Bernard Kops, the acclaimed East End-born dramatist, poet and novelist, has taken on the mantle of JEECS honorary life president in succession to the late Professor Bill Fishman.
We are delighted – and honoured – to welcome Bernard, long a great supporter of JEECS, as our new president.
Back in 2006, just ahead of his 80th birthday, Bernard gave a fascinating interview to JEECS magazine The Cable. In tribute to his new position as JEECS president, the interview is republished below.
Seeking the human being within, behind the cloak
Bernard Kops is on the phone. The East End-born playwright and poet is sorting his way through the railways’ incomprehensible fares structure to organise a trip to the north. He may be approaching 80, but Kops remains a busy man.
His second new play this year is due to be broadcast on Radio 4 on his birthday, November 28, maybe with a season of his other recorded plays. There is a new book, Bernard Kops’ East End, also marking his birthday; there is a full programme of library and bookshop readings; and there are two big birthday parties, one organised by his publisher and the other by JEECS. And, as if that were not enough, he is running classes for budding playwrights at his South Hampstead home.
His own life does not lack drama. There were years as a young man in Soho drinking dens, work as a touring actor, travelling abroad in the immediate post-war years when few Britons did, touting for a brothel in Tangier, work as a washer-upper in West End restaurants, drug addiction, a breakdown, a short-lived first marriage, a bookstall at London’s Cambridge Circus, marriage at Stepney Green Synagogue to his wife Erica, a hugely successful first play followed by subsequent critical failure and a further downward descent into drugs before pulling out of it in the 1970s.
Throughout he was writing furiously. Today, recognised as one of the greatest writers to have emerged from the Jewish East End, he exudes contentment.
The East End in wartime is the setting for the BBC play, The Lost Love of Phoebe Myers. “I’ve just finished writing it,” he says.
The book will be a collection of his writing, including the new play. “I’ve written a prodigious amount of stuff about the East End,” he says. “Plays, poetry, autobiography.”
The East End was the entire world to the infant Bernard Kops. His parents were Dutch-Jewish, his childhood home was at 23 Stepney Green Buildings, right at the top, with seven children for two beds. It was a world whose frontier was Aldgate East tube station, a world in which clothing from the Jewish Board of Guardians and food from the soup kitchen played a big role.
But it was a secure world. There was a close family, a park the length of Stepney Green to play in, the Stepney Jewish School, the Mile End Waste, with its political meetings and market stalls lit at night by naphtha flares.
The new play and the book mark a return to that East End world, the setting for his first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, in 1958.
Over the years, though, he has moved a long way from the East End in his work. “I have,” he agrees. “The new play just happened – though I did write that play about Whitechapel library [Returning we Hear the Larks, written when the library’s closure was announced and given a special performance there with Warren Mitchell] set in Whitechapel today.
“But then I’ve written a big play called Rogues and Vagabonds which, hopefully, we’re having a reading of before the end of the year. I got a special grant from the Arts Council to write it, and it’s the biggest play I’ve ever tried. It’s about a group of Jewish actors in Tsarist Russia.
“So I move in and out.”
The Lost World of Phoebe Myers is about a girl who falls in love with an American soldier at the time of the invasion of Europe. “It’s like a microcosmic story of what happens to one family,” says Kops. “It’s sweet and sad and funny. I enjoyed it enormously because it was like revisiting the East End in 1944.”
He harks back to his television play It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow of 1975, centred on the Bethnal Green Tube station disaster (On March 3 1943, 173 people, including 62 children, seeking to use the station as a bomb shelter were crushed to death in the worst civilian tragedy of the war). “The researchers gave me hundreds of interviews, and I had to then crystallise it into one family. So that’s my way into drama quite often. Sometimes I write small, sometimes I write quite big.”
Late last year he ventured further east – to Southend – with his play Knocking on Heaven’s Door, based on material gathered from a Jewish care home.
Factual research underpins his work. “You’ve got to have a foundation, a kind of matrix of truth, however subjective your truth is. Time and place are very important elements in playwriting,” he says.
“The foundation of a play has got to be authentic. If you don’t pin it down you can’t go anywhere. But once you pin it down you can go everywhere.”
