The Reading Room

John Berger’s Self Portrait 1914-18

I was recently watching (for the umpteenth time) Tilda Swinton’s wonderful film about the late author and art critic John Berger. ‘The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger’ shows the great man in his twilight years and in the first part of the film the pair discuss the lives of their fathers, both of whom served in the two Great Wars.

I found this particularly moving, especially as Remembrance Sunday was nearing and it is a sobering personal reminder of my late father’s own military service. Berger’s father served in World War One and in the film he recalls how his father spoke little of the dreadful experience in the trenches.

My father also spoke little of what he saw but each year at the sight of the Cenotaph in November his eyes would mist over in a rare show of emotion and so following the programme I turned to Berger’s book of poems for a closer look at his relationship with his father and how that resonated with me and my father.

. Collected Poems was first published in 2014 and features sketches by Berger’s son, Yves. The stand-out piece for me is the wonderful Self Portrait 1914-18 in which he describes his life before his birth through the photographs his father kept of his wife which fuelled his hopes to see the end of that terrible war until the realisation of his future on the day it ended.

How many soldiers must have kept such mementoes close to their chests throughout those times in the hope it would bring them luck and something to hold on for? That Berger felt his life began back in those trenches years before his birth truly struck a chord with me. Copyright laws prevent me from sharing the poem with you but better still, seek out his work and keep the great man’s memory alive

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