A friend once loaned me a copy of ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’ and it took a hold of my imagination, changed me. Sure, it had all the hallmarks of ’70s leftwing radicalism: the grainy B&W photos, the gritty, bare prose, the bluntness of the suffering it portrayed with the underlying message of ‘Look, these are people, not animals, love everyone, everyone deserves love’. But at the same time, it was chock full of real sentiment, none of that hippyish stereotyping that goes on in a lot of mass media representations of the era. This was writing that took it’s time, a project that clearly had a lot of deep, moral thinking behind it; and one that didn’t compromise for any notions of market audience, or readership.
The John Berger Fanclub
What really got to me was the outsiderliness of the writing, (and the photography). Berger went ‘there’ to his subject’s heart, he got a hold of the experience in a way that most journalistic treatments would never do (aren’t allowed to do), and the language never once tried to patronise me with those experiences. Something clicked: the possibilities of being political without being a parody, or without being so cerebral about it, or passionate about it that you were derided. Here was a mode of political engagement that wasn’t preaching, wasn’t flimsy; Keats’ negative capability funneled into a challenge, one that asked, ‘If this goes on, why are you still sitting there?’ Comparisons to Jean Genet are obvious. It’s the decisions as to how he would live, and how this relates to his aesthetic life that inspire me so much.
Sure, it’s easy to leap on that ole chestnut about what he did with that slightly-famous literary prize pot, but that’s the caricature, the 15 seconds of fame moment (and also the obvious hook which I’ve used to try and make this post look more interesting that the fan-clubbery rant it’s turned out to be), in which it’s easy to believe you can learn everything you need to about a person. But I was lucky enough to read one of his recent short stories, ‘The Red Tenda of Bologna‘ when it was published in a magazine, and it was absolutely wonderful. Yet another facet of the man’s writing that has me salivating in advance of the Festival’s launch night.