I think it will be necessary for you to come before the cold really sets in. The archive boxes are not stored in heated spaces!
Email from Beverly Berger, 2006
This month the British Library will open the John Berger archive to the public: hundreds of boxes of papers, letters, notes, and photographs documenting John's writings and political engagement over more than sixty years.
The opening of an archive can be a lengthy physical and intellectual journey. The papers accumulated over the years in stable at John and Beverly Berger's house in the French Alps, before I brought them to the British Library in 2011, when John generously agreed to donate his archive to the national collections. The papers still bore traces of their alpine winters, and needed conservation work before we could begin to examine them properly, including time in the deep-freeze to finish off any insect life that had hitched a lift back to London.
For the past couple of years the papers have been assessed and sorted by AHRC- sponsored researcher Dr Tom Overton, who prepared his PHD thesis on the archive, and curated an exhibition at Somerset House: 'John Berger, Art and Property Now'. Today--conserved, numbered, and boxed--the papers will be available in the reading rooms, and can be searched on the catalogue under Add 88964.
If the archive documents an extraordinary writer and thinker, its existence also testifies to a no less extraordinary relationship. John's late wife, Beverly, can take as much credit as John for the survival and assembly of the archive. It was Beverly who carefully retained and stored the manuscripts after they had been typed up (she used to work in publishing in London, and had picked up the habit...as well as picking up John ), and who began to box and sort them in the stable.
When I first tried to contact John, it was Beverly who answered my emails. She set up an initial phone conversation with John, and then took the lead. Later the same year, I met Beverly and John in person at the LRB bookshop for a reading. John was patiently signing books afterwards (I can picture one man with an enormous carrier bag of books, obviously destined for resale on ebay, John genially signing his way through them) while I talked to Beverly. She was, from the beginning, immensely excited about the idea of John's archive coming to the Library. John, perhaps, was as concerned with creating new work (and wary of the time it might take to look back); Beverly keen to move it on.
I just took a look, once again, at my folder of papers that Beverly sent through to me when we began to discuss the archive in detail. The carefully assembled document ('Berger archives') that dissected the mounds of boxes: 'Book Covers', 'Personal', 'General', 'Manuscripts/Notes etc.', and, simply, 'About John B' (something she knew more about than any archive).
I'm looking through the run of Beverly's emails to me now, and surprise myself that they cover almost eight years. At one point, in 2006, she apologises for a delay in getting back to me; joking (and, perhaps, not) that 'subconsciously there must be a part of me that does not want to let go of the archives or I wouldn't put off replying to your emails!' Later, when we have arranged a time for me to come over to their home in Quincy, she warns: "I think it will be necessary for you to come before the cold really sets in. The archive boxes are not stored in heated spaces!"
In fact, it took another two years before I made it out to Quincy. 'So, you will come here', she wrote in early 2009, emphasising in a later email: 'remember to think of LATE LATE SPRING. My old bones will not be happy going into the stable in April or even beginning May.' We arranged a time in late June. In the email confirming arrangements, Beverly added 'You may be roped into helping with the hay-making', though at the time my thoughts were on harvesting the papers.
Looking again at the emails in the weeks before my visit, I see that we talked as much about the haymaking ('very hot and dusty work') as the archive gathering. Later, in a news-story about the archive, the Guardian sub-editors had John insisting that I help with the haymaking as part of the agreement to donate his papers. The story somehow stuck, but John and Beverly were tickled, and I was happy to help in any case.
As part of the arrangements for collection, I'd asked our usual art handlers to come out a few days later to transport the boxes of manuscripts back to the UK. Still in London mode, I asked Beverly for the number of their house, which was missing from the address. Clearly I hadn't quite understood the village: as Beverly explained, there was only one street, and in any case 'everyone knows everyone, so you just ask for Chez Berger'. The lorry that the art transporters sent would end up causing a commotion when it arrived, effectively blocking the whole village as it tried to turn around. John and Beverly marveled at the transubstantiation we had effected, as papers that had lain in the stable for years now got the white-glove reverence usually accorded Old Masters, as they were delicately placed into the climate controlled, high security pantechnicon.
I described my time in Quincy--sorting papers, sharing stories, sharing gnôle--in a series of audio diaries that I uploaded during my stay ('I wondered what you were doing', Beverly remarked, as she saw me yacking into my phone). The narrative of the archive, and of John and Beverly's generosity, was picked up by a number of French and UK newspapers, and we later made a programme ('Harvesting the Archive') with Judith Kampfner for Radio 3.
For me, it was a week that existed out of time, and is sometimes hard to recall now in detail. One image that sticks was of wheelbarrowing the boxes of papers out from the stable to a table in the garden. Overlooked by the cows in the field next door, occasionally hindered by Nero the cat, my wife and I sorted through the papers in the warmth of the sun. I can see Beverly, looking at us from the kitchen window, waving. Later she wrote: 'I always picture you in the garden, recording notes with Tina'.
In archival theory, they talk about the 'creator' of the archive. On my last evening in Quincy, John talked about the archive as being Beverly's, and how we might make that clear when it was catalogued. The papers document John's creative work and collaborations, but the archive is also Beverly's creation, her creative spirit that animates the collection. In the Radio 3 documentary about the donation, John talked about what interested him in archives:
You enter the past but you enter the past which is as it were in the present tense. And so it's another way of people who lived in the past who perhaps are still living or perhaps are dead; a way of them being present...the company of the past, that's what interests me, and archives are a kind of site in the sense of like an archaeological site, a site for that company; the company of the past.
Through the creation of the archive, and the new connections it will make as researchers begin to access it, we might again enjoy the company of Beverly. Beverly, the past, present once again.
I've almost reached the end of Beverly's emails. The last one was from 2012, where there is reference to her having been unwell. But she's excited to report the success of John's readings at the Avignon Festival that year. I'd asked about using photos that I'd taken in Quincy as part of the Berger exhibition in London, and was having trouble identifying some of the buildings. Beverly reminds me of the difference between the stable and the barn, but finishes 'Anyway it doesn't matter what you call it. Go ahead!'
'Go ahead'. Avanti! I can hear her saying it now.
The final email is dated 30 July 2013, titled 'Beverly'. It reports that Beverly Bancroft Berger passed away that morning.