John Berger who died on Monday January 2nd was a novelist, storyteller, poet, screenwriter, and art critic. His 1972 BBC series and book Ways of Seeing made an enormous impact as a reaction to Kenneth Clark’s series on art Civilisation. Ten years ago when he was 80, the book which was the subject of our conversation was Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance and it was a series of reflections written between 2001 and 2006, arising from contemporary political moments — London in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, New Orleans after its destruction by Hurricane Katrina, New York after 9/11, and the Middle Eastern troubles, from Bagdad to Gaza.
John Berger’s previous books included the Into Their Labours trilogy, Pig Earth, Once in Europa and Lilac and Flag which followed the movement of peasants from their villages to the urban centres. He wrote a novel about AIDS called To the Wedding, and several books of beautiful stories, miniature portraits of moments and of people.
Born in England, he had for many years lived in a small rural community in France. He has been called the great prose poet of homesickness, of the yearning to belong. When he was awarded the Booker Prize for a novel called G, he gave half of the prize money to the Black Panthers. He’s always identified himself with the left of politics and with the struggles of poor people.
Here’s the transcript of our 2007 conversation:
Ramona Koval: I’d like to begin by talking to you about place. Your Into Their Labours trilogy described two different ways of life; the traditional life of village with its poverty before displacement, and then finally the very different life, also including poverty, but poverty of a very different kind in the city, the movement of people from places they had been in for generations to a new place. And in this new book you point out that people everywhere, under very different conditions, are asking themselves ‘where are we?’ Can you talk about the importance we place on knowing where we are?
John Berger: Well, maybe we have to begin with simply facing one of the most important phenomena that is happening today across the whole planet, and that is the intensity and extent of migration. Most of that migration, sometimes it is political, but mostly it is what we call economic. That is to say, people have to leave in order to try to find the means to survive for themselves but frequently nearly always also for their family. So you have this enormous tracking across the world, legally and illegally, according to the means that they have.
So in place of this movement, which is perhaps one of the most significant things about the world today, one must add something else; the migrants are poor. They are so poor that they are not sure of having the means to survive with their families, and they are going, all of them, to cities which they believe are richer than the countryside or the villages where they live. And in one sense these cities are, of course, immensely richer because it is where the richest people in the world live. But at the same time, there is in these cities very considerable poverty, but it is poverty in which you can find scams and therefore find the means to survive.
So when you ask me about place, I immediately think of this, which is what’s happening in the world, which people of course have written books about and people talk about, although at the same time maybe people don’t think about it hard enough or look at it close up enough, because maybe it is the most significant thing that is happening on the planet today, and it underlines one of the most important conditions of the planet today; that is to say, the enormous, more than ever before in history, contrast between the few very rich and the massively extensive very poor.
Ramona Koval: As you say, the numbers of refugees are growing and on the march, and they’re making people who are lucky enough to lead a more settled life nervous and even angry, and many of those people are actually the poor of the cities that receive the refugees. How should we think about that?
John Berger: Well, I think several things…behind the experience of the arrival of the migrants there are many prejudices which are very, very frequently supported by so-called speeches of politicians and the media. I mean, even in your question there was a little hint of such a prejudice because you said ‘on the march’. ‘On the march’, there is an army, and if they’re coming towards you it is probably an enemy army, but these people are not ‘on the march’, they are desperately weeviling their way, often at great risks to their own lives. They do not form the ranks of an aggressive army.
Okay, having said that, when they arrive in the big city, and of course they have shoulder-to-shoulder contact with the poor who are already in that city, and some of those poor are the indigenous poor, of course there are then difficulties and there may be conflicts, all of which are, again, considerably…not exactly exaggerated but put into other terms by the media and the misinformation they give about the world. For example, okay, it is quite possible that the migrants are of a different coloured skin, and there all the shit of racism with which we are surrounded begins to stick.
