like the clash of two great cymbals.

The sun had almost sunk behind the walls of the strawberry bed, and John looked at Amethyst the King, and he looked back, and they both laughed at the journey they had made in such a short time. And the Pierrot, who was sitting between them, winked and was silent. And when they said they must carry on their journey, he led them back through the strawberry beds to the gate on the Superhighway, and as they walked off to find a night’s rest, they heard him start to wail: ‘Owing to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled.’ And John and the King fell into a deep conversation about the strange events of the afternoon.


They had walked for several hours now, through this desolate landscape with its featureless wheat fields trailing off into the distance, and its flaccid undulating hills which were scarcely visible. It was a land to make a traveller despair, for on a journey one needs variety to please the eye and spur one’s footsteps forward, but this monotony aggravated all those discomforts one finds on a long journey. Now they sat on the kerbside and felt a certain weariness in a world which seemed to negate their footsteps, where it seemed they were walking in a circle.

‘The Pierrot should have accompanied us,’ said the King, ‘and he would have added a new dimension to his eternal present.’ And he shrugged his shoulders and laughed. But the nature of journeys is not to sit on the kerbside and wait; even the traveller lost in the desert walks to find an oasis until his feet fold under him. And so, in spite of their weariness, after a few minutes they were on their way again.

Then at last their perseverance was rewarded; far away up ahead they saw a great conical hill which shimmered like a mirage, and as they grew closer it grew larger, unlike most hills, which deceive the eye and fall into a natural scale the nearer one approaches them. The hill grew larger, darker and more ominous, with a pall of cloud running off the top like a steam kettle, which quickly dissolved in the blue sky. And as they got nearer a great cacophony of sound assaulted them, twittering and thundering in that empty space like the roar of a thousand waterfalls with storms of starlings pelting overhead. John thought it must be some form of volcano, and in their excitement, they forgot their weariness and the hours of walking leapt by.

Now they were nearer, they heard a long, drawn-out sigh on which the great cacophony floated; a pall of dust hung over the land and the agitation was so great that the earth shook in response like the skin of a drum. For one hour they passed through an enormous car park before seeing any living thing, and then they saw a great army of people on their knees before the hill, staggering under the weight of countless objects which they were carrying on their backs. Men with drawn and resigned faces laboured under their heavy loads, and they wondered what sort of a place they had come to, where the people could make such sacrifice, walking on their knees without laughter or joy. They looked to see if there were any guards to enforce this obedience, but they could see no one and nobody broke rank. Nothing grew in this place, for the ground was pulverised by the knees of the supplicants, which had raised the pall of dust which they had seen from a distance. No one paid any attention to the newcomers, for in their dedication to their task they were oblivious to the two travellers who walked amongst them.

A break in the dust storm revealed the mountain, and John gasped, for it was entirely built with the offerings that the people carried on their backs, and in seven tiers it stretched towards the sky. They started to climb the great double spiral that circled the mountain in a landscape composed of objects of great age, the purpose of which had long since been forgotten. Now they were ascending through civilisation after civilisation, whose artefacts made the landscape of the great spiral, and through these centuries they accompanied the great tide of pilgrims, the latest to visit that place, carrying their offerings, cars and refrigerators and television sets, countless objects of plastic, and motorbikes. And up ahead a great jet plane which was being laboriously pulled up the steep ramp foot by foot. The ramp rolled upwards towards a cloud-capped peak of the mountain, and they joined the surging crowd in silence, and in the distance they could hear a whistling sound which slowly became intelligible to them, a loud muttering hiss which rolled round the mountaintop and echoed backwards and forwards: ‘I am Topaz. I am Topaz.’ It drifted around them and condensed in the cold high air. ‘I am Topaz. Son of time passed. Meditator. Where are you travelling in the Billboard Promised Land? I am accelerating towards the stars. Where are you?’ The voice swelled and echoed, sometimes it was behind you, sometimes up in front; then it detached itself above you and hung in that cold high cloud, and spiralled round until you felt yourself turning with it like telephone wires in a high east wind. And that mute sad crowd surged forward inch by inch into the mists. ‘I am accelerating,’ said the voice. ‘I am growing. My feet are turning into miles, and the miles themselves into light-years. I am Topaz, ziggurat, monument and tomb.’

And now the road spiralled into the mist, and for a moment they stopped to watch the crowd pass by them, and catch their breath before plunging on. The King shut his eyes, and when he opened them, a white cat was sitting staring at him. Around the cat white butterflies danced, and the cat curled his tail into a question mark, and then an exclamation mark, and finally a comma; and by this sign indicated he would be their guide through the mists. And hand in hand they walked into the darkness, with a white cat and the butterflies showing the way.


Image © Heino


This is an excerpt from Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping, a short story by Derek Jarman. Written in 1971, it will be published in November 2022 by Prototype Publishing with contributions from Philip Hoare, Declan Wiffen and Michael Ginsborg.

Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman (1942-1994) is one of the most influential figures in 20th century British culture. Best known as an iconoclastic filmmaker and polemical gay activist who channeled unparalleled energy into painting, writing, gardening and all manner of cultural activity, he was one of the primary catalysts for a generation of artists and filmmakers whose work is only now being fully recognised for its dark, subversive imagination and fluidity across media. Amongst his films, Jarman is particularly recognised for Jubilee (1977), arguably the first punk movie, Caravaggio (1986), and Blue (1993), a moving memoir about his degeneration from AIDS.

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Declan Wiffen

Declan Wiffen is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory at the University of Kent. He is editor of Litmus: the lichen edition, a magazine exploring the intersection of science, poetry, art and . . . lichen; organiser of the writing workshops Cruising the Estuary and Cruising Nature; and a collaborator on The Unfiltered Coast, an arts project engaging young people in climate change. His pamphlet, indiscriminate lanking, was published by Invisible Hand Press.

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