My encounters with John Berger
I wanted to share here the somewhat scattered personal memories of my encounters with John Berger, whom I had the privilege and honour of knowing, and which I hold dear.
The first time I met John was in 2007, as he picked us up from the airport in Geneva. We came to spend a few days with him and his wife Beverly, in the beautifully positioned Quincy village, where he lived until recently in an old farmhouse.
We stayed in a nearby village and each morning would join John and Beverly at their house. My memories are fragmented – I remember the striking and powerful landscape, so much more overpowering than the one I am normally used to. John and Beverly’s farmhouse is nestled in between these tall mountains, and spends much of its time in its shadows.
I remember the farmhouse as full of clutter and charm, filled with drawings, objects, books.
And all the passionate and inspiring conversations…
We also met John and Beverly’s son Yves who has shown us around his studio at the top of John and Beverly’s barn.
Yves’ studio at the top of the barn
One time we walked across from the house, up a meadow, and sat down in the grass. I could so easily imagine John working there in the field during harvest. It was exactly this world I imagined from reading his books.
Other times John barbecued sausages in the garden, and we sat and drunk red wine, ate bread, meat and salad.
There was also the famous outside toilet, right next to the barbecue and entrance to the house, which had so many gaps between the boards one could easily see from there what was happening outside.
One morning John came to our hotel room and offered me a ride on his motorbike. He was dressed in his leather biking gear and at 80 or so he still looked positively sexy, earthy, and full of life force.
I also remember that one evening John received a call from a friend in Paris, a Czech painter called Rostislav Kunovsky. John called me and passed the phone over, and I spoke to Rostislav and we remained in touch for many years, while never managing to meet. Maybe we still will.
On the last evening in Quincy we had a dinner with John and Beverly, a cheese fondu, in our hotel. Gareth was talking to John, trying to convince him to join our festival in Southern Bohemia. Beverly was incredibly protective of John, and wasn’t impressed and I could fully appreciate her reasons, while also feeling disappointed. It all felt so sad to me for some reason and I begun to cry. I cried because I felt that I could. John, who sat next to me, got up, and gave me a hug. I will never forget this hug. It was full of the most earthy warmth, strong and grounded, like hugging the earth itself. I felt like a child, fully comforted in this most genuine embrace.
The next day we took a train from Geneva to Milan. As we waited for the train Beverly was massaging John’s feet. I was thinking how fully devoted she was to him in the deepest way.
Then there is this moment on a train, traversing the beautiful landscape, and John opened a bottle of champagne , and told us stories, such as about his dinner with Charlie Chaplin, as we were passing various landmarks. It was there that John also spoke of Trieste, because of his family history, and this is where my first conscious desire to visit the place, comes from.
When we got to Milan, we ended up getting a taxi to Mantova, to a literary festival. It was a long wait and then it was hot in the car, and John opened a bottle of Becherovka we brought over from Prague, and we all sipped on it as we zoomed along the roads, and everything suddenly felt bright.
Than a year or so later, John was in London with Nella, and they both read my short children’s book manuscript (called The Story of Violet). They both seemed to genuinely love the story. John made one suggestion about the name of the cat, who was called Dreamy. After his suggestion I renamed the cat Pebble. He was right of course, the name needed to be much more grounded.
Another time John was in London, and invited me for lunch with Nella to the wonderful house on Wimpole street, where they would always stay when visiting London. I was feeling stuck creatively and John wanted to help. We had lunch at the very top of the house, in the tiny kitchen. Both John and Nella engaged with my worries fully, and asked me many things, and it was then they recommended I read The Waves as well as Keats, as a way of getting closer to the English language. John also told me I should draw a flower each day.
Later that day I joined John on his visit to the National Gallery. It was Easter and he told me he always liked drawing a particular painting of Christ, by Antonello da Messina. As John drew, I wandered around the gallery and when I returned, I witnessed a dispute between John and the gallery attendant. The dispute begun because John placed his bag on an empty gallery attendant seat. The guard returned and accused John of not abiding by the rules. John swore at him (just as I arrived), and at this point the gallery attendant decided to call security.
The security came promptly and we were escorted out of the gallery. The irony of one of Britain’s most famous art critics being thrown out of the National Gallery wasn’t lost on me. And as we were being escorted out, one of the security guards glanced into John’s sketchbook and said: “It’s a very good drawing sir!”, suddenly sounding apologetic. (John actually mentions this story in his book Bento’s Sketchbook, and here is the drawing itself)
We walked out, and with arms linked we walked towards Piccadilly circus tube, and I was telling John about working for my PhD about tactility and embodiment, and it begun to rain so we took shelter in a doorway. We said goodbye just before the barriers of Piccadilly Circus.
Later I only saw him intermittently when in London, once at a restaurant O Fado in Knightsbridge, and also once in Paris, in Nella’s apartment.
The last thing I have from John is a letter he sent me in response to my rather belated reply to his earlier one. I told him I was planning a film about Trieste. He told me to read his book G, and gave me his blessings.
The film is now completed and I sent it to him to Paris for his 90th birthday. I will never know whether he saw it or not but feel lucky to have his blessings on the journey.
And while it is sad the world has lost John Berger, I doubt there are many people whose lives have been as rich and fulfilled, as full of love, connection and unceasing creativity, as his was.
Here is to a fortunate man…whom I was fortunate to know.
With thanks to Gareth Evans.
Tereza Stehlikova, London, 2017