Quite possibly they are of another religion. Then the kind of propaganda…but in fact it is simply misinformation about the world that comes out from Washington and from London, and sometimes in your country too. That is to say that in the middle of a war of civilisations and that we are defending liberty against Islam, colossal misrepresentation of Islam if we consider it as a whole, all this pours oil on, makes worse real difficulties. Because of course in those cities there is often considerable unemployment, there’s a housing shortage, there’s a lack of social services, there’s very, very bad transport. I don’t deny the difficulties.
You ask me as though I can find a solution. No, I can’t find a solution in theory like that, of course not. The solutions…that is to say, we’re not really talking about solutions, we’re talking about finding a way to live, to survive, to perhaps discover forms of mutual aid, to not forget that what separates people is much, much smaller than what they have in common. All that can only happen in practice, in particular situations in the way that people associate or don’t associate or don’t associate in terms of some small project or in defence of some small thing which is in the area where they live. It’s not for somebody talking on the radio abstractly about the world who will find that kind of solution.
Ramona Koval: You say, keeping with the idea of place, that everyday people follow signs pointing to some place which isn’t their home but a chosen destination, and for whatever reason they come, maybe they have to go or they’re going on a journey for other reasons. You say that on arrival they come to realise that they’re not in the place indicated by the signs they followed. Where they now find themselves has the correct latitude, longitude, local time, currency, yet it does not have the specific gravity of the destination they chose. And I wondered whether you are saying there that all our journeys are better done in the imagination, that we always bring ourselves and the world we know along with us to every new destination, making it seem that we haven’t really come anywhere at all? Or is it more a function of a thoroughly post-modern condition or of the state we’re in?
John Berger: Maybe I should say, first of all, about the book we’re talking about, this little book of mine. It’s a very short book but it’s made up of things that I wrote looking with a great sense of urgency at what was happening around me at the moment of writing somewhere around the world. And in a certain way the writing is quite condensed because it has that kind of urgency and because maybe I’m thinking in the middle of the night, not exactly talking to myself but very concentrated. And so a lot of it is very concentrated, not very expanded, but perhaps with ideas in it that the reader can recognise.
Okay, I say all that as a kind of preamble because in the passage that you quote, in a way what I’m talking about is another phenomenon of travelling which is also unlike any before, although it’s not that recent, which is tourism, which of a scale maybe is comparable if one looks at it across the globe. But tourism is where the relatively well-off travel to see the world, for holidays, seeking pleasure, seeking distraction, but can be called ‘tourism’ as opposed to ‘travelling’ because the organisation of this is a huge industry across the world. Again, the media play an enormous role because…okay, there is an image of what you’re going to be able to find in Bangkok or in Naples. There is an image which very frequently has very little to do with the reality of the place.
And then not only that, the tourism is frequently organised in such a way that the tourists are, as it were, parachuted down into an encampment where they go out to look at historic monuments or places which they have read about in history or they’ve seen films about, but they remain completely isolated spectators. They have no possibility of real contact with the people who are living there, except as servants in the places where they are living. Okay, none of this is so tragic, one shouldn’t be too heavy about this, but this explains what I mean when I say that very frequently people follow the signs to a place and then when they get there, although it is that place, because of what was already in their mind, because of the way they live there, it seems not to be that place.
The conditions of tourist living, Club Mediterranean style, or much richer or even more modest, they resemble each other very, very much across the continent. So in a certain sense all these glamour places are almost…although the climate changes a bit and the noise of the local language you don’t understand changes, but in a certain sense they’re all the same place. That’s what I meant.
Ramona Koval: I agree with you, but isn’t it a conundrum of travelling anywhere, even if you’re travelling in a lovely way and you’re meeting people, that you’re really engaging with people, that you’re not a tourist, you’re more like a traveller, isn’t it true that you always take yourself wherever you are, and especially if you’re trying to find a new place and be different, you find it very difficult, don’t you?
