Adam Scovell searches for the Stoke Newington birthplace of the art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger.
In an old episode of the BBC series, Face To Face, the writer and art critic John Berger is frowning in thought. The questioner, Jeremy Isaacs, is precise in his interrogation of the relationship between place and writing in Berger’s work, highlighting the unusual level of interest in exiles, émigrés and people on the move in particular. The conversation softens with a question regarding where Berger was actually born. “1 Filey Avenue, Stoke Newington,” he says. There’s warmth in the way he gives this answer, extending each syllable in his ever-comforting voice for far longer than necessary, as if such an action extends the memories that the place name has conjured.
Having read much of Berger’s work recently, it’s easy to forget that, aside from being from London, he was very much a London writer for a time, right up until his departure from the country – first to Geneva in the early 1960s, and then finally and dramatically two years after his Man Booker win in 1972 for G. From then on, he lived in small village of Quincy in the Haute-Savoie region of France, though also had spots near Paris for when the cosmopolitan callings of being a successful writer were ultimately unavoidable. “You were born and brought up in England but now live in Europe. Why is that?” asks Isaacs. Berger cannot answer as there isn’t specifically a single narrative for such a shift – though in our current times, it’s easy to feel a sense of empathy.
In spite of this growing empathy, watching the Face To Face interview had given me a destination and so, taking a number of stifling trains from South London, I went in search of the house where Berger grew up. Having read further, it was clear that Berger’s relationship with London was fragmented. He spent time at the St. Edward’s boarding school in Oxford which he left to return back to London and join Central Saint Martins. The war uprooted him towards its end, moving him to Belfast and elsewhere, but once again boomeranging him back to London – and eventually the Chelsea Art School. Finally he ended up teaching in Twickenham before his break with the BBC World Service in the early fifties. London is seen and understood but never quite solid underfoot, perhaps reflecting his relationship to Britain as a whole.
The day was warm as I got off the Overground at Stoke Newington. A woman with a clipboard asked if I felt safe in the station, whilst a man sang down the slight brick alleyway that leads behind the railway line. The hubbub of the road provided a pleasing backdrop to the energetic day. Filey Avenue was not far from the station but far enough to see the cornucopia of cultures now intermingling all around the area. Berger would have been excited by all of the stories interlocking and travelling here in different directions. Typical with luck, however, I got briefly lost. The suburban roads all look alike but are strangely interconnected with alleyways that dart off each other at diagonals, sometimes housing stalls selling fruit; an anachronism from a time before supermarkets.
I must have looked puzzled as a woman whose eyes beamed from behind a veil asked kindly if I was lost. She pointed me in the right direction, the two of us then shooting together down the angled alleyway like pinballs. At the time, I was reading Berger’s debut fiction, A Painter of Our Time (1958). Very much a London novel, it captures perfectly that moody, late 1950s mixture of Bohemia and melancholy; that same mixture found in everything from the music of the Stan Tracey Quartet and the paintings of Leon Kossoff to the plays of John Osborne. In it, the artist whose diary makes up the majority of the novel writes of London:
“There are days when London becomes tangible and today was one of them. You feel then that the scale of London is only a question of repetition of the corners you can see round, roofs whose angles you can judge, streets that you can continue to cross and walk down, buildings that rise up four square on their foundations and are encompassable, trees that grow upward where stone has left a place for them; the mystery of London vanishes; it ceases to be a dumb force; it becomes a city built and inhabited by men.” (1958)
The living city. It’s sometimes difficult to understand how a city works when sat at a desk; that a whole urban ecosystem goes about its business unconnected by commutes and rush hours. Berger understood this and walking around Stoke Newington that day, it was enjoyable to find the city’s mystery replaced with a simple sense of living. Stoke Newington is functional as well as brewing layers of history underneath.
Number 1 Filey Avenue came into sight as a builder was entering its white wooden door. I saw his hand flinch slightly at the heat contained in its paintwork as it closed behind him. The house is undoubtedly little changed; the windows still single-paned and a white trellis with corrugated iron creating a makeshift garage. I pulled out my Polaroid camera and snapped, the heat melting the colours of the photo like a resilient memory inescapably fading. “The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled” wrote Berger in his seminal Ways of Seeing (1972). What was I seeing that day? A house? The memory of a great writer? A projection of what I expected this place to be like?
As the sun shone down on the gleaming white paintwork and the inside of my pockets scratched the developing Polaroid with what looked like claw marks, I was glad that this feeling was, like so many of Berger’s characters and even the writer himself, never to fully settle.