An Evening with John Berger

An Evening with John Berger

By Adam Biles

John Berger has a farmer’s hands. Or a carpenter’s. Big hands anyway, hewn over five decades living in the remote French countryside.

It’s fitting, too. A man who has written and spoken so vociferously against the “mystification” and the “bogus religiosity” of art (terms that can equally be applied to much book-talk) needs hands that, held up, say “these hands crafted the book”, “these hands painted the picture”, “these  hands have worked”.

And when, introduced, he took my extended, never-a-hard-day’s-work hand in both of his, they said something else, too: “These hands could crush yours to dust.” But they didn’t.

The store was packed. A seven-decade career is enough time to build up a fan base. And the attendees, between them, had most of those decades covered. There were those who remembered reading his early essays in the New Statesman; those who had watched, and been changed by, the BBC’s Ways of Seeing on its original 1972 run; those who knew him first for his Booker-winning G.; and those, less than a quarter of Berger’s age, currently studying him for art class, who had sought out the TV series on YouTube.

He was in town, ostensibly, to promote Cataract (Notting Hill Editions), a collaboration with artist Selçuk Demirel, inspired by the restoration of his sight after eye surgery (“The unstartling heterogenousness of the existent has marvellously returned.”)

But Berger’s not a salesman. Savant is more his metier, and the conversation roamed. He needed little prompting to engross all present with his thoughts on Angelus Silesius (“The truly empty is like a fine vase containing nectar. It holds; it knows not what. How beautiful!”); the similarities between a photo of Chaplin and a Rembrandt self-portrait (“That’s mysterious, or is it not? This proximity, when they’re old, of a great, great clown and a great religious painter.”); Spinoza (“He was the philosopher who most successfully corrected, or saw through, what to me is the illusion of the Cartesian division…between, on one side, the physical and, on the other side, the spiritual. He maintains that they form a whole, and are absolutely indivisible.”); and the making of Ways of Seeing (“We really didn’t want to be solemn…instead of wearing a white shirt — which I probably would have normally done — we went out to Marks & Spencer’s and bought a very, very colourful one, completely inappropriate for someone in The National Gallery.”)

Completely inappropriate. That’s probably what the staff of Le Petit Châtelet thought too when, after the reading, Berger — who hadn’t planned a signing, but was swamped by acolytes — set up a rogue meet-and-greet at one of their tables, without ordering as much as a pastis.

Too bad. For twenty minutes, John Berger the unstoppable force became an immovable object. It kind of made me want to seek out the photo of Chaplin, the portrait of Rembrandt, to see if Berger bears any resemblance to the great clown and the great painter himself.