Cataract
Smoke
by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel

In September I reviewed a lovely new hardback from Notting Hill Editions: “What Time is It?” by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel. The two had previously collaborated on an earlier pair of titles from the publisher, and “Time..” was compiled after Berger’s death from his writings. After I published my review, the publisher very kindly sent me the other two books ,”Smoke” and “Cataract”, which was a real treat; and inevitably it wasn’t long before I was drawn to pick them up!

“Cataract” was issued in 2011 and “Smoke” in 2017, with the books following the same format as was obviously later used in “Time”. So there are quotes, musings, thoughts from Berger which are accompanied by Demirel’s striking illustrations, with the two coming together beautifully to illuminate their topics. And an interesting pair of subjects they are too…

With cataracts, wherever you are, you are in a certain sense indoors.

Fairly obviously, “Cataract” covers Berger’s reactions to what is described as the “minor miracle” of cataract surgery. For a man such as Berger, who’s most famous for enlightening us on the ways of looking at, and seeing, the world around us, there’s a hideous irony in the fact that he was afflicted by cataracts, which blur and restrict the vision. Modern surgery can cure them, and the prose records Berger’s experience as his sight returns properly and he can re-encounter the world around him. The illustrations to this one are mainly line drawings, with even a colour work of Berger’s, and they humorously yet sensitively contemplate our relationship with our sight.

Once upon a time men, women and (secretly) children smoked.

“Smoke” takes on perhaps a larger subject; not only does it explore the changing attitudes to the act of smoking, it also looks at the way smoke attacks our planet from all manner of sources. Berger was obviously a smoker, and he relates the tale of how once everybody smoked until gradually the smokers became outcasts; which, as is made clear, is something of a hypocrisy when you consider the amount of smoke belching out of factories and cars on a daily basis. Demirel’s illustrations are funny, clever and pithy and again perfectly complement the words.

I loved reading both of these books and enjoying Berger’s words and Demirel’s illustrations; and they resonated with me in an odd way! You see, my Aged Parent is a hardened smoker – at 85 I think she gets through 20 a day and refuses to give up (which is why visiting her is so often a trial and I need to be fumigated when I leave…). She’s also had two cataract operations, and as I read the book, I recalled her reactions to the new, clear sight she had after them. She constantly commented on how bright and wonderful the colours in the world were; and so it obviously *is* a minor miracle of an operation.

Just as fish live and swim in water: we live and move through light.

Reading the earlier two books these two wonderful artists produced was such a joy, and I would thoroughly recommend reading all three in sequence. They’re beautifully produced (as always with Notting Hill Editions) and as well as presenting some stunning and memorable illustrations, they really do make you think about the subjects and the world around you. Berger was a pithy thinker and Demirel is a marvellous artist; they were the perfect combination and although Berger is much missed, at least he left such wonderful work behind him.

(Review copies kindly provided by the publisher, for which many, many thanks!)