John Berger: I don’t see that. Of course you take yourself and of course remain yourself. Travelling doesn’t mean changing who you are, although it seems to me that the other sort of travelling that we’re talking about now maybe you discover new things about yourself. For example, if you go into a desert and you spend a night or nights, you will discover…well, it depends upon the time of year, but you are very likely to discover your shadow. That is to say, in a desert with the kind of light that there is, with the horizontality, with the force of the sun, shadows in general and your shadow acquires a kind of resonance, a kind of intimacy, a kind of strangeness that it has never had before. That’s a very physical example but there are many others which are less physical. Do you see what I mean?
Ramona Koval: It’s a very beautiful image, yes.
John Berger: So to go back to your question, yes, we always take ourselves with us but we discover new things and, equally, because we’re likely to meet people in different circumstances we then find ourselves talking or listening because travelling is always not only a question of looking, it’s a question of listening. Then people will often say, yes, but then there’s the language barrier. In a way of course that is true, but it’s amazing how cunning people on both sides of that barrier can be in order to communicate, not just like ‘I’m thirsty, give me a glass of water,’ to communicate more than that.
But still, now we’re talking about travelling in a way some people do, but it’s quite rare. We’re talking about travelling of which there is a huge literature but mostly of the 19th century and earlier, back to the time of Alexander.
Ramona Koval: John, we’re talking about moving and changing and travelling and what one meets when one arrives, and it occurs to me to ask…you were born in England, London I think, and you’ve lived in rural France for many years, why did you choose to live in France rather than maybe even finding a rural English village to stay in? Were you rootless at the time?
John Berger: People ask me this question. It’s a very reasonable question because we’ve been talking about emigration, forced emigration really. We’ve been talking about voluntary travelling, tourism, and I’ve now spent half my life living outside the country I was born in, and no one forced me to do that. Economic circumstances didn’t force me. So it’s a question; how did that happen? And then people say, why? But in fact, you know, life isn’t quite like that, because at the time you don’t realise fully what you are doing. Forty years ago I didn’t really quite decide that I’m going to spend the rest of my life living outside Britain. One lives more from day to day or from passion to passion. Then time passes and suddenly you realise that’s how it was. That I say because there’s no simple answer. I can’t tell you, ‘Okay, I’ll tell you the secret,’ it’s much more confused but also much more alive than that.
Now I live here. We should now, because it’s the month of July, be making hay with the local neighbour. This year the local weather is absolutely disastrous and instead of enough hay for 18 cows being in the barn we’ve only brought in about three carts because of the rain. I’m looking out of the window, the sky is grey, it’s got to be about 13 degrees, sort of 28 or something. They hay is getting browner and browner, less and less nutritious, so there will be less and less milk this winter when the cows are fed hay because of the snow outside. So I’m sitting here in front of that window, and now, after all those years, I’m sitting at home, in the foothills of the French Alps. Most of my closest friends, people I see most often, are the peasants who live around me in this little hamlet.
Maybe I should also say that my father’s father, that is to say my grandfather on my father’s side…although my father almost never talked about this, one of my uncles did…he himself was an immigrant. He came from Trieste on the borders between Italy and what was then Austria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His ancestors were central European Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, but this is going back several, several generations. But when I first went to Eastern Europe in the 50s, I had a very strange feeling. I had a feeling that there were little details of daily life which were incredibly familiar to me, although in fact I had never seen them before. Very strange phenomenon, this atavistic or genetic memory, which I think all of us storytellers become more and more conscious of, because we are able to tell stories and we can tell them perhaps very well but about things that have never happened to us and yet somehow seem to have happened to us, which gives us the energy and the urge to tell them. Yes, this question of memory; so much to do with storytelling.
Ramona Koval: I think it’s because I used the word ‘rootless’ when I asked the question, and so you’ve thought about where your roots were and where your roots are, rediscovering this sort of atavistic sense of roots in a place that you haven’t been.
