John Berger was one of the most influential art critics of our time. He was also an artist, poet, and novelist. In 1972, he published his best-seller Ways of Seeing and won the prestigious Booker Prize for the novel G. After gifting half of the prize money to the Black Panthers; he used the rest to finance a research trip that involved following the journey of the peasants from the villages in Greece and Southern Europe to the factories of Germany.

He wrote a book called A Seventh Man, which is the most piercing and sensitive examination of the life of the Gastarbeiter. When my mother read the Greek translation, she sighed, “It is like he was sitting on my shoulder.” John also said that this book revealed the most about him.

It was the hook that directed me into his whole body of work. Consequently, I wrote my PhD dissertation on the theme of exile in John Berger’s writing. It was published as Modernity as Exile (1993).

Leaving behind a stellar career in the London art world, John moved to live among the peasants in the French Alps. I met John in 1991, and we became close friends. For the rest of that decade, I was invited to help make the hay every summer and join the family for Christmas.

Rembetika Greek Blues and John

John’s daughter Katya met Orestes Andreadakis in the dark. They were both film critics attending the Cannes Film Festival. John visited Katya in Athens while she was pregnant. One night, Orestes took John to a tavern where Rembetika Greek Blues was being played. John was spellbound.

On his return to Quincy, France, John asked me to send him information about the Greek Blues; I made a cassette and sent my copy of The Road to Rembetika. [1]

He wore that cassette out and read the book carefully and in the margins, he lightly pencilled his preferences of the lyrics to some of the songs. When I returned to the village one evening, I danced to a classic rembetiko song, Cloudy Sunday. He joined in by raising his arms and moving like a big bear. That was the total of the information that he received.

Greek Blues and the nuptial tragedy

In 1995, John wrote the novel To the Wedding, a tragic story of a young, vibrant woman called Ninon who contracted AIDS and then fell in love. Her father, Jean, travels along the Po River on his motorbike to attend the wedding celebration.

John wrote it from the perspective of a blind narrator – a rembete called Nikos Tsobanakos. My photocopy of an early draft still has the first title, Last Friday Drives Monday Crazy: A Tama. John had seen the tama, votives that hang off icons, in Greek churches. Early in the novel, he described a man zembekiko dancing.

“When you dance to a rembetiko song, you step into the circle of the music and the rhythm is like a round cage with bars, and there you dance before the man or women who once lived the song. You dance a tribute to their sorrow, which the music is throwing out.

Drive death out of the yard

So I don’t have to meet him.

And the clock on the wall

Leads the funeral dirge.

Listening night after night to rembetika is like being tattooed.”

Listening night after night to rembetika is like being tattooed – John Berger

Everything about the music of rembetika and the zembekiko dance is distilled in this passage. The dance is what Zorba danced in Kazantzakis’s novel. In the film by Michael Cacoyiannis, they changed the dance to the syrtaki.

Zembeks – swords drawn

The Zembeks were irregular militia from Asia Minor. The men danced with their arms spread out wide like an eagle and their eyes facing their enemy. The eruptive splendour of youth and the infinite darkness of death are coupled in the dance. It invites the dancer to roll the dice with life.

Zorba insists that the dancer does not hesitate; he is immortal, at one with God. For Zorba, God was neither an alien nor an abstraction.

“I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier.”

When Zorba danced, his feet bounced on the ground. The earth trembled as if it were the skin of the drum.

A tattered book is a read book

John was rough with books. He was impatient with scholarly entrants in art catalogues and derisive towards academic books trapped in the intestines of theory.

While thinking and writing, he liked to shuffle quotes and images. He would gladly trundle down the stairs, find the picture in his library, and cut it out if he needed an illustration. Even when engrossed in a book, he pencilled comments in the margins. Thoughts were most complete when used in conversation.

Books helped him go places. He lived by his books, and he could see quickly how ideas could be shaped into a book. But each book was a station.

No books in my house

There were no books in my house when I was a child. At age four, most of the lodgers in my parents’ house had moved out, and I got my bedroom. Along one wall were built-in cupboards that were empty. I climbed up a chair, and in the darkness of the corner was a small blue hardback book. My hands reached in but could not clutch it.

“Baba, there is a book in my room. Can you get it down for me?”

“Eat all your dinner, and then I will.’

There was spinach, rice, and feta. I liked the rice, and the feta was ok, but how would I eat the spinach? I pinched my nose and gulped it down. My mother was speechless. The only vegetables she saw me eat were potatoes.

Baba went straight to my room. I pointed to the cupboard, and he delivered my prize. He did not open it or ask any questions. I held it in my hands, and he left the room.

It was an academic book on the theories of knowledge. It had a musty smell. A few diagrams but no images and so many words that made no sense to me. It was exactly the book that John would toss away. The cover was rippled hard cardboard. I still have it in my library.

My mother started buying me books. I loved geography and science books. I could stare at maps of empires and only see the glory of travel.

My mother started buying me books. I loved geography and science books. I could stare at maps of empires and only see the glory of travel.

I was fascinated by volcanoes and how magma came from the deep. Then I read that the sun will explode one day, and I burst into tears.

