Bernard Kops, Writer
“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
Bernard & Erica
(This is the first publication of a new poem)
Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
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