In the wake of John Berger's death, I came across this profile on him by Kate Kellaway from last October. While it details the ins and outs of Berger's life and upbringing, it also sheds light on what a gentle man he was, and a superb listener. Kellaway also reports his thoughts on Brexit, quoting Berger as saying that it was always important to define himself as a European. Read Kellaway in partial below, in full via the Guardian.
In 1944 he joined up, refusing a commission with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry, and became a lance corporal at a training camp. He preferred the company of working-class recruits, for whom he became a scribe, writing their letters home. In a sense, he has continued to do this all his life: telling other people’s stories lest they vanish. In a conversation with Susan Sontag, he once said: “A story is always a rescuing operation.” And he has also said (in The Seasons in Quincy): “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen. For me, a storyteller is like a passeur who gets contraband across a frontier.”
In his 1975 book A Seventh Man, about migration, the rescuing impulse is clear. Berger writes in the preface: “To outline the experience of the migrant worker and to relate this to what surrounds him – both physically and historically – is to grasp more surely the political reality of the world at this moment. The subject is European, its meaning is global. Its theme is unfreedom.” When he considers today’s refugee crisis – no longer confined to Europe – does he see the first world as suffering from a failure of imagination? There is another extended pause, like a ravine into which one might fall. Eventually he replies: “What two different people have in common will always, in all cases, be larger than what differentiates them. And yet for dozens of different reasons, circumstances blind people to that.”
And what does he think about Brexit? He leans back on the sofa (we have now shifted from the overheated study into a cooler parlour, a sofa crawl in operation) and admits it has always been important to him to define himself as European. He then attempts to describe what he sees as the bigger picture: “It seems to me that we have to return, to recapitulate what globalisation meant, because it meant that capitalism, the world financial organisations, became speculative and ceased to be first and foremost productive, and politicians lost nearly all their power to take political decisions – I mean politicians in the traditional sense. Nations ceased to be what they were before.” In Meanwhile (the last essay in Landscapes) he notes that the word “horizon” has slipped out of view in political discourse. And he adds, returning to Brexit, that he voted with his feet long ago, moving to France.
We talk about what it is for a person to adopt a foreign country as home, and about how it is possible to love a landscape like a familiar face. For Berger, that face is the Haute-Savoie. “This is the landscape I lived in for decades [he left only after Beverly died; his son Yves still lives there with his family]. It matters to me because during that time, I worked there like a peasant. OK, don’t let’s exaggerate. I didn’t work as hard as they did but I worked pretty hard, doing exactly the same things as the peasants, working with them. This landscape was part of my energy, my body, my satisfaction and discomfort. I loved it not because it was a view – but because I participated in it.”