“Why are you crying Niko.”

“Mama, the sun will die in a million years.”

“Don’t worry about that. You will be dead by then.”

“But what about my children.”

Other books came into the house. I bought a box full of Readers Digest from the school fete for less than $2. There was a second-hand bookshop in Chapel Street where I bought James Bond novels. When a new bookstore opened, I purchased the Penguin edition of Plato’s The Republic. The bearded owner thought it was a rather serious purchase. I acted as if I knew.

My mother loved to see me reading, but that was no excuse for dodging domestic work. On Saturday mornings I would lay in bed with the dooner up to my head and my nose in Mario Puzo’s, The Godfather. She came in with the vacuum cleaner blasting and pulled the covers away.

I would go to the library to escape housework. A row of books on a shelf was one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Each book was a passport that took me places.

I want to show you the covers of four art magazines. October, founded in 1976 in New York, the art of the Russian Revolution and French philosophy inspired the editors.

Art and Text founded in Melbourne in 1981, pioneered post-structuralist theory in art theory and challenged the myths of provincialism. Third Text was first published in 1987 in London and challenged the Eurocentric boundaries of modern art by inserting the perspectives of diasporic artists from the third world.

Finally, I want to show you Chronico, the magazine founded by George Michelakakis in Melbourne. This 1984 edition remains as an unsung pioneer in contemporary art and culture. It included images by Peter Lyssiotis, poems by Dimitris Tsaloumas and George Vassilacopoulos, art by Dina Tourvas, political commentary on the shortcomings of multiculturalism by me, and essays by George that were critical of the Greek Community’s obsession with ethnic heritage and purity of language.

He developed a style of thinking that I had not yet encountered in the Greek community – he engaged with the contemporary challenges of the time. Such publications have changed the world. We would not be here today in the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture if that magazine never existed. It was the platform upon which the idea that a contemporary outlook can revitalize rather than cancel heritage and that enclosure in an ethnic ghetto is never enough. The books of today help us make sense of the world we are living in and provide the form for an alternative one to come.

It would be appropriate to end my talk on this optimistic note. But we live in an audio-visual world that is less and less interested in the book as a project that is expressive of life. So, I will end with another anecdote drawn from my memoir on John Berger-Tsobanakos and my father John Papastergiadis.

John and my father had the same bitter-sweet body odour

In 1969, my father came home with a second-hand Holden station wagon, a two-tone grey with protruding wings for the rear lights. In the summer, we would pack for picnics.

My cousins and I would sit on the esky in the back, waving and making funny faces at all the drivers and passing passengers. When I sat on the front bench seat between my mother and my father, I could breathe in his scent. His arms are above my head, holding the wheel.

John Berger loved to wear cologne. Even if he wasn’t going anywhere, he liked putting on Kouros after shaving. When we sat in the shade, waiting for Louis to arrive with the next load of hay, he often wiped his brow, and as he sat up with his back against the barn wall, he rested his elbow on his knee as I lay flat beside him. His scent descended. It was almost the same as the aroma in the car.

As a child, I remember my father’s sense of care and pride in his family. It tended to come out in goofy ways, insisting that we all dance as soon as the music started. Never saying no when I pointed to a toy at the stalls in the South Melbourne market.

Always deferring to my mother’s authority, he often gave me that conspiratorial look that suggested that conceding to her was right even if she was wrong. I remember my father through the outline of his face and body. He was fast and strong. But that strength carried decades of peasant and factory subservience.

At the end of my first year as a tutor in political science at the University of Melbourne, I began editing journals. I became involved with a collective called Arena, which owned its own antiquated lead set printing press. The whole production process enchanted me.

My father had worked in a printing press as a guillotine operator. He took great pride in lining up the paper. The manager was fond of his positive attitude and would let me hang around on school holidays. The machine was huge, and my father had all the English skills that it required. When the arms and blades were set at the right angles, he only needed two words: Stop, Go. To make it even easier, they were in Red and Green.

When I brought home the first copy of a journal with my name printed on the contents page, he was sitting in the kitchen playing backgammon with my uncle.

“Look, baba, it has my name on it.”

He looked up. Put down his dice. He picked up the journal, turned to examine the glue on the spine and flicked through the pages. His eyes darted like a hawk on a rabbit.

“The lines are not straight.”

He rolled the dice and continued trying to trap my uncle in the corner of the board. I walked into the living room and chatted with my mum and aunt. They were talking about how much freedom kids should have. That was more interesting than the destiny of dice.

I don’t remember spending much time looking into my father’s eyes. I looked elsewhere for recognition and rebellion. I would talk to him in abstract hypotheticals and only when thoughts had been resolved. He did little to block me and felt that the highest duty on earth was to sacrifice himself for his children’s education.

When I first met John, I fell into his eyes. The more we talked, the more intense the gaze. Where was this look in my father’s eyes? It seemed buried under the calluses. I was content to be alone but feared drifting into an endlessly fatherless world.

[1] Gail Holst (1975) The Road to Rembetika, Anglo-Hellenic Publishing: Athens

Nikos Papastergiadis is the Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, based at The University of Melbourne. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne

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