The news of John Berger’s death in January encouraged me to read some of his books again. One of my favourites has always been Here Is Where We Meet, published in 2005. Like many of his books it’s unclassifiable: you may find it shelved among fiction, but Here Is Where We Meet is not a conventional novel. Though its memories of people known in different places and at different times is narrated in the author’s voice it’s not a memoir. Moving freely between past and present, via Lisbon, Krakow, London in the Blitz and Geneva, Berger’s lyrical and sensuous narration incorporates reflections on Paleolithic cave paintings, Borges, Rembrandt, and Rosa Luxemburg.The book opens in a square in Lisbon where there is a cypress tree whose branches have been trained to form ‘a gigantic, impenetrable, very low umbrella with a diameter of twenty metres.’ One hundred people, writes the narrator, could easily shelter under it. The tree bears a poem for passers-by to read: ‘I am the handle of your hoe, the gate of your house, the wood of your cradle and the wood of your coffin.’
Life and death: intimations, already.
It was hot – perhaps 28°C – at the end of the month of May. In a week or two, Africa, which begins – in a manner of speaking – on the far bank of the Tagus, would begin to impose a distant yet tangible presence. An old woman with an umbrella was sitting very still on one of the park benches. She had the kind of stillness that draws attention to itself. Sitting there on the park bench, she wasdetermined to be noticed. A man with a suitcase walked through the square with the air of going to a rendezvous he kept every day. Afterwards a woman carrying a little dog in her arms – both of them looking sad – passed, heading down towards the Avenida de Liberdade. The old woman on the bench persisted in her demonstrative stillness. To whom was it addressed?Abruptly, as I was asking myself this question, she got to her feet, turned and, using her umbrella like a walking stick, came towards me.I recognised her walk, long before I could see her face. The walk of somebody already looking forward to arriving and sitting down. It was my mother.
This woman – who will address the narrator as ‘John’ – has been dead for 15 years. She takes his arm and advises him, ‘The dead don’t stay where they are buried.’ Mother and son walk the streets of Lisbon, carrying on a long conversation about their past, but also about the plans that she still has for the future.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
– TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, The Four Quartets
John’s chance meeting with his dead mother is the first of several such encounters in the book, suggesting that the ‘here’ where we meet refers to moments when the seemingly impenetrable borderline that separates the living from the dead – that reduces the dead to eternal silence – is lifted. ‘The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable,’ writes Berger at the outset of this book of memories in which the past invades the present and the dead mingle with the living. ‘Don’t you remember my warning you how it would be like this?’ states his mother:
Beyond days or months or hundreds of tears, beyond time.
When John asks his mother why they have met in Lisbon’, she replies: ‘It’s not any place, John, it’s a meeting place. There aren’t many cities left with trams, are there?’ Instantly, memory floods in like a madeleine and time and space dissolve as Berger remembers the number 194 tram they would take every day when he was a boy growing up in Croydon.
‘When you tell a story about a life,’ Berger wrote in About Time, ‘you try to touch its meaning. To hold it. To preserve it against the onrush of chaos.’ In Here Is Where We Meet he interrogates memories of a few of those whose lives have touched his own. In a Krakow marketplace, he finds Ken, the man who had the greatest influence on him in his teenage years, while down the staircase of a Madrid hotel comes another teacher, the intensely solitary Tyler (first name never known, always addressed by his six year old self as ‘Sir’), the man who taught him to write and ‘the first person to make me aware of irreparable loss.’ In Islington, a visit to the home of a fellow art school student in wartime London provokes memories of a girl whose bed he shared on nights when the bombs fell.
John Berger was born in London in 1926 to a father of Hungarian descent, and a working-class mother who had been a suffragette in her youth. Sent off at a young age to boarding school, when he was sixteen he dropped out to enrol in art school. He served two years in the army, after which he began to teach art. He went on to write columns for the Tribune before becoming art critic for the New Statesman. Best known – in this country at least – as the art critic who presented Ways of Seeing on the BBC in 1971, by that time he had already begun producing the novels and essay collections that more typify his career. Geoff Dyer got it right when he wrote of Berger’s body of work constituting ‘a kind of vicarious autobiography and history of our time as refracted through the prism of art’.
