Goldsmiths sociologists’ birthday tribute to John Berger

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An array of international names pay tribute to novelist, painter, poet and art critic John Berger on his 90th birthday in two new books edited by Goldsmiths, University of London’s Dr Yasmin Gunaratnam.

A Jar of Wild Flowers (Zed books) brings together essays by scholars, activists, translators and artists, including actress Julie Christie, Goldsmiths Honorary Fellow and multiple-literary prize-winner Ali Smith, and investigative journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, in a celebration of Berger’s life and work.

An introduction by Dr Gunaratnam and essays by Goldsmiths’ Professor Vikki Bell and Dr Nirmal Puwar (Department of Sociology) are included in the collection - the first truly international and cross-cultural celebration of Berger’s contributions across a huge range of fields and subjects, including literature, art, photography, migration and medicine.

Zed Books and Curzon Goldsmiths collaborate on 17 November with an evening celebration. A screening of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (directed by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz) will be followed by a discussion and Q&A with Dr Gunaratnam, Professor Bell and Berger’s friend, the artist Michael Broughton.

Also published this month is The Long White Thread of Words (Smokestack books), a poetry collection bringing together writers from all over the world to mark Berger’s birthday.

Co-edited by poet and translater Amarjit Chandan, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Gareth Evans and Dr Gunaratnam, it features work by poets from Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Cuba, France, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Macedonia, Nigeria, Palestine, Spain, Turkey, the USA and the UK. Contributors include Elaine Feinstein, Nikola Madzirov, Valerio Magrelli, Anne Michaels, Andrew Motion, Daljit Nagra, Sean O’Brien, Michael Ondaatje, Ruth Padel, Claudia Rankine and George Szirtes.

Put together as a surprise for Berger, the collection was launched on Monday 17 October at Kings Place, London, with readings by actor Toby Jones, and poets Lavinia Greenlaw and Bejan Matur. A recording of the night is being produced by the British Library.

John Berger was born in London in 1926. In 1972 he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize for his novel G. In 2009 he was awarded the Golden PEN award by London PEN for a lifetime’s contribution to literature. He lives in a village in Haute-Savoie, in the French Alps.

Yasmin Gunaratnam comments: "Why celebrate Berger? John Berger’s work can be found across undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, although ironically he never went to university himself. Always beautifully eloquent, fresh and poetic, his writing and words have enduring relevance and an extraordinary reach.

Berger’s concern with social injustice has always been a vital part of what he does. As the writer Arundhati Roy says, in her endorsement of A Jar of Wild Flowers - John Berger has made the world a better place to live in.

"Students today are captivated by Berger, not least his ‘Ways of Seeing', a 1970s TV series and book that transformed the stuffiness of art history at the time and how we think about visual images in everyday life.

"It felt important to celebrate this unique artist and intellectual and to show how his ideas have been taken up across the world and by new generations.”