Saturday, January 07, 2017

The ever-present John Berger

I was saddened to hear that John Berger had died earlier this week. He was one of those voices that has been with me through my whole adult life. I first encountered him as a sixth former watching his BBC film Ways of Seeing. I was a proud owner of the wonderful Penguin book that accompanied the series. And he has surfaced from time to time ever since.

He was a man who knew the value of words and could capture a world in a phrase.

There have been lots of reflections on his life in the past week. What struck me was how much his concerns resonated with mine in relation to Calais. He spoke a lot about hospitality and migration and a couple of phrases in particular have set me thinking about how I might capture some of my thoughts on the past year in writing that I am just getting down to.

The first was reported in today's Guardian. The writer Ali Smith was reflecting on a British Library event that Berger spoke at in 2015. He was asked what he thought about the huge movement of people across the world. It was an obvious question because in the seventies he had a written a classic study on migration, A Seventh Man. Smith reports that he paused for what seemed like an age and then responded, 'I have been thinking about the storyteller's responsibility to be hospitable.'

What a great phrase. I have been thinking how to tell my story in relation to the Jungle, and that is a story of hospitality that I have been on the receiving end of. That's something that Berger reflected on  with New Statesman writer, Philip Maughan in 2015. He'd been in Istanbul and was invited to tea in a draughty cabin on the edge of the city. There a migrant scraped an existence in the hope of a better life. As Berger waited for tea to arrive he noticed on a shelf in the cabin the Turkish edition of one of his books! Maughan observes 'this is precisely what Berger meant by fraternity: even in great solitude, against the dehumanising reality of servitude to capital or war, connections can be formed. Our differences diminish.'

That's precisely what I felt in the jungle. And I, therefore, feel a responsibility to tell the story of my experience hospitably, paying careful attention to my hosts' stories.

This is something that Olivia Laing also reflects on in the same piece in today's Guardian. She says, 'Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us. Host: there’s another curious word, lurking at the root of both hospitality and hospital. It means both the person who offers hospitality, and the group, the flock, the horde. It has two origins: the Latin for stranger or enemy, and also for guest. It was Berger’s gift, I think, to see that this kind of perception or judgment is always a choice, and to make a case for kindness: for being humane, whatever the cost.'

The second phrase that resonated with me was at the end of Maughan's piece in the New Statesman. Reflecting on Berger's novel To the Wedding, he noted a line he liked in his diary, something that seemed to suggest what storytelling was for. 'What shall we do before eternity?' it asks; 'take our time.'

Those final three words have been burrowing away in my mind since I read them. Clearly we take the time we are offered. The implication is that time is to be seized, wrung of all the possibilities it holds for us; not a moment is to be wasted because it comes in an all-too finite supply. But clearly also, we take our time; hospitality requires that we linger, relax into the company of another. I'm reminded how long it took to make chai in the camp, a length of time that was filled with storytelling and silences, laughter and tears, things that could not have found a place in our shared lives if we had not taken the time to be together.

Berger's death has sent me back to his writings with a new relish and a fresh set of questions and expectations. We have lost a voice without equal and yet as Ali Smith noted, it's hard to think of his voice in the past tense because everything about him was so present. Like all great writing, his is continually present tense. For that I am grateful.