I was saddened yesterday to learn about the death of John Berger. Having spent some time in the wonderful John Berger Archive at the British Library, I am in the somewhat peculiar (and privileged) position of having read many of Berger’s letters, notebooks and manuscripts from the late twentieth century, and therefore feel that I know something of this man, one of the most generous and principled artists of our time.
Berger is still perhaps best known for his controversial ‘Speech on Accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction’, delivered after winning the prize for G. in 1972.* Berger accepted half the prize money, in recognition of the writer’s need for a bread-and-butter income for his ‘project about the migrant workers of Europe’ and gave the other half of the prize money to the Black Panther movement in London: to ‘those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation’ (1972, 255). Berger declared that the ‘half I give away will change the half I keep’ (1972, 254). His broad intention was to expose the political history of the prize (the fact that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, was built on profits from the slave-trade in the Caribbean) and ‘to turn this prize against itself’ (1972, 254). He stated that:
“one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.”
The Booker Acceptance Speech describes the way that economic structures distort human relations, and argues that the Atlantic slave trade has destroyed the possibility of equal relations between individuals. Berger calls for a common struggle in order to restore the possibility of people approaching each other, once again, with the ‘amazed hope of potential equals’.
It is still my feeling that Berger has never quite received the recognition he deserves. There are few works of criticism on his fiction. A recent volume of essays on Berger’s work (which includes my essay on Berger’s 2008 novel, From A to X) seeks to redress this lack of criticism: On John Berger: Telling Stories, edited by Ralf Hertel & David Malcolm, Rodopi. Berger’s oeuvre certainly deserves the renewed attention it is beginning to attract, and at the 2012 conference on Berger’s work, run by the tremendous Tom Overton, the sheer volume and range of his work became clear. Berger was not only a prolific novelist but also wrote several significant works of social criticism as well as being a painter, art critic and social activist. Most recently, Berger published his Collected Poems (2014) with the small independent publisher of ‘radical and unconventional poetry’, Smokestack Books.
In his Booker Speech, Berger argued that it is not enough to simply call for dialogue in a world which is ‘divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters’: where the ‘way of seeing everything’ is governed by highly unequal structures. In other words, Berger was deeply committed to dialogue, but also knew that we do not live in a vacuum, and that we cannot simply call for ‘conversation’ without redressing inequality. Given the dangerous political times in which we are now living, we would be wise to pay heed to these words, and to seek new ways of resisting and highlighting inequality in order to genuinely regain the possibility of dialogue.
* Berger, John . (1972) ‘Speech on Accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction’, in Geoff Dyer (ed.) John Berger: Selected Essays. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 253-255.