Tom Overton reflects on the life of a great storyteller
In Mike Dibb and Chris Rawlence’s 1985 film Once Upon a Time, John Berger takes a drawing of his father Stanley down from the wall. Turning to us, he reads a version of ‘Drawn to That Moment’, his essay from 1976 about sketching next to his father’s coffin:
People talk of freshness of vision, of the intensity of seeing for the first time, but the intensity of seeing for the last time is, I believe, greater. Of all that I could see only the drawing would remain. I was the last ever to look on that face I was drawing. I wept whilst I strove to draw with complete objectivity.
As I drew his mouth, his brows, his eyelids, as their specific forms emerged with lines from the whiteness of the paper, I felt the history and the experience which had made them as they were. His life was now as finite as the rectangle of paper on which I was drawing, but within it, in a way infinitely more mysterious than any drawing, his character and destiny had emerged. I was making a record and his face was already only a record of his life.
John’s voice breaks audibly on ‘last’.
The only thing I can compare to ‘Drawn to that Moment’ is William Hazlitt’s ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ (1820). Invited to write an obituary of his father, a Unitarian minister, Hazlitt wrote instead about painting his portrait while he was alive. Like ‘Drawn to that Moment’, it hovers between three vocations, three versions of what John once called ‘the uses to which one can put a life1’: the respectable professional the father had originally hoped his son would become, the painter he began his life as, and the writer he ended up as. There is warmth in each section, rather than Oedipal tension; an endlessly proliferating sense of mutual participation in what Hazlitt calls the desire ‘to have one’s likeness multiplied’. It produced the authors themselves, and now it produces both the images and the texts about fathers and sons (about images and texts).
Stanley had been one of the first volunteers in the Great War, and stayed on after to arrange the graves. What had marked father, marked son, and it became, in John’s writing, the moment at which Europe began to treat its people as it had treated those of its colonies. As we are shown in About Time, Stanley’s surviving comrades gave him a barometer to mark the day he married Miriam, an ex-suffragette: 5th February 1926. Nine months later, John was born.
After the war, Stanley became the longest-serving Secretary of the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants, and earned enough money to put his son through boarding school. John later ran away to become an artist, but when he was called up for military service his schooling saw him presented with an officer’s commission. He refused it, and was sent to train recruits in Ireland instead. The experience of writing embellished letters home for his comrades, who were often illiterate, informed his development into what he himself defined as a ‘storyteller’, a term that came to encompass the breadth of his work – from novels, to writing about art, to poems, to plays, and the completely uncategorizable.
The keepsakes in About Time are on those particular walls, in the village of Quincy, eastern France, because of John’s trilogy of novels ‘Into Their Labours’ (1979–90). Having travelled with migrant workers for A Seventh Man (1975), he had noticed that, for the most part, they had been forced into migration from peasant communities. ‘Into Their Labours’ was a protest against how these different forms of human dignity, with their own attitudes to time, animals and landscape, were labelled as relics of the past by the logic of capitalist progress. This, for John, denied ‘the value of too much history and too many lives. No line of exclusion can be drawn across history in that manner, as if it were a line across a closed account2’. ‘Cost accounting’, he added, ‘was inapplicable to the peasant economy.’
The TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) drew on Walter Benjamin’s theses on how art is changed by the possibility of its reproduction. But Benjamin also fuelled John’s fascination with the figure of the storyteller: an artist with a particular kind of attitude towards experience that had been lost since the end of the Great War. Benjamin’s storyteller ‘has borrowed his authority from death’, which appears in his stories ‘with the same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.3’
For John, storytellers were – are? – ‘Death’s Secretaries’. Handed the files to read, rather than creating out of nothing, they work against the idea that the living and dead are separate; that a drawing of one’s deceased father above a desk might be morbid or indelicate; that peasant culture would ever need a line drawing through it. Before her death in 2013, John’s wife Beverly had gathered an archive of his work together in Quincy, and when it passed to the British Library in 2009, John stressed that it should be taken as a site for ‘the company of the past’. But importantly, it also reached into the future because it was a donation: a gesture, like the sharing of the proceeds from his 1995 novel To the Wedding with AIDS charities, or the sharing of the Booker McConnell Prize money that he was awarded in 1972 for his novel G with the London Chapter of the Black Panthers.
I first got to know John through the reading and cataloguing of his archive. I would scan in curious objects, e-mail them across to Beverly who would print them out, and then John would ring me, asking: ‘Can I tell you a story?’ (Though he loved texting for the sense of instant connection, e-mail largely passed him by. The first and only one in the archive was sent to the actor Simon McBurney in 2000.) The first time we met he was asking my friend Sarah for a roll-up. Appropriate, considering I had been passively smoking the 60 years’ worth of cigarettes that had soaked into his papers for some time. The last time we were together was in Antony, Paris, with his partner, the writer Nella Bielski. If we couldn’t remember the name of a painter he knew in his youth, he reached for his iPhone to search their name: a digital version of his famous habit of closing his eyes and wracking his brain for an answer. I was only reminded of the distance in history between us when we talked about how T. S. Eliot loved music hall: I knew that from a footnote in a book; he knew it from having had supper with him.
Later in About Time, John talks about the Greek storyteller Aesop while his son, Yves, draws a tortoise and a hare on a whiteboard – there are similar drawings in the archive, swept up among the papers on John’s desk. Yves must have been about nine because, after talking about his father’s barometer, John steps over to a poster commemorating his friend Orlando Letelier, a Chilean dissident who was first tortured and then murdered by General Pinochet on 21st September 1976.
he lived in many places
and he died everywhere
in this room
he has come between the pages
of open books
there's not a single apple
on the trees
loaded with fruit this year
which he has not counted
apples the colour of gifts4
The morning after he heard the news, John tells us, Yves was born. ‘Orlando dead, Yves born’: the same year as Miriam, John, and his brother Michael had buried Stanley.
On 2nd January 2017, the day John died, Simon McBurney tweeted ‘Now you are everywhere.’ The next day, Yves sent an e-mail announcing the funeral, with a drawing attached. It differs from John’s or Hazlitt’s in that, with the blessing and collaboration of his father, Yves grew up painting for half of the year, and farming for the rest. His lines are a continuation of John’s. It is, in endlessly proliferating senses, a family resemblance. The e-mail ended with two lines together:
Serein, il a fermé les yeux, comme pour chercher encore une fois les mots appropriés.
He closed his eyes, as if he needed once more to find the right words.
1) Speech by John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction at the Café Royal, London, 23 November 1972
2) John Berger, Pig Earth, 1979 (Bloomsbury Publishing, London), pp.xxv-xxvi
3) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1970 (Jonathan Cape, London), p. 94
4) John Berger, For Orlando, 1976
Tom Overton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the archives of the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He edited Portraits: John Berger on Art and Landscapes: John Berger on Artists (Verso, 2015), and is writing Berger’s biography, and a book on archives and migration (Allen Lane). He tweets at @tw_overton and collects his articles at overton.tw.