To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

Sitting in a darkening room yesterday as evening came on, I sensed snowflakes falling beyond the window. Torn by a western wind and rain that had fallen throughout the day, the falling shards of ghostly white were the petals of the magnolia tree that stands in our front garden, planted by us thirty years ago. Every year since, its trunk has thickened and its branches have spread; and every spring before coming into leaf it has put forth its creamy-white, goblet-shaped flowers in growing profusion. This year it reached full maturity, putting on a display that has lit up our window and the entire street. Seeing this annual unfolding fills me with great happiness. Planting this tree three decades ago strikes me now as being one of the most satisfying and valuable things I have ever done.   Continue reading “To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago”


Rereading John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet

Rereading John Berger: <em>Here Is Where We Meet</em>

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. Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet

Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

Rereading John Berger: <em>To the Wedding</em>

Following news of the death of John Berger I decided to re-visit some of his books, many of which I last read decades ago. In this post I want to discuss his novel To the Wedding, first published in 1995. There must be some truth in the notion that the circumstances surrounding an encounter with an artistic work somehow may affect our response. When I first read this book soon after publication, I admired it as much for its portrayal of a post-Cold War Europe in which the novel’s characters could move with greater freedom across borders as for its its story of two young lovers facing a future poisoned by AIDS. Reading it again this week, still grieving after our own personal loss, the novel overwhelmed me with its humanity, its  assertion of love in the face of death, with the fierce determination of a couple who seize joy from the present with a wedding feast described by Berger in  transcendent passages that form the book’s conclusion.

What shall we do before eternity?

Take our time.

Dance without shoes?

Re-acquainting myself with To the Wedding, I now believe this to be John Berger’s masterpiece.  Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

The heart of a dog: an elegy

The heart of a dog: an elegy

I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion. Continue reading “The heart of a dog: an elegy”

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

Reading a lot of the stuff written in the British press about John Berger following his death two days ago, I have barely been able to recognise the writer that I have known and loved from reading –  a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, comprises ten novels, four plays, three collections of poetry and 33 other books, an unclassifiable blend of ruminations on art, politics and the simple joys and beauty of everyday life. The writer I am familiar with was certainly not the ‘bludgeoningly opinionated man’ of the Independent’s write up, nor the person depicted in the Guardian’s shoddy and mean-spirited obituary.

Berger was certainly one who had very definite views, but who always, it seems to me, advanced them as propositions to be debated, rather than assertions to be simply accepted (for example, the last words of his celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing are ‘to be continued – by the viewer’). He never seemed to demand our agreement as his reader or listener, merely our engagement. Continue reading “John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’”

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing (re-post)

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing (re-post)

Until I have time to gather my thoughts in response to the death of John Berger – here is a re-post of my appreciation to mark his 90th birthday in November.

(Avoid at all costs the mean-spirited obituary published by the Guardian. Instead, try these two perceptive pieces:

Continue reading “John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing (re-post)”

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

This weekend John Berger will be celebrating his 90th birthday. For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series, Ways of Seeing, that with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. In the decades that have followed, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with more television documentaries, novels,screenplays, drawings, articles and essays. So today’s post celebrates John Berger, who in all the variety of his work has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art, a Marxist ‘among other things’ whose words are sometimes those of the angry polemicist, but which invariably celebrate everyday experience and artistic expression with probing insight and subtle tenderness. Continue reading “John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing”

Footfalls echo in the memory

Footfalls echo in the memory

TS Eliot  Gerald Kelly portrait

TS Eliot: portrait by Gerald Kelly

‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future’: the instantly-recognisable opening lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets have surfaced and re-surfaced in my conciousness this past couple of weeks.  They occurred to me while reading Stephen King’s recent gripping novel 11.22.63, which is but the latest addition to the vast body of speculation about time, time travel, whether it might be possible to alter an event in the past, and – if it were – what the consequences might be.  11.22.63 also represents the fruits of years of Stephen King’s sifting through the speculations about the assassination of President John F Kennedy, an event from the past that continues to inhabit the present of those of us alive at the time.

I had only just finished reading 11.22.63 when I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 production of Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which the past is forever disappearing, the future forever being born, and the present forever being renewed into a single moment: time and eternity, the future flowing into the present and the present flowing into the past. The poem was beautifully read by Irons with a measured delivery that certainly aided this listener’s understanding (also enhanced with an introduction by Michael Symmons Roberts).

Then there was this week’s Radio 3 Essay by actor and director of Theatre de Complicite, Simon McBurney – one of a series, The Book that Changed Me, in which each essayist discussed the book that inspired them in their chosen career. McBurney described how John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos – another text concerned with ideas about time and place, memory and mortality – had inspired his theatrical work with Complicite.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
– ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

File handout image shows President Kennedy and  Jacqueline Kennedy riding in motorcade in Dallas

John F Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally with their wives in the presidential motorcade moments before the assassination

In Stephen King’s 11.22.63, school teacher Jake Epping enters a dark passage at the back of Al’s Diner, edges slowly down some steps and slips from 2012, through a wormhole in time, back to 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958. Epping has embarked upon his journey back in time at the insistence of Al, owner of the eponymous Diner, who has already made the trip several times.  Al was on a mission he’s now unable to complete: to prevent the assassination of John Kennedy by Lee Oswald- and, perhaps as a consequence, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam.  Dying from cancer, Al wants Jake to do the honours.