John Berger: Yes. I must say, if we go back to the beginning of our conversation when we were talking about all this movement in the world and all this division in the world which comes fundamentally from this colossal and barbaric division between the ever increasing rich and the ever more numerous poor, if we’re talking about all this, people…not only the poor but the people who are disturbed by what is happening but are somehow managing to survive, the people who feel threatened. I mean, perhaps everybody except offshore financiers who love their ruthlessness because it’s that which gives them profit, apart from them, many of them have a desire to find their roots, to be more clear about where they came from, exactly because of the sense of placelessness in which they often find themselves, I think. Okay, this I think is very widespread. If I talk about myself, and I’ve been talking about myself for too long but still, you are asking me…
Ramona Koval: I’m asking you about yourself, so you’re allowed.
John Berger: I don’t have this feeling very strong. It isn’t something that has been important to me or is very important. I think because I live…and this is not a choice either…I lived so intensely the present moment. I live the present moment as though it perhaps is the last. Okay, at my age now that is not a surprising thing to say, but I felt like that and acted like that when I was 16 and when I was 30 and when I was 42. You name the year and I was living like that.
Ramona Koval: Who taught you how to live like that?
John Berger: I don’t think anybody taught me to live like that, but you’re very, very right; it is something to do perhaps with the feeling I have, having to learn now something that I don’t know. Because if I don’t I won’t be here…it’s a question of continually learning to be embedded in life, and you learn that in a hundred-thousand different ways, but often with the help of other people. Not because they are helping you but just because they are real and therefore looking at them, being with them, you become real in that moment, leading to a kind of vision which is the opposite maybe of the hermits. But maybe there (maybe now I’m getting far, far too obscure, so stop me)…but maybe not quite the opposite of the hermits because the hermit is isolated and alone in space, and what I’m talking about (this is also to do with storytelling) is being isolated and alone in time.
Ramona Koval: And wishing therefore to reach out, to communicate, to speak to others?
John Berger: No, but therefore being very keen to listen. Listening is a very strange thing, isn’t it, because listening is what you’re doing on the radio at this moment. So you’re listening to what is being said, you’re listening to words. But also if you’re following, you’re listening to what’s not being said, you’re listening to the unsaid, and you’re taking that in as well. Often, especially in stories, the unsaid is as important as the said.
Ramona Koval: That’s what is so lovely about many of the forms of your writing over the years; the short piece, the small moment that you write about, the emanations that come after the last full stop.
John Berger: Yes, but maybe that is to do with what we’re just talking about. I don’t think it’s a stylistic choice that I made, it’s just the question of the way I situate myself in relation to those around me, and in relation to what I hear. And then…because we’re talking about the unsaid (and this is very much to do with the book that we’re talking about, you and I)…there is this thing of what is waiting to be said, what is crying out to be said, often because it is something very intense. It can be something very joyful. It can also often be something very tragic, which it seems that people are not aware of. But I don’t know that it’s that, it’s just that it is crying out to be expressed.
It’s under the impact of that feeling or of that recognition that…okay, this now has to be said, that most of this book that we’re talking about was written when I was living with the Palestinians on the West Bank in their occupied country and seeing how they tried to continue each day of their lives under conditions that are so fragmented. Or whether I was thinking about what happened in the London Underground when those bombs went off, or whether I was remembering (because I remember very well) the first news that we had of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which came back to me when I was viewing and watching the news of the Twin Towers in New York.
Anyway, around such events…not necessarily the main story of them but some aspect of them or some vision of them or some consequence of them is there crying out to be said. Very frequently we’re surrounded by the news and the media which is chattering on about something else. Although here I should like just to put in that when I say ‘the media’ I’m thinking of the press, I’m thinking of the television, I’m thinking, of course, of publicity. I’m also thinking of radio, but in fact in my experience radio…I really don’t know about Australian radio, but in Europe radio has a coverage of human reactions and speculation and thinking and news reporting which is much sharper than the other media.
Ramona Koval: I know you’re not just saying that to flatter us.
John Berger: No, I’m not saying that to flatter you.
