The death of John Berger has robbed us of a serious, penetrating and original intelligence, at a time when such qualities are sorely needed. The range of his work, as revealed by obituaries and other articles celebrating his life, came as a surprise to me, a reflection on my own laziness, no doubt, but also on our culture’s antipathy to the intellectual, which was the reason he took himself off to France. The piece I know best, because it was personally useful, is A Fortunate Man, the study he wrote of his doctor in the Forest of Dean. I started reading this in connection with the family history I have been writing, in the first volume of which our GP has a walk-on part. I was looking for perspective on that first generation of NHS doctors: what they made of their new status and of the ordinary people now entitled to call on their services. But Berger’s account steadfastly refused to be what I expected, going its own way with a doggedness that seemed ideological yet responsive to the subject. One passage comes to mind, where he takes apart the notion of common sense on which the doctor’s patients (I almost said parishioners) based their view of the world. It made me think of my father, of whom the same might be said, and of how I could make that point without coming across as superior or judgemental. Berger avoids those twin perils by dint of a head-scratching kind of honesty one can imagine being turned on himself. There is no room in this aesthetic for special effects which is why I never entirely warmed to his style. Its brow is always furrowed. There seems little evidence of delight in language. But that is because the purpose is always paramount: thinking one’s way behind the surface of things and challenging others to follow. It is our loss if we only look at the sky when there are fireworks.
Reading A Fortunate Man made me see that my treatment of our family doctor had been superficial, his reappearance in the second volume capable of something more interesting and significant. In the process, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Berger changed my ideas about what it means to write. Having always thought about this in terms of self-exposure – how much to reveal, what distance to keep from the subject and from the reader – I now see it as a means of self-realisation, an opportunity to make a statement about who one is that rarely occurs outside the realm of artistic expression. Secondly, but tied up with this, I had been struggling with a definition for the path my own work had taken, away from fiction, which I expected to be my trade, and towards something more fact-based, if still hopefully creative. Unwilling to privilege either of these directions, still less to let one of them go, I seized on Berger’s notion of storytelling as a means of bringing them together. Storytelling has become very fashionable recently, with cafés devoted to the craft and open mic slots at festivals. Unkindly, I think of it as the literary equivalent of Morris dancing, a slight embarrassment however ancient its roots. Needless to say, however, the author of G and The Seventh Man had a more serious object in view: storytelling as praxis, as a means of making us engage more deeply with the world and what it means to be human. That my projects, ostensibly so unrelated as to seem haphazard, might follow his example by sharing a principled approach or concern has had a profound effect, altering the way I view every word as it appears on the page or screen. It may even qualify as inspiration, although, in keeping with the spirit of the man, I am still thinking about that.