Al explains to Jake what he’s learned so far about this time present and time past present in time future business. First, it’s not a one-way trip; but when you return, no matter how long you’ve stayed in the past – two days, five years, whatever – only two minutes have gone by in the present. Second, each time you go back to the past, there is a reset.  It’s 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958, and everything you did on your previous trip has been erased.

Stephen King’s books may not be great literature, but he’s a damn fine storyteller and knows how to keep a reader gripped, turning the page through 700 of them.  11.22.63, finally published in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, actually consists of three stories in one.

The first is a prefatory murder story set in 1958. Here Al, Jake and King himself are exploring the old vexed question: if you went back in time and changed something, might there be unforeseen consequences?  What Jake learns is that, while history can be altered, it resists with all its might.

So, next, in the longest section of the book, Jake returns to live out the years between 1958 and 1963, preparing for the day when he will attempt to thwart the assassination.  This is classic King territory – a hymn to a wholesome, simpler, uncommercialised fifties America where Jake teaches at a school in a small Texas town, falls in love with a librarian  and becomes a fixture in the local community. In 1958, root beer is ‘tasty all the way through’ But, King also throws in some qualifiers, highlighting aspects of America at that time which were less than wholesome:

In North Carolina, I stopped to gas up at a Humble Oil station, then walked around the corner to use the toilet.There were two doors and three signs. MEN was neatly stencilled over one door, LADIES over the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick. It pointed toward the brush-covered slope behind the station. It said COLORED.

Curious, I walked down the path, being careful to sidle at a couple of points where the oily, green- shading-to-maroon leaves of poison ivy were unmistakable. I hoped the dads and moms who might have led their children down to whatever facility waited below were able to identify those trouble-some bushes for what they were, because in the late fifties most children wear short pants. There was no facility. What I found at the end of the path was a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts. A man who had to urinate could just stand on the bank, unzip, and let fly. A woman could hold onto a bush (assuming it wasn’t poison ivy or poison oak) and squat. The board was what you sat on if you had to take a shit. Maybe in the pouring rain.

If I ever gave you the idea that 1958’s all Andy-n-Opie, remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream.

For much of this part of the narrative King pushes Oswald into the background as Jake settles into the life of a small town outside Dallas where, ‘I stopped living in the past and just started living’. As well as telling a beautiful love story, this stage of the narrative allows King to further explore the consequences of messing with the past as unintended examples of the ‘butterfly effect’ multiply, leading Jake at one point to muse:

Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, O.K.? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald: a loner?

Finally, we begin to ease into the final stretch of the narrative in which Jake, utilising the latest early sixties technology (from Japan) bugs Oswald’s home and shadows his every move. It’s here that King tentatively probes the conspiracy theories: was Oswald really the shooter, and if so, did he act alone? I must admit that when I started the book I thought that this would be a much larger feature of the story.  In the end, King has Jake, there on the ground in 1963 in the months before the assassination, as unsure as many remain today who have devoted much time and effort to investigating the matter. For the past,Jake learns, is obdurate. It guards its darkest secrets. Weeks before the 22nd, he is living below the Oswalds, listening in on bugged conversations in the flat above , and he still can’t be sure:

I tried the distance mic, standing on a chair and holding the Tupperware bowl almost against the ceiling. With it I could hear Lee talking and de Mohrenschildt’s occasional replies, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

In an afterword, King admits:

Almost half a century has passed since John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, but two questions linger: Was Lee Oswald really the trigger-man, and if so, did he act alone?  Nothing I’ve written in 11.22.63 will provide answers to those questions, because time-travel is just an interesting make-believe.

As Mark Lawson observed in the Guardian:

A novel about thwarting Lee Harvey Oswald is crucially different from one about killing Hitler because many readers will question whether the hero is going after the right man. Jake regularly frets that, even if he changes the shape of Oswald’s day on 11.22.63, he may discover that the conspiracy theorists were right and JFK is taken out by another gunman from the grassy knoll or elsewhere.

Through his central character King communicates his own nagging doubts – after all his personal research – about the certainty of the history of that day. He also cleverly exploits a major fascination of time-travel or counter-history stories: the historical adjustments that might result from meddling.

In a thoughtful afterword in which King suggests that he partly intends the novel as a warning against ‘the current political climate of my country’ and the consequences of political extremism in contemporary America, he reveals that he first tried to write this book in 1972 but felt too close then to the raw pain of the assassination.

There’s an image that’s repeated several times by King during his account of the passionate love affair between Jake and Sadie, the clumsy librarian: the image of dancing which both of them love, being dazzlingly proficient at dancing the jitterbug:

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. . . . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

What did that remind me of?

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

The Essay on Radio 3 is often a source of stimulating listening, and since the start of the year has being having a particularly good run, and time – ‘present in the past, past in the present’ – featured in a series of essays to mark the centenary of World War One that offered perspectives on the capital cities of the major European powers – London, St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin and Paris – on the eve of war in 1914.

In St Petersburg, the Grand International Masters’ Chess Tournament exemplified the international rivalries of Russia, Germany, France and Britain, and also demonstrated the Russian passion for chess that continues to this day. In London, complaints about the Tube were as frequent as they are today; to divert travellers from their misery, Macdonald Gill – the brother of Eric Gill, the sculptor and designer – was commissioned to produce a ‘Wonderground‘ map.


