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Borderless ambitions: a reflection on John Berger

Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger

January 19, 2017
8 min read

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.

A radical lexicon

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.

Breaking rules

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


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