Friday, 24 October 2008

The John Berger Fanclub

[Manual syndication from Poetry International. I've edited and extended this version.]

Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.
Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.

Maureen Freely once loaned me a copy of ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’. At the time, Berger was a distant inkling in my mind, a symbol of '70s leftwing radicalism, old hat, irrelevant. The book 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.
It made its way into my consciousness via the photography, first of all: migrant workers from Turkey and Greece, the tracking of gasterbeiter in particular. I still have some of the images in my head - men in locker rooms, dormitories, the sense of isolation, the sense of a community based on shared despair. My introduction to gasterbeiter started a few years before with a university friend, a poet, who had written a poem of that name. He himself had Turkish background, and, I assume, family who came over in the '70s, or earlier, and found themselves locked into this cycle of work where they weren't granted permission to become citizens, to establish a home. They were an underclass of the worst kind: locked into an economic cycle which commodified them, dehumanised them. They had only each other to recognise their selves in and from that oppression came community.

LinkBerger's treatment of the subject could be called journalism. Whistle-blowing is a crass way of putting it, especially when the exposé targets a government. However, I'd argue it's a landmark text for experiments in New Journalism, an attempt to push creative approaches to factual writing into a new level. The aesthetic construction, the blending of photojournalism with poetic prose: these raised the project above an attempt to "capture the reality of the migrant worker’s life" (from the introduction, available here with some images).

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 relate to his aesthetic life that inspire me so much. Even, perhaps, to Audrey Hepburn, though she made her money first. I'm quite obsessed with writers who step outside of expectation, of established norms, particularly those which are so comfortable, like here on our little island in the North Sea. Even with a banking crisis and recession, the supermarkets are full, petrol readily available.

Sure, it’s easy to leap on that ole chestnut about what Berger 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. My one gripe: I haven't read enough of his work yet, there's so much more.

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