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.

Port Issue 22

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Port – featuring writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and David Hallberg, the greatest male dancer of his generation – is out now

Photography Mamadi Doumbouya

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. The author of Half of a Yellow SunPurple Hibiscus and Americanah – as well as of one of the most-viewed Ted talks ever, sampled by Beyoncé, no less – Adichie transcends the barriers between literature, art and music. For the cover story of Port issue 22, she met Catherine Lacey in Washington DC to discuss her extraordinary books, the complexity of recent gender movements and to give a hint at a next big project.

Photography Suzie Howell

Elsewhere in the magazine, we speak to 6a – the most exciting architecture practice in London; discuss Netflix and race with the director of Mudbound, Dee Rees; and travel to rural Netherlands to meet the pioneering Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Also featured: The photographer Christopher Payne visits one of the largest flag factories in the US, and we uncover the secrets and beauty of space with astronaut Nicole Stott.

Photography Tereza Cervenova

In the fashion section, celebrated photographer Kalpesh Lathigra and Port‘s fashion director Dan May travel to Mumbai to shoot a 40-page story around the sprawling, seaside city; Scott Stephenson styles this season’s collections and Pari Dukovic shoots the greatest male dancer in the world, David Hallberg, wearing Saint Laurent.

Photography Kalpesh Lathigra

Commentary pieces come courtesy of Will Self, Lisa Halliday and Jesse Ball, as well as Samuel Beckett‘s seminal Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Highlights from the Porter include Tilda Swinton remembering her friend John Berger; an interview with the British artist Gavin Turk; foraging with chef Nicholas Balfe; and ex-director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí, on his passion for citrus fruits.

To buy Port issue 22, click here.