Dougald Hine

The masters

There are three men whose writing has influenced me above all. On the surface, they make strange companions, but there are subterranean connections.

Ivan Illich

He was a Catholic priest turned social theorist, the author of institutional critiques such as Medical Nemesis (1976), Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Deschooling Society (1970). Those texts mark the height of Ivan Illich's public profile - and Deschooling inspired us to start School of Everything - but some of his lesser-known texts are closest to my thinking.

  • 'To Hell with Good Intentions', a 1968 talk to student volunteers, is devastating - and should be read by anyone who wants to do good.
  • Energy and Equity was published at the height of the 1973 oil crisis, but its reflections on the political costs of technocratic solutions remain deeply relevant.
  • Vernacular Values (1980) marks a turn in Illich's work, from the social critique of institutions towards the deep history of the assumptions behind our way of living.
  • 'Silence is a Commons' (1983) invites us to a politics of self-limitation in our relationship to technology.
  • 'The Shadow that the Future Throws' (1989) is an interview setting out his misgivings about the doctrine of "sustainable development" promulgated in the Brundtland Report.

His later writings on the past and future of the university - 'Text and University' (1991), In the Vineyard of the Text (1993) and 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy' (1998) - offer a map for how we navigate the crisis of the institutions we have inherited. In addition to Illich's own books, David Cayley has published two volumes of interviews - Ivan Illich in Conversation and The Rivers North of the Future - while Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham's collection The Challenges of Ivan Illich (2002) contains essays from many of his friends and collaborators.

John Berger

The Marxist art critic of the New Statesman in the 1950s and 60s, John Berger made a remarkable TV series called Ways of Seeing (1972; also a book ), and when he won the Booker Prize for his fourth novel, G (1972), gave half the prize money to the Black Panthers as a gesture against the source of Booker-McConnell's wealth. I've written - in 'Death and the Mountain' - about the transformation of Berger's work from the mid-70s, when he settled in a village in the French alps, living and working alongside the last generation of peasants.

My entry into Berger's work came in The Shape of a Pocket (2001). Texts such as 'Steps towards a small theory of the visible', 'The Fayum portraits' and 'Correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos' hit me as a revelation. This was writing to steer by.

Besides the large Selected Essays (2001, edited by Geoff Dyer), these are some of the books I hold dearest among his large and diverse output:

  • A Seventh Man (1975) - a documentary book made in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, telling the stories of migrant workers in Europe. What impresses me is the care with which Berger manages to hold in view two levels of meaning: the personal stories of the men he meets, and the analysis of the global systems with which their lives are entangled.
  • Pig Earth (1979), Once in Europa (1987) and Lilac and Flag (1990) together form the Into Their Labours trilogy which tells the stories of a peasant world as it comes into contact with - and then goes underground within - the world of the modern city.
  • And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984) is philosophical and intimate, something like a collection of love letters, reflections on time, place and meaning.
  • The White Bird (1985) and Keeping a Rendezvous (1992) contain many of his best essays, not all of which are in the Dyer collection.
  • Here is Where We Meet (2005) is an extraordinary autobiographical novel in which a man called John travels across Europe, meeting the ghosts of his mother, lovers and heroes.
  • Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (2007) is his most recent essay collection, still full of fire and insight, worth reading for his answer to the question, "Are you still a Marxist?"

Alan Garner

Of these three masters, Alan Garner came first for me. Like many others, I grew up reading his early novels - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963), Elidor (1965) - fantasies which, like William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), took the conventions of children's literature and struck off in another direction.

  • The Owl Service (1967) breaks through to something deeper: where myth and class cross each other, the power of the stories we live within still allows for moments in which we choose between different possibilities.
  • Red Shift (1973) is almost unbearable, three stark portrayals of how we comfort and how we hurt each other, strung on the line of time and place.
  • Then The Stone Book Quartet (1979), a journey back into what Garner has called the "deep, narrow" culture of the generations of Cheshire craftsmen from which he came.

After that, years of near silence, until the emergence of Strandloper (1996), a dance with the traces of aboriginal culture in Australia and England; a retelling of the true story of a young man from Cheshire, exiled to Australia, who escaped the prison camp and spent the next thirty years living among an Aboriginal tribe.

Thursbitch (2004) travels further into the entanglement of people and place, and the continuation of wild beliefs and customs in the wilder corners of England, now in the 18th century.

There is also a collection of Garner's talks and essays, The Voice That Thunders (1997), which is itself a lesson in storytelling.