Saturday was the 90th birthday of writer, artist and thinker, John Berger. I first encountered him in the 1970s, as the hip presenter of the television series on art, Ways of Seeing, by which time he’d already had a career as an artist and a Booker Prizewinning novelist.
He’s one of those people – like Parker J Palmer, Joni Mitchell and Arvo Pärt – whom you want to go on forever. The world feels like a better place for their being in it and you know that when they go it’ll seem a little poorer, a little less varied. His novels are something of an acquired taste, (I’ve never managed to finish one), but his books of essays contain riches beyond compare. Of The Shape of a Pocket, Berger himself writes
a pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement…The people coming together are the reader, me and those the essays are about – Rembrandt, Palaeolithic cave painters, a Romanian peasant, ancient Egyptians, an expert in the loneliness of certain hotel bedrooms, dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station. And unexpectedly, our exchanges strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.
Doesn’t that make you want to rush round to your local bookseller or click on your non-exploitative online retailer without further ado?
One always longs to meet one’s heroes and I did meet John Berger when I worked in a London bookshop in 1979.
The shop hosted a launch party for his novel, Pig Earth, but sadly I knew him mainly as a TV presenter and I was over-awed by his presence. If I knew then what I know now, there are so many things I would have asked. Perhaps I would even manage a better portrait than the one above. However, we are lucky to have his books, which are like hearing a master storyteller describe his travels beyond the mountains, to the countries of the mind where you follow because he leads.
Happy birthday, John.