All three of those elements are present in Here Is Where We Meet. The work is clearly autobiographical (apart from his mother, Berger’s daughter Katya appears, well as friends both past and present), while there are frequent digressions to consider the fact that fish never stop growing; the writers (such as Jorge Luis Borges), revolutionaries, international negotiators and financial mafiosi who have found sanctuary in Geneva; the cave paintings of Chauvet; Rembrandt’s painting The Polish Rider; and extermination and mass graves in eastern Poland. Berger informs us that the events described in the chapter entitled ‘Genève’ took place ‘last summer while Bush and his army and the petrol corporations and their advisors were ruining Iraq,’ one further example of the suffering inflicted by unrelenting economic and political forces which Berger never ceased to excoriate.
The entire book is a delight, but it is the opening chapter which lingers in the mind, a magical evocation of Lisbon, its hills, labyrinthine streets, and trams that pass so close to people’s homes, ‘you could reach out an arm and give a birdcage a gentle push.’ Throughout this opening story, John talks with his dead mother. Each meeting, whether in a square or a café, at a fish market or on an elevated aqueduct, is described in luminous detail, and their conversations become an eloquent meditation on life, love, and death.
In one of these encounters his mother cautions him:
You sound like somebody writing an autobiography. Don’t.
You’re bound to get it wrong.
Their last conversation takes place on the Àguas Livres aqueduct, a ‘path through the sky’ high above ‘a couple of unfinished streets and some houses which were being lived in, though still being built.’
I could see a car with no wheels, a balcony the size of a kitchen chair, a child’s swing with only one rope attached to a tree, red tiles with concrete blocks on them to prevent them being blown away in the Atlantic winds, a window without a frame with a double mattress hanging out of it, a dog on a chain, barking in the sun.
John’s mother sees these things too. Do you see? she says suddenly.
Everything is broken, slightly broken, like the rejects from the factory they sell cheap, at half price. Not really damaged, only rejects. Everything – the hills, the Sea of Straw, the child’s swing down there, the car, the castle, everything is a reject, and has been so since the beginning.
His mother’s view of the world is that everything was damaged from the beginning of creation. ‘That’s why we are here,’ she insists. ‘To repair.’
Yet you are not really here are you?
How stupid can you get! We – us – we are all here. Just like you and the living are here. You and us, we are here to repair a little of what is broken. This why we occurred.
Came to be.
Looking down into the valley, she gives an example: ‘The dog down there is on too short a chain. Change it, lengthen it. Then he’ll be able to reach the shade and he’ll lie down and stop barking.’ John counters: ‘There are certain things which, to be repaired, require nothing short of a revolution.’ ‘So you say, John’ his mother replies sceptically.
In Krakow, John encounters another corporeal ghost: in a market square he has a matter-of-fact conversation with Ken, a man of extraordinarily varied experience who had a profound effect on him as a teenager. ‘Sixty years ago,’ writes the author, this man ‘shared with me what he knew, although he never told me how he learnt what he knew.’
The chapter opens with a brilliantly rendered description of the Place Nowy market square as John wanders idly among the stalls and their traders:
I have never been in this square before and I know it by heart, or rather I know by heart the people who are selling things in it. Some of them have regular stalls with awnings to keep the sun off their goods. It is already hot, hot with the blurred, gnat heat of the Eastern European plains and forest. A foliage heat. A heat full of suggestions, that does not have the assurance of a Mediterranean heat. Here nothing is certain. The nearest thing to certainty here is a grandmother.
Seated at an outdoor table of a soup kitchen he recognises his deceased mentor. Ken, a teacher from New Zealand and the most influential person in his life, from whom he learned about literature, writing, drawing, music, politics, and games; who who taught him to cross frontiers that were both intellectual and sexual. Ken pushes his bowl of borsch towards the narrator, before taking a handkerchief from his right trouser pocket, wiping the spoon and handing it to him. ‘I recognise the handkerchief of black tartan.’ That precise detail opens a flood of emotions triggered by memories of the times the narrator shared with this unusual man during the Second World War. It’s a spell-binding piece of writing that concludes: ‘I do not even glance at where Ken is standing, for he will not be there.’
