On 2 January the highly influential and widely respected art critic and author John Berger died aged 90, prompting industry-wide celebrations of his work by the many creatives he inspired. Here, we publish Berger’s essay Impertinence, taken from his 2016 book Confabulations , alongside a series of his illustrations for the book, which give insight to his way of seeing the world.
I recently reread Albert Camus’ wonderful book The First Man. In it he searches in his childhood and early years for whatever it was that made him the man and writer he later became. And he does this without a trace of egocentricity. It’s a book about the world at that time and about history.
After reading it, I started to ask myself what has made me the kind of storyteller I am. And I came upon a clue. Nothing comparable to what Camus found. Just one insight to note down briefly.
For as long back as I can remember I have had the sensation of being a kind of orphan. A strange kind of orphan, for I had loving parents. There was nothing pathetic about my condition. Certain material circumstances, however, made this sensation possible and even encouraged it.
I seldom saw my parents. When I was at home I was looked after by a New Zealand governess whilst my mother worked in a kitchen making cakes and sweets to sell on the market. This was in the 1930s and my parents had a hard time making ends meet given their way of living. In the two rooms where the Governess and I lived there was a large wardrobe which she called the Cry Cupboard. When I wept I was put in it. From time to time my mother came upstairs to the two rooms to see how we were faring, and to bring us a box of home-made chocolate fudge.
At an early age I was sent to boarding schools. Each term lasted about three months and my parents came to visit me once each term and took me out for a Saturday afternoon.
Our only family occasion was Christmas. A three-day feast with uncles, aunts, cousins. And from an early age, at the end of the sumptuous Christmas meal, I was asked to address the family assembly and make them laugh, as if I were an oddball messenger from elsewhere.
When I was 16 I ran away from boarding school and found a way to live independently with friends in London. And we managed. At Christmas time we’d go down to visit my parents and celebrate. My father gave me my first moped. When I was 18 I asked him to pose for me and I painted his portrait. When he was a kid he had wanted to be a painter but was not allowed to be. But he kept as a souvenir a painting he had made on a metal plate, a painting of some dahlias, and for me, as a kid, this painted plate was a kind of talisman.
As an orphan one learns to be self-sufficient and one learns the tricks of the trades which go with that. One becomes a freelance.
As a freelance, from the age of four or five onwards, I treated all those I encountered as if they too were orphans like me. And I believe I still do this.
I propose a conspiracy of orphans. We exchange winks. We reject hierarchies. All hierarchies. We take the shit of the world for granted and we exchange stories about how we nevertheless get by. We are impertinent. More than half the stars in the universe are orphan-stars belonging to no constellation. And they give off more light than all the constellation stars.
Yes we are impertinent. And I guess that I approach and chat up readers in the same way. As if you too were orphans.
Confabulations by John Berger is published by Penguin.