Macdonald Gill’s 1914 ‘Wonderground’ map: details

Berlin today is a place utterly unlike the city on the eve of war a century ago, argued Stephen Evans. ‘The ghosts are all around … but the buildings they might inhabit have often vanished, turned to rubble’. Berlin ‘reaped its own whirlwind in the wave of catastrophes that followed that first great war’.  Hugh Schofield wondered to what extent Parisians felt that they were living through the era of La Belle Epoque. Our image of the city on the eve of war tends to overlook the extent to which modernity was the moving spirit of the city: cars and planes, Cubism and Marcel Duchamp’s first ‘readymade’.

In a vivid account, Bethany Bell spoke of Vienna on the eve of war: capital of Austria-Hungary’s multi-national empire with its simmering tensions, and home in 1914 to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud. I was particularly struck by her account of the men’s hostel in Meldemannstrasse, in the working class district of Brigittenau which for almost a century provided shelter for the homeless of Vienna until it closed ten years ago.  Five years after it opened, Bell reported, Hitler moved in, remaining, down and out and unnoticed, until 1913. The hostel was financed by the Rothschilds.

Last week The Essay’s theme was The Book that Changed Me, in which five people discussed the book that had inspired them in their chosen career.  There were two outstanding talks, one by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson who described how David Copperfield mirrored his own deprived childhood in London. After the death of his mother, the discovery of Dickens’s novel gave him hope: ‘I was thirteen years old and had read lots of books but nothing like this complex saga; so moving, so emotionally intertwined’. It’s a theme developed more fully in his acclaimed memoir This Boy, which I must read.

And our faces

The Book that Changed Me: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

The nature of time is central to John Berger’s lyrical and meditative And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, chosen by actor and director Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite, and one of my own favourite books, first published in 1984.  McBurney described how Berger’s exploration of ideas about memory, space and time, storytelling and mortality became infused in his theatrical work.

McBurney admitted that, on a first reading, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos can seem a bewildering collage of ideas, poetry, prose, polemic and autobiographical glimpses. With repeated readings, however, Berger’s slim work has become a point of reference for McBurney’s art and his life.

In an account as fragmentary as the book he discussed, McBurney spoke of how for years he had been a nomad, touring theatre all over the world. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted’, writes Berger, ’emigration, forced or chosen across national frontiers or from village to metropolis is the quintessential experience of our time’. Memory and storytelling become the mortar that preserves identity. Berger:

Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as though through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless In our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.

Storytelling is McBurney’s profession, and he noted how Berger begins his book by examining the essential element of all stories, time:

We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky. The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their times overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as law beyond the clustering. A famine is a tragic cluster of events. To which the Great Plough is indifferent, existing as it does in another time.

Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney

Berger reflects on the nature of time: the length of ‘lived’ time, the deeply experienced moment, as opposed to the seeming brevity of other moments. Time is perceived as a force which people either take to be annihilating or capable of being, if not controlled, at least opposed (in political action). Parts of Berger’s book are reminiscent of

that state between waking and sleeping. From there you can wander towards either of the two. You can go away in a dream or you can open your eyes, be aware of your body, the room, the crows cawing in the snow outside the window.

Love’s opposite is not hate but separation, said McBurney, quoting Berger. Death separates eternally – an unbridgeable gap.

When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me. This presence is multiform: it consists of countless images, passages, meanings, things known, landmarks, yet the whole remains marked by your absence, in that it is diffuse. It is as if your person becomes a place, your contours horizons. I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.

Partir est mourir un peu. I was very young when I first heard this sentence quoted and it expressed a truth I already knew. I remember it now because the experience of living in you as if you were a country, the only country in the world where I can never conceivably meet you face to face, this is a little like the experience of living with the memory of the dead. What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.

Time and memory, love and separation:

When I open my wallet
to show my papers
pay money
or check the time
of a train
I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

John Berger

John Berger

McBurney’s father was an archaeologist and knew, he said, about bridging gaps.  The bones he dug were more fragile than the earth that surrounded them.  He would reassemble shards of bone or flint that revealed the truth about our past, and joined us with it. That, argued McBurney, is what Berger’s book does: it joins – the local to the universal, the immediate to the distant, the living to the dead. Berger’s tools are words.  He ‘digs  in the vulnerable earth of human experience, and joins the fragments he uncovers with an eye as sure as an astronomer, a gesture as gentle as a carpenter’.

From the last page of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos McBurney quoted this heart-stopping image:

What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.

Time past and time future.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

See also

John Berger About Time

A year after John Berger had published And our faces, my heart, Brief as photos, this visual essay on time, based on ideas in the book, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985 (when C4 did such things).  Simple format – Berger in check shirt in front of the camera, telling and reading enigmatic and compelling stories about our desire to outwit time. Deceptively simple and unimaginable on today’s Channel 4.  It’s an old VHS video, not very good quality – best watched in the small window.


Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?


Alongside the Art Turning Left exhibition that I wrote about in my previous post, Tate Liverpool are screening a short season of films with a broadly left-wing political theme, each one introduced by a lecturer in Film Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.  After viewing the exhibition I joined a small group to see a film that I last saw more than a quarter of a century ago at the old Merseyside Film Institute downstairs at the Bluecoat in the heyday of independent film-making and intelligent screening programmes.

How would Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, the story of eight eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 in Paris, stand up when viewed from the future that its makers looked toward?  All I could recall of the film was an image of the main characters sitting around a table, talking and laughing as they prepared vegetables for a meal.

