Moving Between Worlds
John Gray enjoys an insight into the life of a writer who chronicled the lives of many artists. People, Politics and Paintings: A Journalist’s Life by Roger Berthoud. ELSP, 2010. ISBN: 9781906641177.
“In the realm of fiction,” Freud wrote, “we find the lives we need.” Few people have the good fortune to inhabit different worlds in a single life, or the skill to move freely between them. Roger Berthoud, however, is one of those happy few, and in this absorbing memoir he recounts his years as a journalist who used the opportunities of his profession to make himself at home in several milieux.
In his analysis of international affairs and gossip columns, leader columns on the topics of the day and his scrutiny of the lives of some of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Berthoud has deployed his abilities as a writer to record and illuminate quite different aspects of human life. The style of his writing has remained much the same throughout – light, elegant and with not a wasted word – and these same qualities are evident on every page of People, Politics and Paintings.
Berthoud’s conciseness of expression is admirable, but this is more than a stylistic virtue because without it he could hardly have distilled his life into the book. His family background – part-Swiss/French – was a lineage that led his father, a distinguished diplomat, to become “plus anglais que les anglais”. He writes of a wartime childhood spent with family friends on a farm near Montreal, schooldays boarding at Rugby, national service in Germany and Korea, University at Cambridge, an adventurous road trip to Iran and back, and an ill-fated spell in insurance before starting his journalistic life with junior positions at the Harlow Citizen and the Daily Express which, of all the available options, undoubtedly suited him best.
All this is recounted in the first few chapters of his book, along with digressions on the changing sexual mores of these years. Later chapters record his friendship with Maurice Ash and his encounter with E.F. Schumacher – both pioneers of environmental awareness and well known, of course, to readers of Resurgence.
This personal narrative is interwoven with passages of reportage and analysis, which younger readers may find of particular interest. Describing how his father was posted to Warsaw in the spring of 1956, Berthoud reminds the reader that the Hungarian rising of that year was initially sparked by defiant Polish workers, who made clear they would resist Soviet military units that were moving towards Warsaw. The Polish Spring did not last and the Hungarians were crushed, but the foundations of the Soviet bloc shifted all the same. The same year witnessed an act of post-imperial folly when, along with France and Israel, Britain launched the supremely ill-judged Suez adventure.
Alongside reporting international affairs, Berthoud pursued his interest in the arts, producing substantial biographies of Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. For many readers, though, the best passages of the book will be those that recapture the lost world of British print journalism, when copy was dictated over the telephone, every serious newspaper had foreign correspondents, and stories often emerged over lunch or at the bar.
Despite having enjoyed to the full this vanished way of life, Berthoud shows no sadness at its passing. A visible display of melancholy is not his style. Instead he ends his memoir with the reflection, “In the course of my career, I sometimes paused to wonder whether, or when, I had peaked. In terms of happiness, I think it may be now.”
For those who cling to a bourgeois ideal of single-minded purposefulness, there may be a lesson in Berthoud’s story of how he found all the lives he needed – and not in fiction, but in fact.