Ramona Koval: Can I just ask you about…one of the things that you wrote about was people when they’re on a mobile telephone, no matter where they are or who they’re talking to they begin with a statement with the caller’s whereabouts, and you say that people need to pinpoint where they are because they might be nowhere, and this ‘nowhere’ is part of the new globalised market where they want us all to want the same things and need the same things. But at the same time you say that nearly all contemporary poets who’ve counted for you during your long lifetime you have read in translation, and that would have been impossible before the 20th century and that it’s a function of new means of communication, global politics and indeed, world markets. So there are contradictions here, aren’t there?
John Berger: Yes, sure, absolutely. You say it so well. That’s how I see it. Okay, I add a little tiny frivolous thing to that because, okay, you talk about the possibility of reading, translated poetry and how that is in some way connected with communication across the world. Of course translation of poetry existed before that but it’s greatly accelerated by that, it’s true. The detail I would add because we’re talking about mobile telephones, the SMS…I don’t know if that’s how you say it…
Ramona Koval: The text messages?
John Berger: Yes, which is a way of communication which I adore and use all the time because of its economy, because of the way that whoever it is you’re talking to, they’re mostly fairly intimate, you’re usually sending them to people you know well, and you establish your own shorthand, your own code words. And because it has to be short, there is such a concentration on just either the essential information or the essential feeling. So they become somewhat like Japanese haiku poems. And this little tiny form of poetry wouldn’t exist without global communication, without the globalisation and without those methods of communication, which were first designed for the military and for the financial speculators, but we can use them in another way. We learn to be very ingenious.
Ramona Koval: John Berger, finally, the title of this new book is Hold Everything Dear and it’s from a poem by a poet called Gareth Evans (and I don’t think that’s the Australian politician that a lot of the listeners will know by that name) but Gareth Evans dedicated this poem to you. Can you just talk finally about the ‘everything’ that we should hold dear? What does it refer to?
John Berger: …from that poem by my friend Gareth. What does it mean and why is it the title of a book of essays which is mostly about human folly, about barbarism and about resistance to that? It’s a strange paradoxical title, in a way. But I think it…what does it refer to? It refers to the fact that having said all that is said in those political, quite militant in a certain sense, articles or essays…although there are passages which are quite reflective but they’re still very, very axed upon history and what have to try to do with history, how we have to assume the history about struggle and about resistance. And then suddenly there is this title which says Hold Everything Dear, but that refers to something without which all the rest would be nonsense, because that refers to this amazement that we can feel in the face of the world into which we have been born, into which we have been thrown.
Now, when I say ‘amazement’, first of all I’m thinking about the natural reality around us. I’m thinking about the small fir tree that I can see out of the window and the pine cones, I’m thinking about the tufts of much, much over-dried hay which still haven’t been cut in a corner of a field, I’m thinking about the way a cow moves with very precise movement of its feet as though it’s wearing high heeled shoes, all cows are like that. But I could equally be thinking about a person. I could be thinking about the simplest thing; the way a couple dances. I could be thinking about the changing shape of the clouds in the sky. I could be thinking about the way…because even though it’s very cold, there are still a few rather desolate bees and the way a bee alights on a flower.
All those things. In fact if one really looks at them and they way they fit together and the incredibly rich structure that has evolved in them…not the intelligence that they have but what we can only call the intelligence that is behind them, that kind of intelligence which Einstein wrote about when he was contemplating the universe to which he said human intelligence is just a small echo. When we look at that and feel that, then we are amazed. We are amazed because we’re feeling something like a gratitude, simply a gratitude for the existence of life. Maybe that title is an expression of that title, that title which says Hold Everything Dear.
Ramona Koval: Can I express my gratitude at you, John Berger, for speaking with me today on The Book Show.
John Berger: Thank you, it was such a pleasure to talk with you, really, thank you.
Ramona Koval: John Berger. And John Berger’s book Hold Everything Dear is out now and it’s published by Verso.
- John Berger
- Art critic, novelist, painter and author best known for his essay on art criticism, Ways of Seeing.
- Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance
- John Berger
- ISBN 13: 9781844671380