Around the table

Sitting around a table, talking and laughing

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature.
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Now that I’ve seen Jonah again, I can see why that image stuck in my memory.  Amongst other things, it’s about the shared experience of a generation who rebelled against materialism, inequality and corporate greed, who yearned for sexual freedom and, in many different ways, attempted to change politics and society. It’s the least caricatured account – deeply serious, warm and witty – of my generation’s hopes and disillusion.  More than that: the film seems even more relevant now, seen from our standpoint in the new world order of the 21st century.

In my last post I described how the Art Turning Left exhibition posed a series of seminar-type questions about art and social change. If you wanted to reduce Jonah  to a single seminar question it might be: how can we live free and ethically in an unfree and unfair society?

Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Daniel Cohn- Bendit, 22, one of the leaders of the ‘soixante-huitards’

Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other ‘soixante-huitards’

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 was made by Swiss film director Alain Tanner in collaboration with the writer, art critic and activist John Berger.  The script, which they wrote together, tells the story of eight people getting by in Switzerland, seven years after the greatest upheavals of May ’68, all of them trying, in diverse ways, to free themselves from the institutional and societal chains that oppress them. The film is bookended by quotations from Switzerland’s (least) favourite son, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, beginning with this:

All our wisdom consists in servile prejudices. All our practices are only subjection, impediment, and constraint. Civil man is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewed in swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed in a coffin. So long as he keeps his human shape, he is enchained by our institutions.

There used to be a phrase, back then in the 70s: ‘the long march through the institutions’.  While some, after the deluge of ’68, dropped out or went underground, many believed they could be agents of social change, working in areas of public service such as education, social work or health care.  Retired now, and looking back the years I taught in adult education, I like to think that my work made some contribution by making it possible for clever people denied opportunities to get a good education and a decent life.  In Jonah, it’s the character of Marco who represents this strand of the post-68 legacy:

It’s so simple. We work to earn a living. With our work, they make a profit. And with the strength left over, some of us try to fight the system. It’s simple. That’s how it is.

The eight characters in Jonah (whose names all just happen to begin with the letters Ma…) each try keep the rebellious spirit of ’68 alive; but, as the dreams of that false dawn fade and disillusion sets in, each is coming to terms with the realities of the 1970s in their own way.

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu is a typesetter and union militant who has just lost his job in the ‘printing crisis’ as new technology is introduced.  His partner Mathilde works in a factory and looks forward to having a baby, the Jonah of the title. Searching for a new job, Mathieu meets Marguerite and Marcel, two organic market gardeners. They hire him to shovel the horse manure they use as fertilizer. Later, he abandons shit-shovelling and starts an alternative school for local kids in one of Marguerite’s greenhouses.

The organic farm owned by Marguerite and Marcel is at the heart of the film and invites echoes of the trilogy of novels that John Berger wrote between 1979 and 1990, Into Their Labours, which is set in the peasant farming community in the French Alps where Berger has lived on a smallholding for several decades. But there are key differences: the characters in Jonah are not peasants, but a bunch of bohemians and nonconformists, most of them more urban than rural.  Marcel is alienated from the machinations of humans and speaks eloquently of the unfathomable mystery of animals, especially whales.  Marguerite is a complex character, the least sympathetic of the film’s characters, who is committed to organic farming, whilst at the same time employs migrant Turkish workers and sells them sexual favours.

Max is a disillusioned Trotskyite currently working as a proofreader. Disillusioned, he has more or less abandoned  politics, but does take action when he learns of plans by a property speculator to buy land – ‘We’ll build luxury slums there’ – that includes Marguerite and Marcel’s smallholding. He makes copies of the documentation – obtained for him by the businessman’s secretary, Madeleine – and informs the residents of the threat to their homes and livelihoods.

For Max, ‘Politics are finished’. For the strikingly beautiful Madeleine, politics is irrelevant: she’s into Tantric sex. Max accepts her invitation to liberate himself through transcendent orgasm, ‘the explosion that opens the lotus on top of your head … the energies that join  to make the great emptiness.’ He enjoys the sex, but is sceptical of the philosophy: ‘I suspect you’re a jet-set hippie… Or else you’re looking for God’.

Madeleine and Max

Madeleine and Max

Although definitely flaky, Madeleine is given some good lines.  She tells Max:

Usually disillusion like yours comes around forty-five when hopes haven’t been fulfilled.  Men want history to go as fast as life. It doesn’t work that way. You complicate things, dividing them in two. Good and bad, useful and harmful. You think like a court a law, always judges and lawyers.  I’m whole and one: Death by fusion and dissolution in the universe.

Max’s response: ‘You’re hysterical. But I like you’.

We first meet Marco being introduced to his new class on the first day of a new job as a history teacher in a secondary school. Ceremoniously dropping the coiled length of a blood sausage on his desk, he invites a student to come forward and slice it up with his father’s butcher knife. Then, with the folds of the sausage now segmented, he launches into a lecture on history and the nature of time – how historians have divided time and how we experience time:

I’m going to talk about how the folds of time are made. In agricultural societies, time was thought to be cyclic. Each season repeated the same moment. Of course men aged. But only because they wore out. They were the fuel that made the seasonal machine work.

Capitalism brought the idea of the highway, the highway of time and progress. Progress means that the winners win not only the battle. They’ve also been chosen as intrinsically superior beings. Their superiority turned the cycles and seasons into a corkscrew; and the winners were the point of the corkscrew. With their point they opened the bottles of inferior cultures. Drinking till they had enough. Then they smashed the bottles.  A new kind of violence. Weapons had killed in the past, but now the verdict of history killed the winner’s history.