Recognising the narrator’s distress, a pigeon-fancier hands him the carrier pigeon he is holding: ‘Its feathers feel slightly damp – like satin. The small ones on its breast have a parting in the middle, as on an owl. It weighs nothing for its size. I hold him against my breast.’
Ghosts inhabit a chapter recalling encounters in Islington during wartime air raids when John was an art college student, and another when, on the staircase of a Madrid hotel he glimpses another childhood tutor, an intensely solitary man named Tyler charged with teaching his six year old self to write, to draw, and to love the finer things in life. Sadness imbues this sketch as John recalls how Tyler, once so meticulous, died years later ‘through indifference or carelessness’.
In the longest piece, ‘The Szum and the Ching’, Berger writes of a Europe still haunted by both world wars – of a traumatized region in which ‘the distinction between past and present has become blurred.’ The first to arrive and open up a friend’s house for a wedding celebration in the Polish village of Górecko, twenty kilometres from the Ukrainian border, he prepares sorrel soup for his newly wed friends. As he sautés leeks, bacon and potatoes, he recalls their courtship in Paris, where they worked illegally while dreaming of returning to their bankrupt country.
Sitting by the Szum river as evening falls and the soup simmers, he thinks of another river, the Ching, which ran at the bottom of the garden where he lived in an east London suburb until the age of six. ‘The Ching was my father’s river,’ he writes, describing how his shell-shocked father constructed a drawbridge for the boy, ‘simply to be on the other side, and to look back.’ The effort eased memories of the trenches and brought son and father closer together. ‘When he lowered the drawbridge, he could borrow my innocence and so recall his own.’By the Szum, John hears birdsong as he remembers the drawbridge over the Ching.
The two moments, instead of being separated by decades, belong to the same hour of the same season. … A kind of vertigo overcomes me. Words make no more sense. Everything is a continuum.
This is a rich and elaborately woven chapter in which the past bleeds into the vitality and celebrations of the present. As he describes the soup preparation or the wedding feast itself in sensuous detail, Berger stirs into the mix thoughts on a painting by Rembrandt, the mystery of a German soldier shot in 1943 either in the house or ‘outside near the apple tree’, and the massacre of the entire population of a nearby village – including babies and grandparents – by the German SS. ‘At that time one killing superseded another and thousands occurred simultaneously.’
In the midst of all this, Berger makes an observation which he sets on a page by itself: ‘The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable.’
In the preceding chapter, Berger has written a remarkable description of a visit to the Chauvet cave in France to see the oldest known rock paintings in the world, 15,000 years older than the paintings of Lascaux or Altamira. Berger’s account succeeds in reanimating the ghosts of the vanished people who made their art in dark depths of this cave:
A male ibex, with curved horns as long as its body, has been drawn with charcoal on whitish rock. How to describe the blackness of its traces? It is a blackness which makes the darkness reassuring, a blackness which is a lining for the immemorial. He is walking up a gentle incline, his steps delicate, his body rounded, his face flat. Each line is as tense as a well thrown rope, and the drawing has a double energy which is perfectly shared: the energy of the animal who has become present, and that of the man whose arm and eye are drawing the animal by torch light.
Berger writes that these paintings were made, deliberately, for the dark. ‘They were for the dark.’
They were hidden in the dark so that what they embodied would outlast everything visible, and promise, perhaps, survival.
Perhaps there has been no finer affirmation of the purpose of art. In the darkness Berger thinks of a friend, Anne, who is dying. A long time ago she would camp, summer after summer at Paleolithic sites. He imagines her saying that what was painted in these caves was ‘like a map.’
The company in the dark.
Who are where?
Here, come from elsewhere …
In a short coda, John discusses his books with his mother.
I risk to write nonsense these days.
Just write down what you find.
I’ll never know what I’ve found.
No, you’ll never know. All you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth, you can’t affford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer …
- Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding
- John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’