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John Berger and the Booker Prize

Clarity is more important than money.

Paris 1974: a campaign is launched (photo, Judith Herrin)

BBC 3 presented a three-hour radio tribute to John Berger on Sunday, 23 July called Ways of Listening. Its centre-piece was a re-broadcast of the dramatization of his novel, To the Wedding, directed by Simon McBurney and created by Complicité. It included tributes, reminiscences and John Berger’s own broadcasts from the BBC archive. The producer Tim Dee asked me for a short reflection and I talked about the time shortly after I got to know him. Here it is in full, followed by the Booker Prize speech in full. The programme can be heard on iPlayer until 28 August 2017.

I want to talk about two episodes in the 1970s, which back then we might have referred to as being about the “conditions of production” of John’s work, and in these neoliberal days his “cash flow”. His getting the Booker prize, denouncing it but taking half the money. Second, his being funded to write novels about peasant life starting with Pig Earth.

The two are linked by something which, today, may seem hard to believe. He was at a pinnacle of his career. Ways of Seeing was still fresh from its being broadcast by the BBC. The book of the four programmes was just becoming a bestseller. G had been published and acclaimed. Yet John was without financial support. British society made every attempt to discard and marginalise him in return for his radicalism – with success. Tolerance can be ruthless in this respect. He was nearly crushed by it.

John read out a careful statement to his fellow diners when the Booker was announced in the Autumn of 1972. He was prepared because it was still early days for the prize and those shortlisted might not turn up. Unlike today when the jury decide just before the gathering and surprise the winner as everything is live streamed – not only did the jury decide in advance but winners were told in confidence to ensure their attendance.

John came to see me with the news. He hated the idea of the prize but he could not afford to refuse it. It was worth £5,000. He was desperate for funds to research a book on immigrant workers. It would become A Seventh Man. He got me to help him finalise the text that explains his decision: to keep half the money for his costs and donate the other to the London Black Panthers to recognise the tainted origins of the Booker McConnell corporation in the West Indies sugar plantations and slavery.

When John came back to his table after reading his statement the critic George Steiner was furious for his not even refusing it outright. He whispered at him in a rage: “You Leninist”. John seemed proud of this when he told me about it the next day, it was a recognition of his cunning.

35 years later Steiner recalled the moment for the Guardian,

I fought very hard for John Berger to win for G, and then he threw it in my face by giving half the prize money to the Black Panthers. It was a very grim experience. I was in a very precarious position at the time and I literally thought it was the end for me in this country. I thought I would have to pack my bags and go.

Steiner was an outsider, like John. Unlike him he desperately wanted to succeed in the British establishment. Yet he retained an intellectual integrity and recognised and welcomed the European ambition and scale of G.

If John had merely rejected the prize outright, he’d have been mocked for copying Jean Paul Sartre as if the Booker was the Nobel prize for literature. Both he and it would have been damaged. Instead, he struck at the underlying and still unresolved bad-faith of British culture with respect to the part played by slavery and racial prejudice in its success. Ironically, this may have helped to elevate the prize to its present importance, ensuring that somehow it matters.

But the marginalisation of Berger proceeded. It meant that after he had written A Seventh Man he could see no way to support his immersing himself in one of the last peasant communities of western Europe in the Haute Savoie, to write what would turn into his fiction trilogy Into their Labours.

He was convinced that he was doomed, and would be brought down by what he called his “Demon”. I went to meet him in Paris in 1974 and launched a campaign to get him to a fellowship at the Transnational Institute. This had been created by left-wing Americans and was based in Amsterdam. The main difficulty was to persuade John – to overcome his resistance, to defy his Demon and apply. Eventually he did, in January 1975. He asked for a modest three-year fellowship. They said “yes” and gave him $6,000 a year. When he got the news he telegrammed me:

YOUR SUCCESS STOP DEMON DEPARTED TO BECOME YOUR

GUARDIAN ANGEL   JOHN

Without this support from across the Atlantic I don’t know what would have happened to John, for his life-source welled up from his implacable stubbornness. The Britain that celebrates him now should not forget this. He rightly fought its class system which, wrongly, shut him down as best it could, hoping to asphyxiate his exceptional genius. It remains a country profoundly hostile to his still vitally necessary radicalism – whether in its demonic or angelic forms.

