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Bernard Kops, Writer

May 27, 2012
by the gentle author

“It’s amazing I have lived so long, after all the drugs that I have taken in my life!” declared Bernard Kops with a certain genial alacrity – speaking now as a sprightly eighty-six year old – when I visited him and his wife of fifty-eight years, Erica, in Finchley last week. Yet once he told me his stories of growing up in Stepney Green in the nineteen thirties, I understood how those experiences might instill a keen will to live which could, in part at least, account for his glorious longevity.

Bernard’s father left Rotterdam with his family in 1902, hoping to get to New York, but when he bought his ticket it only took him as far as London. The ticket office in Amsterdam explained that he could collect the second part of his ticket to New York from Mr Smith on arrival in London, but when he arrived in the Port of London and asked for Mr Smith everyone laughed at him. And thus it was that Bernard’s father’s dream of America was supplanted by the East End. Later, the relatives in Amsterdam implored Bernard’s father to return with his family prior to the outbreak of World War II, believing that Holland would remain neutral and Bernard remembers his father weeping because he could not afford the tickets to return. Yet those relatives were all killed by the Nazis and Bernard’s father’s impecunious situation was the salvation of his immediate family.

Such is the equivocal nature of Bernard Kops’ inheritance and, even now, looking back from his current perspective as the father of four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, it colours all experience with a certain sentiment, cherishing the fleeting brilliance of life.

“I couldn’t have done anything without Erica,” he assured me last week, prefacing our conversation, when I visited him in the Victorian apartment block in Finchley where he has lived for the last half century, moving there from Soho in the days when it was an enclave of writers and artists. Walking down the long passage in his modest basement flat, I found him in a peaceful room looking out onto the garden where we chatted beneath the poster for “The Hamlet of Stepney Green.” Bernard’s first play launched him as one of the new wave of young playwrights from the East End, alongside Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter, that came to define British theatre in the post-war era. “There were actors who couldn’t fathom what we were doing, but we brought the streets into the theatre,” Bernard explained, “I still think of myself as a street person, I come from a verbal culture where everybody was always talking all the time.”

Recalling his childhood, he said, “Everyone was starving in those days before the war. And when my sister Phoebe came home and she had got a job, we were all overjoyed. But then she came back from the sweatshop and said the boss has been feeling her up. ‘She’s not going back,’ said my mother. ‘We need the money,’ said my father. Because we were so poor, every day was a battle. My whole life was a drama.”

“I was different from my brothers and sisters, and I don’t know why,” Bernard confessed, still bemused by his literary talent, “My mother recognised it, she used to say, ‘He’s the one that’s going to take me to Torquay one day.’ That was her measure of success.” One of Bernard’s earliest memories is of hiding under the table to eavesdrop on the adults and his mother asking, “Where’s my Bernie?” which was the cue for him to jump out and delight her.

As a child, Bernard knew that it was not safe for him to stray up the Cambridge Heath Rd towards Bethnal Green because that was where the  fascist blackshirts were. Yet on the day that war was declared, when Bernard’s mother gave him sixpence to seek his own amusement, he took a bus through the danger zone up to the West End where – at eleven years old – he discovered a vision of whole other world that he realised his mother had never seen. Then, walking down Brick Lane one day  just after the war, a young man stopped Bernard and asked what he was mumbling under his breath and Bernard admitted he was speaking poetry. Realising that Bernard had never read any poetry, he gave Bernard a slim volume of Rupert Brooke published by Faber and Faber. “So I read Grantchester and I thought it was fantastic,” Bernard recalled fondly, “I went to the library and asked, ‘Have you got any more Faber and Faber books like this?’ The library gave me freedom.”

In common with generations of writers and artists from the East End, Bernard Kops educating himself using the collection at the former Whitechapel Library next to the Whitechapel Gallery. From here, Bernard took classes in drama at Toynbee Hall which focused upon improvisation – inventing plays – and it gave him the technique to launch himself as playwright. This was a move that eventually led him to live in Soho, enjoying the company of his literary peers, and he recalls returning from there  to Hanbury St to visit Colin McInnes while he was writing Absolute Beginners, in which Bernard appears in a barely fictionalised form as “Mannie Katz.”

In summation,“I’m a poet basically,” he announced to me with a diffident smile.

All this time, Erica had been sitting across the room from us, encouraging Bernard by making small appreciative noises and completing the odd stray sentence in a story she has heard innumerable times. In a prolific career including plays, screenplays, poems, novels and autobiography, life has not run entirely smoothly for Bernard who succumbed to drug addiction and depression, yet overcame both afflictions with Erica’s support to reach his current state of benign equanimity. “I said to her, the moment I met her, that I was going to marry her, and she thought I was absolutely mad,” Bernard confided, raising his voice and catching Erica’s eye provocatively. “And I haven’t changed my mind,” confirmed Erica with a nod from the other side of the room, folding her hands affectionately.

