Here Is Where we Meet

By John Berger


Writer and critic John Berger won the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. His latest fiction, Here Is Where We Meet, will be published by Bloomsbury in March, launching a 6 week London-wide celebration of his remarkable work in all media (April 4 to May 18; see It will include a 12 programme film and television retrospective at the National Film Theatre. Berger not only created, with Mike Dibb, one of the most influential television programmes ever made, in Ways of Seeing; he also wrote three important feature films with Alain Tanner, made numerous arts and essay documentaries and bought to the moving image the same kind of rigorous formal and thematic enquiry, always underscored by empathy and experience, that is a hallmark of his writing and other visual collaborations. We republish here the short piece ‘Wanting Now’, which appeared originally in our last issue, because it has given us the thematic framework for our current edition. And we are very pleased to publish an exclusive new text, ‘Willesden Junction’, in advance of the season.

Wanting Now: A Thought for Trafalgar Square

The world has changed. Information is being communicated differently. Misinformation is developing its techniques. On a world scale emigration has become the principal means of survival. The national state of those who had suffered the worst genocide in history has become, militarily speaking, fascist. National states in general have been politically downsized and reduced to the role of vassals serving the new world economic order. The visionary political vocabulary of three centuries has been garbaged. In short, the economic and military global tyranny of today has been established.

At the same time new methods of resistance to this tyranny are being discovered. Rebels now have to be, not so much obedient as self-reliant. Within the resistance centralised authority has been replaced by spontaneous co-operation. Long-term programmes have been replaced by urgent alliances over specific issues. Civil society is learning and beginning to practice the guerrilla tactics of political opposition.  

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous.

That is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organisations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to “movements”. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. The promise of a movement is its future victory; whereas the promises of the incidental moments are instantaneous. Such moments include, life-enhancingly or tragically, experiences of freedom in action. (Freedom without actions does not exist.) Such moments – as no historical “outcome” can ever be – are transcendental, are what Spinoza would have termed eternal, and they are as multitudinous as the stars in an expanding universe.  

A growing awareness throughout the world of this truth is changing the politics of protest. The infinite is beside the poor.

Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.  

If this is true, it follows that artists, no less than those involved in civic and political struggles, can sometimes join without, as it were, a second thought, that wanting now – and in so doing merge for a moment into a freedom which is eternal, and which bears no relation at all to the crap being spoken today by the new tyrants.

Willesden Junction

It was called the Broad Street line. A little suburban electric train running from the City of London to Kew Gardens. Many flower lovers and gardeners took the train to visit and marvel at the flowers in the botanical gardens, founded in the nineteenth century for the study of all the exotic plants being found in the far flung British Empire. In the early 1950s I took this train several times a week to go to a college in Richmond where I was a part-time teacher of painting. At one point the Broad Street line skirts the immense mainline marshalling yards of Willesden. It was here that all the traffic to and from Scotland the North-west was sorted, assembled and prepared. Rolling stock for passengers, first and second class, for goods, merchandise, coal, plying between Leighton Buzzard, Crewe, Preston, Carlisle, Glasgow and London. On each journey in the little train I awaited the moment when we approached and stopped at the Junction and I could look down on the yards. I would sit glued to the window. I have heard people say that they first felt small when they gazed through a telescope at the night sky. For me it happened when I looked across Willesden Junction. In the early morning, at twilight, through rain, in the dark, under snow, in the summer heat, and day after ordinary day. Five years previously the railways in Britain had been nationalised. The London Midland and Scottish Railway which had owned these yards and overseen their continuous, haphazard, chaotic expansion, was now part of British Rail, which was said to belong to the people. As a consequence of nationalisation, the new coal freight trucks had double the capacity of the old ones. In the post-war dereliction there was somewhere a grandeur.