With this new violence came a new fear for the winners. Fear of the past. Fear of inferiors in their broken bottles. If the past caught up with the winners, it might show as little pity as they had shown. In the last century this fear became scientific. Time became a road with no bends. … And the road was marked with perfect regularity. Millions of years divided into eras, dates, days, working hours… clocking in clocking out like blood sausage.  Today the highway of capitalism is collapsing… for more reasons than I can tell you in this bit of sausage, this lesson.

Some things make holes in time. …Time bends so the holes coincide. Why are prophets misunderstood in their own time?  Because only half the holes are there. They’re between time. The holes prophets make to see the future are the same ones historians use to look at the past. The holes made by Rousseau today explain the 18th century.

In a review of Jonah for Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media in 1977, Robert Stam wrote:

Jonah explores the interwoven lives of these characters. It situates them within the social and economic landscape. We see the kind of work they do and witness their struggle to live a more human life in the face of bourgeois alienation. The eight central figures are simultaneously integrated into society, if only by the work they perform, and live outside of it. They are both in the mainstream and on the margins. Earning their daily bread in the capitalist kingdom of means, they have their eyes affixed and their ears attuned to a distant kingdom of ends. While few of them are explicitly leftist, their words and deeds suggest conscious and unconscious opposition to the system, an opposition which takes diverse forms – Mathieu’s union militancy, Marco’s anti-authoritarian pedagogy, Marie’s cash register sabotage, Madeleine’s ‘transgressions’, Marguerite and Marcel’s organic resistance to the land-grabbers, Mathieu’s alternative school.

Marco and Marie

Marco and Marie

Max’s lecture to his students summarise ideas in the postscript to John Berger’s novel Pig Earth, and it’s surely Berger’s influence which makes this film a meditation on time passing – how the world changes around us, and how we develop as individuals in our different ways and with our personal philosophies.

Max falls in love with Marie, a supermarket cashier who makes her contribution to evening out society’s inequalities by knowingly undercharging elderly customers.  Marie is a marginal character in the sense that, whilst she works in Switzerland, she is a native of France and so every evening, under Swiss law, she must return across the border.  She lives next door to a retired engine driver who she supplies with liberated groceries. The old train driver has a personal take on the nature of time:

Do you ever ride a train? What do you see? The landscape passing, like at the movies. I don’t go to the movies anymore. But, on the footplate, The landscape doesn’t pass by. You go into it. And into it. And into it. It’s like music. You go straight ahead, right to where the rails join.  And however far you go… They never join.

Later, after he has been sacked from his teaching job and begun work in an old peoples home, Marco observes that:

The old understand the value of time. When you have a lot, time is both future and past.  All memories are in the present. And all hopes too. But they don’t destroy the present.

In Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner, Jerry White writes:

Jonas is a film about the ways that time acts on everyone, and the responsibility that this action in turn demands of everyone: responsibility to the past (struggles and victories, half-forgotten though they may sometimes seem), responsibility to the present (to the people you live in community with now), responsibility to the future (to kids who are just being born, and whose experiences at the age on 25 can only be vaguely imagined).

Jonah was the last of three films written by John Berger in close collaboration with the leftist director Alain Tanner (the others were The Salamander (1971) and The Middle of the World, made in 1974). Berger and Tanner do not present us with a utopian vision: the consequence of Marie’s generosity of spirit is imprisonment, while Marco is sacked for his unorthodox teaching methods.  If anything, the film extols the virtues of stoicism and adaptability: like Rousseau in Emile who insists metaphorically that a child must be able ‘to brave opulence and poverty, to live, if he has to, in freezing Iceland or on Malta’s burning rocks’.  This is how to survive and preserve your individuality in a society that demands conformity.  In the film’s final scene, we see Mathieu on riding his bike on the way to work in the morning.  We hear his thoughts as he negotiates Geneva’s busy streets:

Oh Marguerite the witch, Oh Marco the philosopher, Oh Marie the thief, Oh Marcel the hermit, Oh Mathilde my love, Oh Max the former prophet, Oh Madeleine the mad … I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.  I’m going back to work. I’ll be exploited. I’ll try to use your hopes as levers. I’m cold. I’m in the 20th century, Jonah. I’m only asked to keep quiet, to accept everything. I’m only permitted to do what I’m paid to do. I’m labour. Labour on its bicycle. Jonah, the game isn’t up. Look at our lives! From the day we learn to walk, to the day the army fires on thousands of us. From your first reading lesson to the last democratic decision: to yield nothing despite all threats. Will it be better for you? The better is systematically put aside. I say: nobody is to decide for us anymore. The first time nothing may happen. The tenth time there’ll be a committee. The hundredth time a strike, and another reading lesson for you, Jonah. As often as I ride to work…More. As many times as the days of my life.

Eight characters in search of liberation

Eight characters in search of liberation

In a an important sense the central character of this film is unseen (or seen just once, in a postscript dated 1980).  It’s Jonah, of course.  Mathilde’s pregnancy causes the film’s characters – and the viewer – to reflect on what kind of society Jonah might find himself in, in the year 2000. The boy will be called Jonah because his mother is ‘like a whale’. Mathieu says:

Jonah will come out of your womb. He fell out of the boat, the ship of fools we’re on. In the year 2000, Jonah will be 25. At 25, the century will disgorge him. Or vomit him up. The whale of history will disgorge Jonah, who will be 25 in the year 2000. That’s the time left to us to help him get out of the mess.

