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Bernard Kops, Poet, Novelist & Playwright

September 14, 2017
by the gentle author

Join me for an evening of readings and conversation with Bernard Kops & Ken Sequin, hosted by Rachel Lichtenstein at Leila’s Cafe, Calvert Avenue, on Tuesday 26th September 7:30pm. Ken will read poems from EXODUS and other collections. Click here to reserve your free ticket

“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 ninety year old – when I visited him and his wife of sixty-two years, Erica, in Finchley. 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.

Bernard Kops

Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

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

Emanuel Litvinoff, Writer

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Vanda permalink
    September 14, 2017

    I am not a poetry person, but these were sensational. It felt as if I was walking the streets, visiting the library with Mr Kops. Who knows Mr Kops, maybe just maybe you have a convert.

  2. September 14, 2017

    Wonderful words from a very talented man! Valerie

  3. Pritam Singh permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Wonderful words, very agreeable reading.
    Thank you.

  4. Karen Rennie permalink
    September 14, 2017

    A wonderful poem and he sounds a lovely man – Whitechapel Library helped so many out of the ghetto
    it sounds a great evening

  5. Eddie Johnson permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Great Playwright Bernard Kops. I remember meeting him in Jersey in the mid fifties, I was working in the Docks there, he was going out with a waitress who was lame, she worked in Fortes, a cafe on the Island, and he seemed quite impressed when he was talking to me that I knew who Narcissus was. He was a nice man who I used to see walking round Soho in the late fifties, he recommended ‘Bunjies’ a famous coffee bar at the time that me and my friends started to go to.

    If you are lucky enough to speak to him give him my regards he might faintly remember a tall East end boy working in Jersey.

    Eddie Johnson.

  6. Jenny Lee-Kench permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Wonderful poetry and why haven’t I heard about this lovely poet before. I belong to a poetry site called Poem Hunter and they have no listing of him either. Shame on me and shame on them. Mr. Kops, I salute you and only wish I lived near enough to attend your poetry evening at Leila’s Cafe. Wishing you all a great evening on the 26th.

  7. September 14, 2017

    Miracle of miracles we have another poet on I am pleased about that – Bernard knows his stuff. Don’t stop writing your bank of words you have stored over the years can still be used for future poems. I like your style of easy read poems. Poet John

  8. Adele permalink
    September 14, 2017

    To think, Bernard Kops’ favorite poem ‘Granchester’ is also mine! Have never read his Whitechapel Library poem before, that place was the saviour of my family (despite the fact my grandfather was wrongly ’rounded up’ there as an enemy alien during the First World War’!)
    How I wish I could attend the poetry reading, but alas crossing the Atlantic is a little too far. Thank you for a wonderful read GA.

  9. September 27, 2017

    A great evening last night at Leila’s Cafe – thank you for suggesting/organising.

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