 

Speech by John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction at the Café Royal in London on 23 November 1972

Since you have awarded me this prize, you may like to know, briefly, what it means to me. The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.

Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus - not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question.

The reason why the novel is so important is that the novel asks questions which no other literary form can ask: questions about the individual working on his own destiny; questions about the uses to which one can put a life - including one’s own. And it poses these questions in a very private way. The novelist’s voice functions like an inner voice.

Although it may seem somewhat inappropriate on my part, I would like to salute - and to thank - this year’s jury for their independence and seriousness in this respect. All four books on their shortlist demonstrate the kind of imaginative non-conformity I’m talking about. That they gave a prize to my book gave me pleasure - because it represented a response, a response from other writers.

G. took five years to write. Since then I have been planning the next five years of my life. I have begun a project about the migrant workers of Europe. I do not know what form the final book will take. Perhaps a novel. Perhaps a book that fits no category. What I do know is that I want some of the voices of the eleven million migrant workers in Europe and of the forty or so million that are their families, mostly left behind in towns and villages but dependent on the wages of the absent workers, to speak through and on the pages of this book. Poverty forces the migrants, year after year, to leave their own places and culture and come to do much of the dirtiest and worst-paid work in the industrialised areas of Europe, where they form the reserve army of labour. What is their view of the world? Of themselves? Of us? Of their own exploitation?

For this project it will be necessary to travel and stay in many places. I will need sometimes to take Turkish friends with me who speak Turkish, or Portuguese friends, or Greek. I want to work again with a photographer, Jean Mohr, with whom I made the book about the country doctor. Even if we live modestly as we ought to and travel in the cheapest way possible, the project of four years will cost about ten thousand pounds. I did not know exactly how we would find this money. I did not have any of it myself. Now the award of the Booker Prize would make it possible to begin.

Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.

More than that, however, is involved. The industrial revolution and the inventions and culture which accompanied it and which created modern Europe was initially financed by profits from the slave trade. And the fundamental nature of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, between black and white, has not changed. In G. the statue of the four chained Moors is the most important single image of the book. This is why I have to turn this prize against itself. And I propose to do so by sharing it in a particular way. The half I give away will change the half I keep.

First let me make the logic of my position really clear. It is not a question of guilt or bad conscience. It certainly is not a question of philanthropy. It is not even, first and foremost, a question of politics. It is a question of my continuing development as a writer: the issue is between me and the culture which has formed me.

Before the slave trade began, before the European de-humanised himself, before he clenched himself on his own violence, there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals. The moment passed. And henceforth the world was divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters. And the European carried this mentality back into his own society. It became part of his way of seeing everything.

The novelist is concerned with the interaction between individual and historical destiny. The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors. And in their struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism - but only through and by virtue of the common struggle - it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.

This is why I intend to share the prize with those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation. The London-based Black Panther movement has arisen out of the bones of what Bookers and other companies have created in the Caribbean; I want to share this prize with the Black Panther movement because they resist both as black people and workers the further exploitation of the oppressed. And because, through their Black People’s Information Centre, they have links with the struggle in Guyana, the seat of Booker McConnell’s wealth, in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean: the struggle whose aim is to expropriate all such enterprises.

You know as well as I do that the amount of money involved - as soon as one stops thinking of it as a literary prize - is extremely small. I badly need more money for my project about the migrant workers of Europe. The Black Panther movement badly needs money for their newspaper and for other activities. But the sharing of the prize signifies that our aims are the same. And by that recognition a great deal is clarified. And in the end – as well as in the beginning – clarity is more important than money.

Anthony Barnett's The Lure of Greatness will be published next month



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