In the film’s last shot – now five years in the future – we see Mathilde, also heading to work.  She’s looks from the window of abus and sees the statue of Rousseau, who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who so irritated the city’s leaders that they burned his books. But later the city capitalized on his fame and erected the statue, which features a quotation from Emile, the last words we hear on the soundtrack.

In Emile, Rousseau portrays the education of Emile as a work in progress, believing that Emile should follow the truth that grows within himself rather than the rules imposed from without by society.  He writes:

Needs change according to men’s situations.  There is a great difference between natural man in nature and natural man in society. Emile is no savage to send to the wilderness. He is a savage made to live in cities.

Jerry White in Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner makes an interesting suggestion about how, in choosing this quote, Berger and Tanner highlight the connection between the land beyond the city where their characters have made a brief stand, and the city itself:

This, really, is the world of Jonah: Geneva. The countryside outside of its pale is part of this larger metropolitan existence, finally inseparable from it, regardless of whether people like Max succeed in derailing land speculation scams. The film is showing us here that Rousseau is really a harbinger of this modern consciousness, less an Arcadian poet with a fetish for primitivism than a thinker who was all too aware of the interconnectedness of wilderness and civilization.

Or, perhaps, it’s all contained in the words of one of the ‘two zeroes’, the two characters who seem to represent those labourers about whom Berger has written so much – peasants:

At six or earlier in summer you can hear birds sing. So many… As numerous as the headlines. They send messages all around us. They’re easy to hear if you don’t read the paper. But man has invented a terrible silence. Building it stone by stone, and no longer hears the messages around him. If he could hear them, he’d be a little encouraged.

Rousseau Geneva

In order to subject fortune and things to yourself, begin by making yourself independent of them. To reign by opinion, begin by reigning over it…. Freedom is found in no form of government; it is in the heart of the free man. He takes it with him everywhere.
– Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile

See also

Ice Age art: like a foal that can walk straight away

Ice Age art: like a foal that can walk straight away

They lived by hunting and gathering nuts, berries and seeds, moving across the tundra south of the fluctuating ice cap for tens of thousands of years, following established seasonal cycles.  Their lives were as closely intertwined with the animals they tracked as ours are with the things we buy.  Animals filled their days, providing them with pelts for clothing, bones for tools – and nourishment.  Animals haunted their consciousness, glimpsed in paintings in the brief, flickering light of a taper in the depths of a cave, or carried as tiny carved objects in a pocket or hung around the neck.

Horse paintings in Chauvet cave, France
Horse paintings in Chauvet cave, France

The people who lived in Europe during the last Ice Age – between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago – created the great cave paintings found in places such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira.  But those were not the only artworks of those times.  Many small, portable sculptures, drawings, models and ornaments were made outside in the daylight of the cave entrances, or in camp-sites during the seasonal treks.  These objects were largely made from animal materials – bone, antler, ivory – and a great many of them depicted the animals from which they were sourced.

I don’t have any doubt which was the most moving and significant exhibition that we saw when in London recently.  Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum is the largest anthology of portable prehistoric European art that has ever been mounted, gathering artefacts from museums in Russia, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic – where the greatest of the archaeological sites that have yielded these objects are located.

This exhibition articulates a thesis underpinned by 21st century scientific understanding.  It is that only humans possessing complex brains physiologically like ours today, able both to observe and conceptualise the world around them, could have created art like this. Possessing a modern brain capable of supporting the proactive, thinking, reasoning, creative mind, Ice Age artists were able to capture the look of living creatures and, by artistic exaggeration and stylisation, create an emotional impact. By demonstrating this fact, this exhibition also decisively indicates how central is art to human life.

As John Berger states – in a quote that greets you at the exhibition’s entrance – ‘Art is like a foal that can walk straight away’.  Almost immediately you are confronted with that vindicates Berger’s statement – in spades. The foot-high Lion Man sculpture from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, carved from a mammoth tusk, is the product of a human mind imaginative enough to conceive a figure with a lion’s head and human body.

Lion Man from Stadel Cave, southwest Germany
The Lion Man from Stadel Cave, south-west Germany

It’s a piece that clearly embodied some powerful symbolic meaning, but what that meaning was we can only guess.  This exhibition poses unanswerable questions with every object: we will never know for certain what these objects meant, or how they were used; we can only speculate.  The Lion Man may have been an avatar of strength and aggression, or – Jill Cook suggests in the superb book that accompanies the exhibition – have represented an ancestor, a god, an actor, a myth or a legend that symbolised the relationship between humans and animals, possibly a shaman who made contact with animal spirits in an ecstatic or trance experience.

Like other pieces in this exhibition, the Lion Man is instructive, too, in revealing the artistic skill that went into making these objects.  The sculptor knew his material well too, splitting the mammoth tusk at its pulp cavity to create the gap between the Lion Man’s legs. A German craftsman found that it took 400 hours to complete a replica using stone tools.  The amount of skilled, laborious work that went into creating artworks in this exhibition suggests that specialist artists may have been given time off other duties to create sculptures that must have been regarded of supreme value and significance to the tribe.

Waterbird in flight from Hohle Fels Cave, south-west Germany
Water bird in flight from Hohle Fels Cave, south-west Germany

Carved from mammoth ivory, the Water Bird in Flight is from Hohle Fels Cave, also in south-west Germany, and is just one of several exquisitely beautiful renditions of animal forms.  It is about 33,000 years old, and like other pieces it is tiny: just 4.7 cm long. Pieces like this demonstrate the truth in John Berger’s assertion in Why Look at Animals that

to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia.  Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.

