How John Berger taught us to see

Berger, now 90, has changed his life so radically and so often because he cannot bear idle conversation
October 13, 2016
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He has asked, as Bob Hope did, for no celebrations of a birthday where “the candles cost more than the cake.” There can, however be no doubt that glasses will be raised across the world on 5th November for his 90th birthday by those who have worked with John Berger. There are certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands of them because Berger has always managed to live several lifetimes at once. Some of his collaborators are well known: Arundhati Roy in Delhi, Geoff Dyer in Los Angeles, Mike Dibb in London, Sebastião Salgado in Paris, Jean Mohr in Geneva, Tilda Swinton in Nairn. But there are many others who are less famous, who have known the joy and equality of collaborating with him.

Berger was always committed to both criticism and creation: to the production of painting and fiction. His television programmes made modernist art completely contemporary. And nearly half a century on, the culmination of the on-screen aspect of his career is still revered.

Ways of Seeing consisted of just four 30-minute episodes, first shown in 1972. Looking back, the ambition was extraordinary. With little more screen time than a typical Hollywood film, the series did not merely canter through the evolution of western art, but located that history in its ideological and economic settings.

Only three years before, Kenneth Clark’s 14-hour BBC blockbuster, Civilisation, had told the story of the artistic canon as if creativity had no connection to material history. Berger refused that account. And remarkably, his disruptive documentaries would ultimately have more effect than the cultural juggernaut that was Civilisation. The film and the spin-off book which followed have been crucial primers to many generations of students struggling to conjugate art and politics, and even today are enjoyed on YouTube.

It was an unlikely triumph that undoubtedly bears testimony to the fact that Berger—unlike Clark—was bursting with truly new ideas. His own long interrogation of the role of class in art had recently been energised by two new developments in particular. Walter Benjamin’s work was just being translated into English, and his great essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” underpins the whole of the first episode. Berger had also spent the previous three or four years debating with his “sisters in women’s liberation,” and the series is energised by this new feminist thinking.

But how often do new ideas translate into winning television? They were able to do so here because Berger’s lucid presentation style was hitched to the great directing of Mike Dibb. From the opening sequence, in which Berger cuts the head out of a classical painting, it is clear that we are watching a film of the very highest quality. Similarly, when the book came to be produced, everything went back to scratch, and the legendary designer Richard Hollis produced a volume every bit as good as Dibb’s film.

The whole project, in other words, reflects the many virtues—collaborative working, openness to new ideas and dedication to the highest quality—which have threaded their way throughout Berger’s long and varied career, which began when he was an art critic on the New Statesman in 1948.
"When Berger cuts the head out of a classical painting, it's clear we are watching a film of the highest quality"
The most important thing to say about Berger in intellectual terms is that he is a Marxist. His understanding is rooted in Karl Marx’s analysis of exploitation. Some of his best essays have just been reissued in a collection, Landscapes, and time and again they start with a brilliant sketching of the economic conditions around the ideas or art being examined. But Berger is so important a Marxist because he is perhaps the one who has most thoroughly rid himself of belief in historical progress, a belief that Marx took ready-made from the victorious bourgeoisie who had replaced feudalism with capitalism.

His great novel, G, which when I read it at 23 affected me more than any other fiction I had read, meditates continuously on the relation between history and fiction. It is a brilliant portrait of Europe at the turn of the 20th century as the most civilised of continents prepared to commit suicide in the western trenches. No notion of progress can survive the death of G, the eponymous hero, in 1915 as Italy enters the war. What does remain, however, is desire and this story of a modern Don Giovanni sketches the most complete anatomy of heterosexual masculine desire that I know. (G won the 1973 Booker Prize. At the award ceremony Berger announced that he was giving half the prize money to the Black Panthers, saying that it was “the black movement, with the socialist and revolutionary perspective, that I find myself most in agreement with in this country.”)

After G, Berger returned to a new literary form, one of his own invention. In 1967, he had composed a book about a country doctor, A Fortunate Man, that juxtaposed his text with images by the photographer Jean Mohr and it was a work that afforded deep insights into the complexity and originality of Berger’s thought. It followed the life of a country doctor deeply interwoven with those of his patients and the countryside they shared.

