Book Review – “A Seventh Man” John Berger & Jean Mohr (1975)

March 7th, 2016 § 0 comments

a seventh man

YES.

When I was a boy and living in Germany, I played football for the local village team. It was a mixture of Germans and British sons of RAF parents. Over the 4-5 years of playing for them, we would often play teams who had a few ‘Turkish’ kids in their team. These were likely 2nd generation immigrants, the sons of some of the people that this book talks about. The few immigrants seeking work who were able to stay in Germany and bring/have their family there.

I do remember being told on more than one occasion (though the way childhood memory works, who can be sure?) by team mates, both British and German, that the Turks were ‘cheats’, ‘dirty’ and ‘smelly’. I can see in my minds eye the German boys holding their noses so I could fully understand.

The one distinctive memory I actually have of playing against a Turkish boy was during a game on a very hot summers day. A lot of the pitches we played on weren’t grass, but a kind of terracotta dust. It would kick up and get in your eyes, and if you did a sliding tackle it would leave a huge dirty mark along your leg like a hakeme brush. When I sweated, the drips down my forehead would collect the dust and create little trails down my face.

This boy (we were probably 9 or 10 years old) had tiny feet which made the ball look even bigger than it was, but he had incredible control, and could do Cruyff turns. He was very short but strong and had a big arse. His hair was thick and dark and curly and I couldn’t get the ball off him. I can picture him running around me and away as I desperately tried to grab his shirt, and lunged into a sliding tackle that got nowhere near him or the ball.

Mesut Özil was born in Gelsenkirchen in October 1988, a 3rd generation Turkish-German (“My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part”), around the time I was in Germany (1986 – 1991). Gelsenkirchen was around 60 miles from where we lived, and in the 70’s many Turks made their way to this part of Western Germany to work in the then numerous factories.

Özil is my favourite footballer. There is a strange beauty in the way his body moves, the balance and grace and the certainty of movement. When he passes the ball he never overhits it, or underhits it – it is perfectly struck to allow the receiving player to take the ball without breaking stride. He can shape his body to make it appear he is about to do something else, without it being a showy dance like Ronaldo. What I really like is that he sees where other players are on the pitch, and can put the ball in the right place at the right time. I think at Arsenal it probably took the other players a season or so to realise that they could make unusual runs, and that they would be seen – to trust in Özil’s ability to find them. By having this ability, he creates unusual patterns on the pitch, of movement of players and the ball. He creates and that’s why I like him.

This book, like all of Berger’s, is sensitive and empathetic and generous. It’s specific subject matter (generally male workers from Portugal, Turkey and Greece moving to France and Germany) may be a little out of date, but the overarching theme of the trials and stresses and strains of being an immigrant is clearly relevant now. There is no real mention of refugees as such, or women and children, but if you want to try to understand what an immigrant may have to deal with when coming to a new country, you should read this book.

"The Seventh (A hetedik)" - Attila Jozsef (1905 - 1937)
If you set out in this world,
better be born seven times.
Once, in a house on fire,
once, in a freezing flood,
once, in a wild madhouse,
once, in a field of ripe wheat,
once, in an empty cloister,
and once among pigs in sty.
Six babes crying, not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.

When you must fight to survive,
let your enemy see seven.
One, away from work on Sunday,
one, starting his work on Monday,
one, who teaches without payment,
one, who learned to swim by drowning,
one, who is the seed of a forest,
and one, whom wild forefathers protect,
but all their tricks are not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.

If you want to find a woman,
let seven men go for her.
One, who gives heart for words,
one, who takes care of himself,
one, who claims to be a dreamer,
one, who through her skirt can feel her,
one, who knows the hooks and snaps,
one, who steps upon her scarf:
let them buzz like flies around her.
You yourself must be the seventh.

If you write and can afford it,
let seven men write your poem.
One, who builds a marble village,
one, who was born in his sleep,
one, who charts the sky and knows it,
one, whom words call by his name,
one, who perfected his soul,
one, who dissects living rats.
Two are brave and four are wise;
You yourself must be the seventh.

And if all went as was written,
you will die for seven men.
One, who is rocked and suckled,
one, who grabs a hard young breast,
one, who throws down empty dishes,
one, who helps the poor win;
one, who worked till he goes to pieces,
one, who just stares at the moon.
The world will be your tombstone:
you yourself must be the seventh.

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