Or, as Jill Cook speculates in the British Museum book,

Was this a little thing of beauty made purely for pleasure?  Was it a meal or does its lack of strength and aggression steer us towards a shamanic allusion to the routes between human and supernatural worlds via air and water?

We will never know.  But the same questions arise when looking at the Flying Swan pendants found at Mal’ta in Siberia. Carved from mammoth ivory, the birds are depicted in flight with their wings and necks outstretched.  The pendants are perforated for suspension at the end of the body.

Flying swan pendants found at Mal'ta in Siberia
Flying swan pendants found at Mal’ta in Siberia

Swans like these would have been migrants, returning to the skies and waters of Siberia with the spring melt-waters. For hunter-gatherers who had endured a hard winter, their return would have marked a time of joy and celebration as a season of ready meat and eggs gave rise to feasts and ceremonies.  Interestingly, although the inhabitants of Mal’ta survived mainly on reindeer and fish, the only creature other than birds represented in their art is the mammoth.  Could it be that water birds were imbued with special spiritual significance, able to move through three elements – earth, air and water? We will never know.

Vogelherd horse
The Vogelherd Horse

The Vogelherd Horse was carved from mammoth ivory in the Lone valley, north-west of Vienna, about the same time that horses were being painted in the Chauvet cave in France (top of post).  It is at least 35,000 years old and exudes the same vivacity and simplicity – without being naturalistic – as one of the horses in a painting by Chagall.

Marc Chagall Mounting the Ebony Horse
Marc Chagall: Mounting the Ebony Horse

Horses were a source of food, as well as leather, hair and sinew for making clothing and other products.  Was this horse carved as a means of showing thanks to or even apologising for killing a generous creature?  We will never know.  What’s certain is that this artwork involved insight, skill and effort: an experiment in replicating the piece showed that it took at least 35 hours to make.

A bison sculpted from mammoth ivory
A bison sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Zaraysk, Russia

The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.

This is John Berger, in one of the best insights into the people who produced this art – and the centrality of animals in their consciousness.   It’s from ‘Past present‘ (Guardian 2002), an article written following a visit to Chauvet cave in France, home of the oldest cave paintings in the world:

During a relatively warm period in the last Ice Age the climate in Chauvet, in south-eastern France was between 3C and 5C colder than it is today. The trees were limited to birches, Scots pine and juniper. The fauna included many species that are now extinct: mammoths, megaceros deer, cave lions without manes, aurochs and bears that were three metres tall, as well as reindeer, ibex, bison, rhinoceros and wild horses. The human population of nomadic hunter-gatherers was sparse and lived in groups of 20-25. Paleontologists name this population Cro-Magnon, a term that distances at first, yet the distance may turn out to be far-fetched. Neither agriculture nor metallurgy existed. Music and jewellery did. The average life expectancy was 25.

The need for companionship while alive was the same. The Cro-Magnon reply, however, to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.

At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. (So, perhaps, did animals.) They could count. They could carry water. They died differently. Their exemption from animals was possible because they were a minority, and, being a minority, the animals could pardon them for this exemption.

There are brilliant treasures here: the leaping lion from Pavlov in the Czech Republic, the Zaraysk bison, the deer drawing from Le Chaffaud Cave in France, three lions from La Vache in France, the Swimming Reindeer from Montastruc in France, the horse head from Duruthy Cave in the Pyrenees.

The artistic light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day.  This early light of artistic dawn is less certain …but early morning lighting is the most dazzling of all.
– George Bataille, about Lascaux

Engraved drawing of a reindeer
Engraved drawing of a reindeer found at La Madeleine, Dordogne
Horse head, Duruthy Cave, Pyrenees
Horse head, Duruthy Cave, Pyrenees

Throughout the 30,000 years covered by this exhibition, two concerns recur: women and animals  Kathleen Jamie, writing in The Guardian noted the importance of the human relationship to wild animals, at a time when all animals were wild, and we depended on them:

Paleolithic people must have read animal signs and talked about animals obsessively. They hunted, killed, gralloched, skinned, cleaned, cooked, ate, scraped, cured, and sewed, and fashioned artworks and decorations from animal antlers and bones. But mostly they looked. The little images are of animals seen at close quarters or middle distance, with the right “gizz” and proportions. They have been made by skilful and confident makers who were possibly spared other tasks, because to make them took time and daylight. Some pieces show prey species, others portray animals to be feared and admired.

Jamie noted that, although today we surround ourselves with images of animals and teach children their names and shapes, the daily immediacy of wild animals is lost.  But, she says, ‘In this exhibition one feels again their pungency and company, and our dependency on them’.

Engraved drawing of two deer, Le Chaffaud, France
Engraved drawing of two deer, Le Chaffaud, France
Swimming Reindeer, Montastruc, France
Swimming Reindeer, Montastruc, France

Up to now, when we have thought of Paleolithic art, it has probably been the cave paintings of Lascaux or Chauvet, that have come to mind. After this exhibition these small pieces recovered from graves and cave floors will take their place alongside those great artworks. They came from the same source, the same culture, but unlike the cave paintings, as Kathleen Jamie observed in her review of the exhibition for The Guardian, this was art for everyone: viewing of the cave paintings probably being limited to a social elite during shamanic rituals.

