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John Berger

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John Berger

For many years I had been a distant admirer of John Berger’s work. ‘Ways of Seeing’ proposed a way of thinking about looking at the world which influenced so many of us. I felt too shy to contact him directly to tell him of my admiration but was warmed by his writings and I felt I ‘knew’ him by osmosis. Then one day a letter arrived from him, about The Tango Lesson, which he has seen in Paris and liked. Astonished, honoured, humbled, I wrote back, and some weeks later I went to dinner with him and Nella Bielski in Paris . Apart from the good food and delicious conversation there was a moment in the evening that left an indelible impression. John’s son, Yves, arrived with some of his paintings rolled up under his arm. With John’s encouragement he showed them to those of us present. The paintings curled upwards because of how they had been carried, and so John knelt down in front of Yves and held down the lower edge of each painting for as long as we looked at it. He was on his knees for a good half hour and it seemed longer. It was an image of humility, graphically and movingly expressed.

I told him about my idea for a new film and he was encouraging. With trepidation, some weeks later I called him. Would he read something and tell me what he thought? ‘Why not come over to Geneva ,’ he said, ‘and read it to me? How about tomorrow? I will meet you at the airport. On my motorbike.’ ‘Oh yes, oh good.’ I said, laughing a little shrilly, and trembling inwardly with a mixture of fear and excitement. But when we were speeding along the icy motorway at 100 mph, and I was leaning into his back to shield myself from the snow and wind, I thought: at this speed and in these hands, I can only trust.

That afternoon in the cosy safety of his and Beverly ’s house in the Haute Savoie, I read aloud the verses I had written that later became YES. John laughed and gestured and sighed in ways that have since become familiar; and demonstrated his concentrated, focused and utterly generous way of listening. He had ‘framed’ what I had written with the complicity of his attention. My cloud of self-doubt lifted. We talked animatedly until the early hours of the morning; cinema, politics, France , exile, stories after stories. The next day we moved around on bits of card the scenes I had written. ‘There!’ he said, once it seemed to move speedily as a narrative; ‘Shumacher-esque!’ More crinkle-eyed joyous laughter. A year later, when I had sent him a completed draft or two - or three - to read, it had become, ‘the fucking script’. ‘It’s there already!’ he said. You don’t need to change it any more.’ But my tinkering changes were partly in response to the usual ‘no’s’ from financers, (and in particular, the UKFC.) And then, when the money raising business was in full, tragic, mode (as it always seems to be for a while… one catastrophe after another, broken promises and unbearable contracts….. it seems it will never happen) and a kindly word from him brought tears; he said, ‘There. Have a hot bath. And tomorrow we shall go to the market. You will look at the colours of vegetables. And the film will be made, you will see.’

Throughout this process I was well aware that I was one of many people looking to John for his beady eyes and generous ear; his beautifully shaped words of encouragement, for his particular level of engagement with ideas, his own and those of others – no distinction made, no rites of ‘ownership’ - and that he was also busily in mid-flow, in his own writings. I offered whatever I could in exchange for what I felt he gave to me, and he insisted on treating me as a peer, though I felt him to be a curious mixture of dear friend, mentor, wise elder, icon and playmate. But in the dark hours, even to think of his ready laugh, his unbroken record of artistic and political integrity, his alliance with the outcasts and oddities, the forgotten and the downtrodden, and his dedication to the job of thinker and artist, was always energising.

I suspect that, in addition to his known and named collaborations, his is a hidden presence behind the evolution of many peoples work, with his many subtle and unquantifiable contributions secretly present. For he has the genius not only of continuous fresh thinking, of never standing still in his own work, always moving on, always developing; but also – and unusually – the genius of appreciation of other peoples work as well, and of the deep and sometimes painful processes involved in making it. This is why he is such an extraordinary critic, for he sees what is there in a piece of work and can tease out its hidden levels for others; becoming their guide into its secret labyrinths. It also makes him an inestimable friend; and an inspiration to every writer, filmmaker or artist aspiring to the condition of his generosity of spirit, his level of achievement, and his pursuit of excellence. The latter not for its own sake, necessarily, (though that too) but because the honed, the worked, the far-reaching is both pleasurable and necessary as we grope our way through the mediocre and the careless.

John’s work, and his interactions with others, help us to remember that this precious life, the work we can contribute to it, and the way we can choose to live it, minute to minute, needs to be honoured, fully awake. His collaborative instinct reminds us that we need each other in work and in play; that we are in it together - this messy struggle - and that it all matters. Everything. Each gesture, each meal, each painting, poem or film, each conversation or encounter an opportunity for celebration, an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to give.

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John Berger, c.1972, during filming of 'Ways of Seeing' for the BBC

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’Ways of Seeing’

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Text © Sally Potter. All pictures © Adventure Pictures unless otherwise indicated