This article is taken from the forthcoming issue of Red Pepper – get a subscription now.
Not long ago I found out I shared something unexpected with the writer John Berger (1926-2017): Croydon. It was where my Sri Lankan parents had settled in the late 1960s and Berger’s family had lived there too, although much earlier. I suspect our childhoods in the south-east London borough, lovingly dubbed ‘Concretopia’ by John Grindrod, were separated by more than time. Croydon gave Berger the old music hall. I was initiated into a full palette of English racism (broken windows, nasty catcalls, bad jokes), as well as the creative mixtures and give-and-take of multicultural conviviality.
Berger never fully investigated these aspects of life. I have those such as Franz Fanon, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Stuart Hall to thank for that. Yet hospitality to strangers and the strange is a thread running through his sprawling work on art, his novels and poetry, performance and essays. Interviewed by Geoff Dyer in 1984, he spoke of ‘a gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged’.
In a recent Guardian tribute to Berger, who died on 2 January, novelist Ali Smith tells a story. It was the launch of Portraits, a 2015 collection of his essays, at the British Library. Someone asked for his thoughts on the huge mobility of peoples across the globe. ‘I have been thinking about the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable,’ he responded, after one of his renowned, lengthy pauses for thought. For Smith, what seemed like an oblique reply was revolutionary. ‘The act of hospitality, he suggested, is ancient and contemporary and at the core of every story we’ve ever told or listened to about ourselves,’ she writes. ‘Deny it, and you deny all human worth.’
This visceral pull to those at the edges of society, to lives overlooked and maligned, is what first drew me to Berger’s work, in spite of our many differences. There was also something interesting in the tension between his privilege (white, public school educated, courted by the left-leaning literati) and his repeated efforts to shake it off. At 16 he left his hated boys private boarding school in Oxford and he shied away from university. But Oxbridge types seemed to follow him, even when he left England for Europe in 1962, eventually settling into village life in the French Alps so that he could better understand the drivers of migration among agricultural workers.
The man whose popularity waxed and waned in England has had a more constant global following, as I found out when I edited two collections of essays and poetry to commemorate his 90th birthday in November 2016. Immersed in his writing and stories about him, I saw up-close what he meant by a storyteller’s hospitality, how language and writing can offer a sense of community.
Berger’s use of language is often remarked on. Whatever he turned his attention to — art, medicine, the photograph, peasant life, migration, animals, trains, prisons — he seemed to capture it afresh. He was bold, poetic, sensuous, declarative, not afraid to offend or to take a crack at invention. In Mural (2009), a translation with Rema Hammami of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, he came up with a new word for the brutality of Israel’s settler colonialism. ‘Landswept’: ‘a place or places where everything, both material and immaterial, has been brushed aside, purloined, swept away, blown down, irrigated off.’
Tom Overton, Berger’s editor and biographer, has a fascinating take on the idiosyncratic quality of his language. More than a symptom of bilingualism, Overton believes that: ‘Frequently a sense of translation fills his prose because of his concern with communicating global experience.’ He goes on: ‘Both the successes and the failures of Berger’s poetry stem from the huge, borderless ambitions he has for language in the abstract.’
The oddness of Berger’s lexicon – spoken, written, gestural – is also a response to our stilted political and existential vocabularies. The idea that we lack the words and proverbs to demystify social injustices and what he identified, via Jean-Paul Sartre, as ‘anguish’ was first elaborated in his collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr, on the life of a rural English doctor, ‘John Sassall’ (A Fortunate Man, 1967).
Doctoring the Sassall-way in an impoverished community in the Forest of Dean was all consuming. Berger’s intimate biography and semi-fictionalised vignettes show the General Practitioner putting himself on the line, day after day: interpreting silences, trying to bridge chasms of experience, tolerating uncertainty, self-analysing, social prescribing, improvising diagnoses. His refusal to distance himself from the distress of his patients, to confuse unhappiness, loneliness and frustration with illness, took its toll in bouts of depression (he would later commit suicide). At the heart of such labour, Berger tells us, was a quest for recognition of one human being by another. It is another facet of hospitality that he saw in art and aspired to in his own work.
Berger’s writing broke rules and conventions. There are his one-sentence maxims and non-linear narratives, the smudging of genres in a single text (poetry, statistics, images and political analysis), a slipping between different temporalities. ‘I would not have written of rural life as I did without Pig Earth, or migration without A Seventh Man, nor found a way to put photographs and text together had I not studied his collaborations with Jean Mohr,’ the writer Timothy O’Grady has said.
Me too. A Seventh Man documented the lives of the gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’) in 1970s Germany. The work, with Jean Mohr, was funded by half of the money from the Booker McConnell Prize, awarded to Berger for his novel G. in 1972. He shared the rest with the British Black Panthers, drawing attention to the history of Booker McConnell’s profiteering from slave labour in the Caribbean.
First published in 1975, the written and visual storytelling in A Seventh Man gets under the skin of three trajectories in the journey from peasant to migrant: Departure, Work, Return. It’s an oneiric book, a 3-D chronicle of a dream slowly crushed, its pulp spilling out into a more feverish nightmare. It gave me ideas and the courage to experiment and splice ethnographic observation, theory, philosophy, poetry and photographs when I wrote about the ageing and dying of Britain’s post-war migrants in Death and the Migrant.
Berger was one of a handful of contemporary writers who put his fingers on the pulse of the ambivalence of belonging and the murky presence of the frail and dying migrant in the cultural imagination. Jorge Luis Borges told us that he didn’t want to die in another language and the philosopher Jacques Derrida and sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad have written how the stranger in need of care pushes a community’s hospitality to its limits. With a hard-edged parodying of late-capitalism’s denial of vulnerability and finitude, Berger put it like this: ‘So far as the economy of the metropolitan country is concerned, migrant workers are immortal: immortal because continually interchangeable. They are not born: they are not brought up and they do not age: they do not get tired: they do not die.’
More than four decades later, the denial of humanity for the migrant and refugee marks a shameful new era of the casualisation of death. More than 5,000 refugees drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2016. On this side of the hemisphere the Other without and within has become a receptacle for the projection and dumping of all kinds of toxic feelings and fear. What gut-wrenching pathos there is in the simple imperative of the US social movements against police brutality and anti-black violence, #BlackLivesMatter #SayHerName.
The hospitality of the storyteller, how we might scrape away the dross of media and politically-confected resentment or indifference and recognise each other as fully human is something we all share. It’s a responsibility to search out and work at better, fuller, more layered stories. I am grateful for John Berger’s company along the way.
Yasmin Gunaratnam teaches in the sociology department at Goldsmiths. She has edited two recent collections of essays and poetry in celebration of John Berger. A Jar of Wild Flowers, with Amarjit Chandan and A long white thread of words, with Amarjit Chandan and Gareth Evans
Photo: Jean Mohr
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.