“The Time We Live”: John Berger, historiographer

At last, some genuine thought brought to bear on the London “riots.”  That it should come from John Berger is no surprise, and no accident.  Here is the link:  http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-berger/time-we-live  You can read the text below.

 

The Time We Live

On August 8th the kids were rioting because they had no future, no words and nowhere to go. One of them, arrested for looting, was eleven years old. Watching the pictures of the Croydon riots I wanted to share my reactions with my mother, long since dead, but she wasn’t available, and I knew this was because I couldn’t remember the name of the Department store where we regularly went before hurrying to the cinema. I searched persistently for the name and couldn’t find it. Suddenly it came to me: Kennards. Kennards! Straightaway my mother was there, looking with me at the footage of the Croydon riots. Looting is consumerism stood on its head with empty pockets.

Strange how names – even a distant one like Kennards – can be so intimately attached to a personal physical presence; such names operate like passwords.

* * *

The lake surrounded by mountains is very deep and about 70 km long. The Rhone flows through it. In stormy weather the waves look like those of a sea. Among the fish that breed here is the Arctic Charr – much acclaimed by gourmets. The Charr belongs to the Salmon family. When small it is almost transparent like a blueish silk handkerchief; when large it can weigh 15 kg. As their spawning season approaches, the ventral sides and pectoral fins of the adult males turn an orange-red.

On the southern side of the lake is a town on a hill, and between the hill and lakeside there is space for a small harbour, a promenade with cafés, a swimming pool, a narrow shingle beach, playgrounds, grass banks and palm trees, and on summer days in August these add up to something like a miniature and modest seaside resort.

Those who gather there are on vacation. They have left their everyday lives behind somewhere. Maybe a few kilometres away, maybe hundreds. They have emptied themselves. The etymological root of the word vacation is the Latin vacare, to be empty, to be free.

If you walk there, you have to pick your way – for the space is narrow and very small – between their mostly reclining freedoms. Many of the women and men on vacation are between thirty and fifty. Barefoot, barelegged, lying on towels in the sun or in the shade of trees, some of them swimming with children, others lounging in chairs. No big projects, for the place is too small and their time here too short. (It’s like this that the hours lengthen.) No deadlines. Few words. The world and its vocabulary, which they normally repeat but don’t believe in, have been left behind. To be empty, free. Doing nothing.

Yet not quite. Little blessings arrive which they collect. For the most part these blessings are memories yet it is misleading to say this, for, at the same time, they are promises. They collect the remembered pleasures of promises which cannot apply to the future which they have gladly vacated , but somehow do apply to the brief, empty present.

The promises are wordless and physical. Some can be seen, some can be touched, some can be heard, some can be tasted. Some are no more than messages in the pulse.

The taste of chocolate. The width of her hips. The splashing of water. The length of the daughter’s drenched hair. The way he laughed early this morning. The gulls above the boat. The crow’s feet by the corners of her eyes. The tattoo he made such a row about. The dog with its tongue hanging out in the heat. The promises in such things operate as passwords: passwords towards a previous expectancy about life. And the holidaymakers on the lakeside collect these passwords, finger them, whisper them, and are wordlessly reminded of that expectancy, which they live again surreptitiously.

Very little or nothing in the lives so far lived by the kids in Croydon has confirmed or encouraged any such expectancy. And so they live, isolated but together, in the desperately violent present.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Current events, History and historiography, Media, News, Reading and writing

One response to ““The Time We Live”: John Berger, historiographer

  1. Thank you. Lyrical and perceptive, both. Like Langston Hughes’ question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” but more hopeless still. What happens when you grow up without any hopes at all?

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