Berger and Mohr returned to this form in order to chronicle the reality of immigrant labour in the 1970s Switzerland where he now lived. A Seventh Man is, Berger still believes, his best and most important book. His Marxism allowed him to grasp the importance of the changes in the international division of labour and to understand how crucial migrant labour was to modern capitalism. Re-reading this book today, it seems fully contemporary. The centrality of immigrant labour to the present European economy and the forms of its exploitation remain as pressing now as when the book was first published in 1975. The current immigration crisis makes the book feel unbelievably prescient.

In talking to these immigrants, many from North Africa, Berger found that they all took as a primary reference point the villages that they had left and the form of subsistence agriculture that nourished them. It struck Berger that a) he knew nothing of this form of life which had supported humanity for millennia and b) that it was vanishing as capital inexorably developed monoculture agribusiness and factory farming. He therefore determined to learn about and chronicle this life before it disappeared. From his base in Geneva he looked with Beverly Bancroft, whom he met in the 1970s when working on Ways of Seeing, for a community of small peasant farmers still practising subsistence agriculture. He found them in the upper Alps of Savoy where a world of cows and sheep, hay and corn existed much as it had done since time immemorial. He moved there and began a new life. Berger realised that if he wished to learn about the life of these people among whom he and Beverly had decided to live and raise their son Yves, then it wasn’t any use hanging out in the local bar and expecting the locals to deliver up their wisdom. He would learn by participating in its remorseless work. Emblematically the rent for his house included sharing in the haymaking but Berger did not stop at this; he leant his shoulder to the wheel in all of the activities of the village.
"It became clear I was expected to climb onto the 1,000cc motorcycle on which he'd unexpectedly appeared"
In choosing to record the life of subsistence peasants, Berger was not engaged in a sentimental gesture. This was no Tolstoyan return to the land in which fake identities are borrowed to avoid the reality of the present. Berger did not think that he was becoming a peasant and indeed he maintained a base in Paris and a role as a public intellectual in many European countries, not least as an unceasing advocate for the cause of the Palestinians. Berger’s task was not in any way a nostalgic one; it was the basic task of a Marxist writer: to record the most important of social realities.

Of course in choosing peasant experience for this, Berger was taking a position considered heretical by Marxists. For Marx, the peasantry was historically backward, did not experience factory work and the solidarity that engendered. They were tied to their local piece of land, conservative and largely ignorant, a class that would be soon eradicated by progress. Marx took his cue from England where subsistence peasantry had been largely eradicated by the end of the 18th century.

However, in the rest of Europe the peasantry survived much longer than Marx and Friedrich Engels had predicted. This was partly because they underestimated the surplus generated by subsistence farming, but it was more that capital, seeking ever increasing rates of profit, found that land was more resistant to producing such rates than other investment sectors. And so, 100 years after Das Kapital, it was still possible to find the economic form that both Marx and Engels had so discounted.

If this way of life was now facing a losing battle with capital, perhaps it was also time to take it more seriously. Berger had abandoned the easy optimism that believed that the proletariat was the new class that would abolish all classes in the final triumph of progress. He was looking for different notions of historical time than had sustained his youth. What the peasant offered was a view of cyclical time that might be very valuable for a future that looked less like the inevitable triumph of the proletariat and more like an endless resistance to capitalism.

Berger now produced his magnificent book, Into their Labours. He abandoned the vocation of the novelist for that of the storyteller, passing on in this new work a collection of the stories he had heard as he scythed the hay, dug the land, and cleaned out the cowsheds on the farms of Quincy, the village in which he and Beverly had settled. The work comprised a trilogy: Pig Earth (1979) Once in Europa (1987) and Lilac and Flag (1990).

It was after the publication of Once In Europa that we met. I was then Head of Production at the British Film Institute (BFI) and I received a phone call from Michael Kustow, Head of Arts at Channel 4. He had a curious project that involved a Scottish filmmaker called Timothy Neat who was collaborating with Berger, turning one of his short stories into a film. It didn’t fit Kustow’s brief but he thought it might be perfect for the BFI. Some days, even as a bureaucrat, you get a telephone call from paradise.

