Issue 22

Remembering John Berger

Actor Tilda Swinton reflects on the enduring spirit of her friend, the art critic, novelist, painter and poet, John Berger

John Berger looks at paper with a hungry passion. He takes up his pencil, rubs the end of it – invoking a talisman? More likely cleaning off dust… and gets to work.

The magic analogy holds: He draws as if under a spell or, at least, a sort of fever – stroking out the lines, setting down the shape of what is up, willing something strenuous into being. Squinting and scowling, mashing his mouth, growling and grumbling and purring: a zoo of concentration and engagement, almost in argument, a set-to.

I have sat pinioned in the headlights of his basilisk eye on many occasions. It’s like being fried very gently in baby oil: the initial pinch of knowing there is nothing he will overlook, tenderly mitigated by the fact that exactly what you hope he might miss is exactly what he loves the most, what he’s looking – on the hunt – for.

This is how John Berger draws. How he drew. This is, also, how he writes and wrote. And how he lived and lives. Grinding the salt of experience between finger and thumb, pressing the seed down into the soil, merciful, merciless, tooth and nail. Workmanlike, almost bellicose, this most pacifist of thinkers takes on existence itself.

I realise now that this state of dedicated mental wrestling I describe above reminds me of nothing so much as a bull terrier I once saw demolishing a football in a park.

The most tender, most gentle of gentlemen. This most faithful, most human of humanists. His shoulders those of a prop forward, of a prize fighter, of a bull.

John saw freedom ahead, over the hill, and he made for it, scrambling and barrelling and burrowing towards it through the bogs and marshes and up the rocks of its foothills. He took – he takes – no quarter. There is no alternative but freedom in his sights. Human beings deserve better chips. He sees – he knows – the con. He understands the mechanisms of the trick: His outrage is palpable. Fucking cheats. Pure scorn and outrage.

Long live John! Long live freedom! Nothing to lose but our chains.

Photography Sandro Kopp

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.