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East

How often I went in for warmth and a doze
The newspaper room whilst my world outside froze
And I took out my sardine sandwich feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
And the tramps and the madman and the chattering crone.
The smell of their farts could turn you to stone
But anywhere, anywhere was better than home.
.
The joy to escape from family and war.
But how can you have dreams?
you’ll end up on the floor.
Be like your brothers, what else is life for?
.
You’re lost and you’re drifting, settle down, get a job.
Meet a nice Jewish girl, work hard, earn a few bob.
Get married, have kids; a nice home on the never
and save up for the future and days of rough weather.
.
Come back down to earth, there is nothing more.
I listened and nodded, like I knew the score.
And early next morning l crept out the door.
.
Outside it was pouring
I was leaving forever.
.
I was finally, irrevocably done with this scene,
The trap of my world in Stepney Green.
With nowhere to go and nothing to dream
.
A loner in love with words, but so lost
and wandering the streets, not counting the cost.
I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name
and pulled me inside.
.
And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
.
And my brain explodes when I suddenly find,
an orchard within for the heart and the mind.
The past was a mirage I’d left far behind
.
And I am a locust and I’m at a feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
And Rosenberg also came to get out of the cold
To write poems of fire, but he never grew old.
And here I met Chekhov, Tolstoy, Meyerhold.
I read all their worlds, their dark visions of gold.
.
The reference library, where my thoughts were to rage.
I ate book after book, page after page.
I scoffed poetry for breakfast and novels for tea.
And plays for my supper. No more poverty.
Welcome young poet, in here you are free
to follow your star to where you should be.
.
That door of the library was the door into me
.
And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
.

Bernard & Erica

For You

How long, how long can lovers last?
the days, the weeks, the years fly past
And only dreams can stem the flow
As crowds and clouds just come and go.
Come and hold me, close my eyes
And open my heart and calm my cries.
.

May 2012

(This is the first publication of a new poem)

.

Bernard Kops

Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

You may also like to read about Bernard Kops’ close friend

Emanuel Litvinoff, Writer

11 Responses leave one →
  1. aubrey permalink
    May 27, 2012

    I was captivated by the piece. Beautifully written: the first poem was/is truthful, funny and moving. Thank you for the second one; perhaps more sombre and personal, than the first.

  2. Anne Forster permalink
    May 27, 2012

    What a lovely poem at the end .

  3. Patricia Cleveland-Peck permalink
    May 28, 2012

    Yes, that poem is a joy. It is so rare to find a celebration of long-term love. As someone who has been happily married for nearly 50 years I was delighted and moved by it

  4. May 30, 2012

    Have always loved Bernard’s poetry. Bought his books years back from Bernard Stone’s Turret bookshop in S. Kensington. Have read his autobiography ‘The World is a Wedding’ many times.
    Am always returning to his work and finding something new. Great to see these new poems.
    Good health to you Bernard, and to Erica, your muse.

  5. May 30, 2012

    My late brother Stephen, who took his own life in 1975, lodged with Bernard Kops in Finchley in the late 60s or early 70s. Coming back from my mother’s memorial service I found the link to this article on Facebook. We still have a signed copy of Kops’ novel The Dissent of Dominic Kaplan. So good to hear he is still going strong.

  6. joan permalink
    September 7, 2012

    Bernard Kops fans might like to know that a copy of his book ‘Motorbike’ is currently on display in the ‘Pop! Design Culture Fashion’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey.

    Joan

  7. barbara kushner permalink
    September 23, 2012

    I heard the Whitechapel Library poem yesterday on the radio, and found it profoundly moving. So I searched for it on the Internet. My parents grew up in the East End in the early years of the 19th century, in extreme poverty, so it’s a world I feel I know from them and their stories.

    Thank you for this poem and the beautiful love poem about your relationship with Erica and the touching photograph.

    I would like to know when the Library poem was written.

  8. Pamela permalink
    January 30, 2013

    Your writing was a revelation.
    I lost my husband (Michael Almaz, former Kol Israel correspondent)
    last year after 40 years. If only I’d had the second poem to read at his funeral; beautiful.
    Thank you.

  9. Eddie Johnson permalink
    April 15, 2013

    I wonder if Bernard Kops remembers a summer on Jersey in the early fifties when he was taking a waitress out. She worked in a Forte cafe/restaurant on the island. I worked as a casual in the docks, we would talk sometimes and he was immensely surprised when I knew who Narcissus was. I used to see him wandering around Soho sometimes, in fact he recommended ‘Bunjis’ coffee bar to me.

  10. Liam T Kirk permalink
    June 21, 2013

    Just spotted Bernard Kops in Sainsbury’s Finchley Road.

  11. Neville Turner permalink
    July 23, 2013

    I connected to the library poem because Whitechapel Library was my gateway to learning
    to read.The very first book by chance was Treasure Island from the children’s section I would
    skip the words I did not understand but still got to the story.A very enjoyable piece.
    The World Is a Wedding a book by Bernard Kops is a really good read.

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