By contrast, the tiny pieces displayed here, though precious, were small enough to be carried as the group travelled.  On show, too, are works that suggest communal activities.  There are flutes made from bird bone and ivory and a ‘magic’ disc of bone etched with a cow on one side and a calf on the other: spun on a string it would have appeared that the baby was growing into an adult. There’s an articulated figure made from mammoth ivory, believed to be the earliest example of a puppet.  Evenutilitarian objects were styled and decorated: there are spear throwers made from reindeer antlers that have been carved with designs, sometimes – as in the case of a spear thrower made from reindeer antler carved to depict a mammoth – representing the hunted animal.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler representing a mammoth
Spear thrower made from reindeer antler representing a mammoth

There are tiny figures of dancers and celebrants such as ‘The Worshipper’ from a German cave near Ulm.  A mere 1.5 inches high and possibly 42,000 years old, this piece depicts a human figure, arms raised, perhaps in ecstatic adoration, or maybe dancing.

The Worshipper
‘The Worshipper’

This is the period in human history when figurative art appeared for the first time, and the second section of the exhibition is dedicated to some of the oldest figurative paintings and sculptures. One of the most beautiful pieces is a 23,000 year old mammoth ivory sculpture of an abstract figure unearthed in 1922 in a cave at Lespugue in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Picasso was so fascinated with this piece that he kept two copies of it. The exhibition curators suggest that works like this reveals a visual brain capable of abstraction, and foreshadow the abstract art of the 20th century, reinforcing their case by displaying examples of work by Matisse, Moore, Mondrian and Picasso alongside.  For a sceptical response to this approach, see Brian Sewell’s review in the Standard.

Venus of Lespugue

It is remarkable that the figurative art here almost exclusively portrays women.  The oldest known portrait is the head of a woman, carved in ivory some 26,000 years ago. It was discovered in the 1920s in Dolní Věstonice, a valley in present-day Moravia that was teeming with mammoth and reindeer in the last ice age.  It astonishing piece of art, smaller than a thumb, created using stone tools.  Experts consider it to be a portrait because the woman is portrayed with distinctive individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes just over and there’s just a slit, suggesting that she may have had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. So this may well be an image of a real living woman.

The oldest known portrait: female face from Dolni Vestonice
The oldest known portrait: female face from Dolni Vestonice

Perhaps the most famous female image of Ice Age art is the figure known as the Woman from Willendorf.  It shows an overweight woman with a faceless, bowed head, whose body has probably borne several children.  It was found at a site in Moravia by the fireside of an open campsite.  Most Ice Age representations of women look like this.  So did this represent a male ideal of beauty, motherhood, fertility or kindness?  These depictions of women are the subject of vehement debate.

The Woman from Willendorf
The Woman from Willendorf
Lucian Freud Sleeping by the lion carpet
Lucian Freud: Sleeping by the lion carpet

The Willendorf woman was carved from sandstone; the equally famous and remarkable woman from Dolni Vestonice is the oldest ceramic figure in the world, made from baked clay.  Its black colour is the result of the firing process.

The woman from Dolni Vestonice
The woman from Dolni Vestonice: the oldest ceramic figure in the world
Matisse Grand Nu
Matisse: Grand Nu (1950)

The nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi (on the border between France and Italy) was carved from yellow steatite, a soft stone easy to scrape and carve into shape.  It is probably about 20,000 years old and has an oval head, bowed forward and without facial features.  Her hair hangs down behind in a kind of ponytail.  Her barely suggested arms curve in below the breasts – again, the heavy breasts of a woman who has nurtured children.

There are no images of men.  Whoever crafted these objects – male or female – they were, as Brian Sewell observes in his review, ‘intrigued by women, their form, their breasts and buttocks, their genitals, pregnancy and fat’. This exhibition has no penis, no testicles – yet they are inherently sculptural, and might seem an obvious thing for men to carve or engrave (if, indeed objects were made by men), especially if they wished to celebrate sexuality and virility.  Could it be that the connection between the part played by the man in sex and the birth of a child was unknown, and that pregnancy and childbirth therefore came as a mysterious, mystical and magical event to be celebrated or worshipped in these small figurines?

Nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi
Nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi

In her exhibition review, Kathleen Jamie wrote:

The artworks in Ice Age Art have been exhumed from archaeological sites over the last 150 years. The question arises: why did we have to wait until now for such an exhibition? Avant-garde 20th-century artists embraced the Paleolithic – some of their works are shown here – but perhaps the rest of society wasn’t quite ready. We had to overcome certain 19th- and 20th-century attitudes, to women, to sex, “savages” and “cavemen”, and start reversing out of our monotheistic cul-de-sac, before we could rediscover ourselves, and win this rich reward.

This is a stunning exhibition, one of those once in a lifetime experiences, since it is unlikely that such a large collection of these precious and delicate objects will be assembled again for a long time.  Curator Jill Cook concludes the book accompanying the exhibition with these words:

Although we cannot read the thoughts transcribed in these extraordinary works we can at least appreciate them as produced by artists with specialist skills and creative, flexible modern brains.  They allow our imaginations to race and our intellects to wrestle with facts and theories that are part of our own negotiation with our past and our place in the world.

These works stimulate thoughts about many things, not least the sense of the deep history of human beings on this planet.  We are looking at objects created over a time span of twenty to thirty thousand years during which the climate and the physical environment changed back and forth in ways that would have been hugely challenging to the humans who made them. We look back at them across a gulf of unimaginable time.  As John Berger wrote:

The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.

See also

In search of the asphodel

In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

– ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  […] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. […] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. […]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

– ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie or town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.


The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

– ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry