Friday, 6 January 2017

'COMRADE JOHN' (BERGER), BY SIVANANDAN

November 1972: John wins the Booker prize and throws it back in the face of Booker- McConnell Ltd, the sugar barons, in the most creative way possible: half the prize money to go to his work on the exploited and rootless migrant workers of Europe, and the other half to go to the British Black Panther Party’s fight against racism.

April 1972: flashback – the staff of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in Jermyn Street (!), the first and only race think-tank in Europe, after a protracted struggle to retain the Institute’s independence from government influence and big business interference, overthrows the Board of Management and its chairman, the chairman of Booker-McConnell, who resign en bloc, taking their money with them. The Institute and its library, with what is left of its staff, move to the basement of an old warehouse in the precincts of Pentonville.

1973: John begins work with photographer Jean Mohr to create A Seventh Man (every seventh worker in Europe being a migrant) while we at the new IRR begin working with migrant workers’ organisations across Europe to create the first Congress of Migrant Workers for migrant workers.

1974: John - accompanied by Beverly (editor at Penguin of A Seventh Man) who knows about the IRR’s struggles and troubles - comes to see us and with his characteristic generosity, and in solidarity, offers us an excerpt from the forthcoming book for publication in our journal (in the throes of being transformed from the academic Race to the activist Race & Class).

Of such common threads of nay-saying are struggles woven.

John and I meet again as fellow Fellows of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam (an affiliate of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC) under the aegis of Eqbal Ahmad, renowned anti-war activist and scholar, who is getting together a group of scholar-activists from across Europe and the Third World to study, compare and support radical initiatives and socialist movements in their areas. And between seminars and workshops, John conducts us through the art galleries of Amsterdam, giving us eyes to see with, not just life through art but lives as lived around us. I knew then what Keats meant when he wrote of ‘the holiness of the heart’s affection and the truth of the imagination’.

That is the thing about John: his driven search for the truth. It shows when he talks, it’s all over his face – that is how he got those leonine lines. It is there in his gestures: that pouting of his fingers as though he is holding the precious seed of a thought about to burst into flower. It is there in his writings: his stories, poems, plays, scripts, essays – in his essays particularly, where the raw process of the search for truth is beaten out like in the hammering in the Egmont Overture or the Fifth Symphony.

Which evokes the question: how is it that this polymath has not written on music? Or has he? When my back was turned? But then he hears the jagged music of the world (the cliché is fitting). He hears people, he hears pain, he hears the music of art. ‘The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art’, he writes.

And that is the other thing about John: he makes a daring pronouncement like that as though it is a given, and then goes on to elaborate on it, embroiders it, runs a ring of metaphors around it that you are so taken up with the arabesque that you forget to question the original premise. No wonder John likes Walter Benjamin: he also makes what appears to be an ex cathedra statement and then goes on to illustrate it so intricately that its meaning is clear, its premise proven. It is a sort of inverted dialectic. And John is a brilliant dialectician.

He finds movement, conflict, change even in stone. The dialectic in him is a felt sensibility.
And it is that quality that he brings to his personal relationships. He sees people in their totality, contradictions and all: he does not judge them, though he would certainly ‘judge’ their work, their deeds, of which he might be an excoriating critic, but is never ad hominem.

Equally, John is only too willing to assist those who seek his help. And in that he is not just a source but a confluent passing you on to others who might be able to help you on in your journey. Above all, he gives of himself.

And that is where I come in - as debtor par excellence. I was in the throes of writing my first novel when I approached John. I had written short stories (published here and there) and half a novel (abandoned for fear of rejection). It was not as though I had been to creative writing classes or had connections in the publishing world or could afford a ‘broker’. Quite simply I was not qualified. But something John said to me about writing over a beer in a Kings Cross pub, persuaded me that I might well be a story-teller, and story-tellers, I told myself, were born not made. And the story I was aching to tell was the broken story of my beautiful country before it descended into the barbarism of race war. I sent John the manuscript, and he was not merely encouraging but exhortatory, urging me through phone call and letter to finish it and send it off to publishers, whatever the result. The result was twenty-one rejections, before a small publisher, Arcadia, under Gary Pulsifer, who coincidentally happened to be a friend of John’s from their days in the Writers and Readers Cooperative, decided to publish the book – (and subsequently felt his judgement justified when it won a couple of prizes and, more, a flattering review by John in the Guardian).

But the owing doesn’t end there. John, despite the workload he carries on his peasant back, continues as a member of the Race & Class Editorial Working Committee, to be involved in the Institute’s work, shows solidarity with its causes, appearing on its platforms from time to time, contributing to the journal from time to time – though present all the time, like a conscience.


A. Sivanandan, Director Emeritus Institute of Race Relations, founding editor Race & Class and author of the novel When Memory Dies.

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Many thanks to and with permission from for this extract: Chandan, Amarjit, Gunaratnam, Yasmin (Eds. 2016). A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger, London: Zed.

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