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John Berger, witness to the human condition

In everything he did John Berger addressed the human condition. This was his genius. In his novels, his essays or when he wrote about art, he was always exploring aspects of what it means to be human, and the many ways there are of being human

The world is a much colder place. A source of indefatigable energy has completed its physical life. The fires John lit in so many of us will live on. None with his intensity.

John’s laughter, over a table, down the phone, filled your lungs. Accompanying its shared pleasure there was always the thrill of menace. His wicked intelligence and extra-ordinary sensitivity could tumble your own perception. And you grew. Anyone he engaged with enjoyed a conspiracy of discovery with him. A sprinkle of his attention could make people blossom. Also his pauses: no one paused better than John. Or could give what, for you or me, would be a passing word such careful hesitation. He could consider an “and” for what seemed like minutes as if he was a nervous shopper uncertain that an apple was ripe but unable to put it down.

He is inside me. Since I got to know him in the early seventies the steel of his judgment, the resilience of his politics, the tenderness of his attention, has shaped my own. He showed me how to take grapes from a bunch, to cook and eat artichokes, to breathe before performing, to open oysters and later, to chop wood.

How the two of us struggled, hands sore, opening oysters in Paris without oyster knives! Now we have a new home and Judith just bought a dozen oysters for 1 January. We had not had any since we moved in. While I opened them we talked about John. When we sat down, I said “I feel we have finally arrived”. As we set their thick, rocky shells, with their exquisite, pearl-like layered insides, and gentle, almost flowering bodies resting on them, between us, on a plate of ice and lemon, without our knowing it was the night John lay dying.

A few, immediate stories.

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