One morning I took the little train and got down at Willesden. I discovered Atlas Road, Common Lane and the North Pole Depot. And I began to draw the marshalling yards. I drew them again and again – as one might draw evening after evening the same woman, head inclined, sewing under the same lamp. Sometimes I drew them as if they were Bethsheba. Sometimes as if they were a Descent from the Cross. I exaggerate? Yes and No. It was a place of exaggeration. Coupling one truck to another and another. Making one train out of the wagons of two. Uncoupling a long train into fifty separate freight cars. Work of precision and exaggeration by day and night, under the arc lights and in daylight. Precision and Exaggeration.

From the drawings I wanted to make etchings. I remember printing some with Pru, and once or twice she came with me to Willesden. We walked along the Hythe Road and somehow got down on to an almost deserted stretch of the Permanent Way. To draw lines on copper into which acid ate had something in common with the rails. Pru spotted and picked up a pair of canvas gloves which had been dropped by a platelayer. She tried them on, laughing. They were huge and her wrists like her legs were very thin. She was the best painter of her generation. She might have been a Soviet constructivist. She died in the 1990s. Now she’s helping me to remember as once, my cheek on her shoulder, my nose in her armpit, she helped me forget. We put the gloves on a turnout lever so they were conspicuous. When a plate had been inked, Pru could wipe it with the side of her palm cleaner than I ever could.

The etchings made one want to paint. At that time my studio was a maid’s room on the top floor of the house of Dr. Winnicott, who is now known throughout the world because of his deep insight into the psychology of infants. He would often be on his hands and knees in the drawing room on the ground floor playing with and observing a baby, and I would be on the top floor with Willesden. Four days out of five it seemed hopeless, life was too big, and we would both console one another at the foot of the stairs. The sharpness of the colours. The depth of the panic. Next morning the same infant and the same canvas would prompt us to try to advance further. In my paintings of the Junction it was summer, almost dusk, a few minutes before the arc-lights. Lines joining, separating, receding, the colour of the stringy ribs of cut sticks of rhubarb, placed side by side, pointing to the horizon, where they stewed.

Some of these paintings were sold, others I gave away to people I loved. None is left. And there’s one I’d give a lot to see again. A small canvas, horizontal, 60 cm x 50cm. It came quickly after weeks of struggle with more ambitious canvasses. At the end of the afternoon I gave a painter’s prayer of thanks. I saw what it was. This was in ‘53, when I was twenty-seven years old.

The paint hurtles towards the horizon. Welts of fading light scar the shoulders of the yard. An invisible controller taps the wheels of a wagon to check for flaws. Everything is flawed, everything is checked, everything will survive another night and the next working day which will come up in the east, beyond the Grand Union Canal. Amen. Rust, the taste of steel on the tongue, the lunge to release the hand brake, the sound of boots walking on the hard clinker between the rails, the green eyes of a woman in another city lying between fresh streets (sheets?), yes Glasgow. Even the pigments on this small canvas were political. Nobody noticed this at the time, least of all myself.

Politics was the National Union of Railwaymen. The NUR. The three letters, like tracks leading towards the horizon without illusion but with force and pride. The trailing points, the facing points, the gradients, the trebly checked signals, the sheds, the turntables, with their regular routines, instructions and orders, give every few minutes a nod to the sky so that it might acknowledge the confidence history had allotted us: that the hundreds of trains assembled here each week, with seven working days, would leave safely and on time, and along with the shit they had to carry and the unavoidable human doubts they had to transport, would deliver to the future beyond the horizon something which would induce that future – I shan’t live to see it – a little more justice to the Junction and the world around it.

Only tonight when the small painting is unfindable, do I realise that its very pigments are political. Naples Yellow, half a dozen tones pretending to be black and cunningly never being so, rose, yes rose, burnt umber, raw sienna, the palest cerulean blue of a gas flame, the grey colour of the platelayer’s thumb at the end of his shift, snot titanium white, a vein of red. Colours that nobody can deceive, colours that remain themselves and insist.