I found myself waiting in a small Alpine hotel for Berger to come and fetch me for a day’s discussion of the project. I did not know then that he was a mad petrolhead (who would later interview his hero Michael Schumacher) and so my first emotion on seeing him was intense fear as it became clear that I was expected to climb onto the 1,000cc motorcycle on which he had unexpectedly appeared. Soon we were talking in his kitchen in Quincy. Talking with John is enormously pleasurable but quite strenuous. There is no bullshit. He has changed his life so radically and so often because he cannot bear idle conversation. Suddenly everything you say becomes more weighted because John is a great listener. You talk and he listens and, often quite slowly responds. But both the listening and the response are so charged that you feel you are in a heightened form of conversation and that John’s attention makes you more intelligent, more consequent. And then there is his enthusiasm, for a thought, for an image, for a line of poetry, for a glass of wine, for a plate of food. And it is not the fake enthusiasm of the life coach—Berger has both brief moments of gloom and also of irritation (I would not advise anyone to cross him)—it is the enthusiasm of someone who seeks enjoyment from every moment of existence.

And so we made the film Play Me Something. The story is simple; a peasant from the Alps goes on a group visit to Venice where he meets a girl. They talk, he plays to her on his saxophone, they make love. He rejoins his group and returns to the mountains. The film form, however, is complicated. The simple story of a boy and a girl is told in photographs, the Venetian setting is shot in 16mm colour on a wind-up Bolex movie camera, the Alpine farm is in 35mm black and white but the focus of the film, shot in 35mm colour, is the storytelling itself. This is not set in Venice but in one of the remote Outer Hebridean island of Barra, where the airport is a long sandy beach. It is in the waiting room of this unusual airport that a group of delayed passengers are entertained by a mysterious storyteller, played by Berger himself, who produces the photographs that punctuate his story like a magician. Among those listening to these magic words on Barra was a young Tilda Swinton. Tilda says that I rang her and asked rather tentatively, “If you know who I mean by John Berger.” Before I could finish Tilda interrupted with “I’m in.” Nearly 25 years later the friendship formed on that shoot found Tilda and me with a group of students from the London Consortium shooting a conversation between the two old friends in a snowbound Alpine village. So wonderful was the footage that we were soon making four films, one for each season. Five years in the making The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is now playing the international festival circuit.

However, the film we made was not the one we thought we were making during those snowy days in John and Beverly’s kitchen. When we talked of the seasons in Quincy we talked of the mass noun, of the never changing seasons, but in fact we were filming a count noun—John’s final years at Quincy. Just before we shot the second film, Bancroft became mortally ill and by the time of the fourth, John had moved to Antony just outside Paris.

Swinton’s and my initial aim was very simple: to give a film audience some sense of what it was to be in John’s company; to feel so alive and so lucky. The shooting was an endless intellectual adventure. Christopher Roth tried to bring some of John’s thinking about animals to the screen. Bartek Dziadosz shot political philosophy like a talk show. In the final section Swinton takes her own children, unborn when she first met John, to Quincy and imagines, amidst images of Beverly, and with their grandchildren, a handing on.

Each film was made entirely on its own terms. But there was always the hope that when we put the four pieces together they would make a movie. When we showed John and his long time collaborator Nella Bielski the finished film on a rigged screen in their home in Antony, it was clear that we had fulfilled our ambition.

The theatre director Simon McBurney, one of John’s very closest friends, tells a good story about John and age. He had summoned up the courage to ask John on his 80th birthday how it felt to be so old. John thought and said “Two things. The first: not long to go. The second: I feel as though I’m 18.”

When I saw John in Paris last month, he was finally suffering some of the indignities of age but the relentlessly inquisitive and unsparingly generous 18-year-old was still there. We discussed Brexit and he was determined to wrench a hopeful interpretation from the wreckage.

Both he and I had lived through the only period in the history of capitalism that had known full employment. A period in which the highest rate of tax was 97.5 per cent and in which there was widespread belief that we would reach our new Jerusalem of an equal and classless society. Those old who had voted to “Leave” had voted for their youth. Brexit, he said, was a vote for that vision of equality by the old who remembered it.