For some reason, I took great comfort towards the end of December in non-fiction writing, and I followed up my reading of the very pithy George Orwell anthology with another slim volume of John Berger’s writing. Entitled “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos”, it was originally published in 1984, although my edition is a 2005 reprint. In much the same way “Confabulations“, it’s a bit of a pot pourri of a book; combining poetry with meditations on art, mortality, love and the distance from a lover, it’s a heady mix and one which chimed in with my mood as well as occupying my mind and heart for some days.

This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on the line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.

Berger’s writings are often eclectic and hard to define; he’s not an author who you can summarise easily and this is not a book where you can give any kind of ‘plot summary’. Instead, it’s perhaps best regarded as some kind of ‘commonplace book’, collecting together poems, fragments of autobiography, thoughts on art or the natural world and extended meditations on the nature of time. This latter element, of course, formed the subject of Berger’s final book for Notthing Hill Editions, which I reviewed here; and it seems to be something which constantly exercised his mind. Certainly our concept and understanding of time has changed over the centuries, and it was fascinating reading Berger’s thoughts on the topic.

Central to the book is love , of course, and Berger contemplates somewhat elliptically an affair in which he is involved. We never know with whom, why they’re separated and whether the love endured; but the passages Berger addresses to the unknown other are moving and lyrical (like all of his writing) and allow a strangely intimate look at the affair even though we’re kept at a distance.

A lilac branch, subject of contemplation for Berger…

Berger was, of course, a political animal with a deep distrust of authority and this element is present in the narrative. He had a great sympathy with those struggle to make change for the better and it does seem that little has changed since this book was first published.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is not by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality.

In the end this book is probably unclassifiable, and that’s fine by me. I love Berger’s books of meditations, full of thought provoking writing, lyrical and meditative. Though written many years ago, like Orwell, Berger’s words contain thoughts which are still relevant, and reading through the book I constantly felt I was encountering little nuggets of truth and meaning.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

Although he was a very different kind of thinker and writer to Orwell, Berger shared the same distrust of those in power and the same anger at the suffering of those being controlled. An odd pairing of books to start of the year with, maybe, but I was in need of writing which took me away from the everyday horrors and convinced me that the words of thinking people were still there to reassure. “and our faces…” did just that and will find a welcome place amongst my growing pile of Berger’s books!