He quotes Martha Graham, the great dancer: “Discipline is freedom.” That, he says, “struck me very much when I was a young man. I’ve always held to that. It’s got be firmly based, in dreams, in experience, in reality.
“If you write specifically you write universally. You’ve got to pin it down, to have a focus.”
He cites the “lovely” story of an ancient hieroglyph dug up in Egypt that was found to say: “I’m so worried; I don’t know what to do about my son.”
“That really epitomises what drama is all about. Nothing changes. Even with the terrible war that has been going on people are still worried about their sons; what they are going to do after they get their degrees, and will the job lead anywhere.
“Even with whatever goes on, there are essentials like being born, having kids, living with a woman, having grandchildren and even great grandchildren: these are universal. So when you write about the one, you write about everyone.”
His Whitechapel Library play brought together the old Jewish East End and the modern East End’s Bangladeshi community. “It’s about the past and present,” he says. “It was about a place I knew and a person I knew, largely me and us, a composite. It’s about someone who’s retiring [from the library], and it’s as if the East End is retiring. He’s going away, and just as he’s about to do that the present impinges on him. This girl from the Bangladeshi community … they’re star-crossed lovers in a way. They meet, they touch, and that’s about it. But it’s about how they affect each other.”
The two communities were together, too, in the recent BBC documentary on Brick Lane. The focus was the present, but with Kops evoking the lost world of the Jewish community – “a heck of a responsibility”.
He feels his work from the beginning has been “of a oneness”.
“My first play was in a sense about a dying community; it’s what I experienced at the end of the war when people started to move away. And it’s also about where they go to and how it affects them; the changes that took place in the Jewish world. And then in a way it’s what the East End is about, as a kind of sanctuary.
“People settled there; it was nearest to home. But it was also a jumping-off place.
“Now, of course, there’s the Bangladeshi community. They too will grow and go. People work hard in the community when they come, then they establish themselves, the children grow up, they get an education, they want to be doctors and lawyers and all sorts of things and they move out. And then their children want to become painters and writers, and politicians and things like that.
“So I envisage the same thing happening all over again.”
That is what happened with the Indian community, he says. They flourished and now they write, they paint, they are doctors and lawyers.
“It’s all to do with the tribe, it’s all to do with what happens. So these are things I know. I don’t choose my themes, my themes choose me.”
The Jews moved on, he says. “The Bangladeshis came. There’s the same sort of energy there.”
Some of his pupils are Muslims. “We talk about their love affairs, their aspirations. In the end you go through that barrier, you find there are only five or six basic kinds of people in the world.”
A “very important discovery”, he says, came many years ago from the writer Colin MacInnes, who, gravely ill, anxious and homesick in a tiny village in Africa, realised that the people around him were all the universal types of people: one passionate, one very quiet, one very sexy, one very reticent, one trusting.
“He said: ‘People don’t change.’ So, nothing changes. People wanted to adorn themselves 100,000 years ago. Why? They wanted to look attractive. Nothing changes.
“My Muslim girl [in Returning we Hear the Larks], she’s running away from home. The Jewish guy tries to understand her. But he’s also shocked by it. He meets her father, who you would say is a stereotypical Muslim father. But they both get drunk together. And they both say they never touch the stuff.
“So things like that are my concern really.”
The dispersal of the Jewish community came through the war, not so much the war itself, says Kops, but the fact that it brought employment. And employment brought aspirations. “We were all literally starving before the war came, but suddenly we all got work. So there was money.
“When you’re starving and you’re desperate you can’t possibly think of moving. What can you move with? Where can you move to? But once you start getting money in, you start buying clothes … you start looking beyond.
“It was so funny, you know, we were allowed rations early on in the war and we couldn’t even afford to buy the stuff. We were rationed long, long before any rationing came in because we were rationed by having no money.”
What made the difference was the family. “The warmth of the family unit compensated for the poverty. And then when the war ended I was a good age. I was 17. I was still trying to find myself. The cares of the war were also like the cares within me. Then when peace came I hadn’t fixed on my ideas yet.”
That was why he went to Soho and other places, and abroad. There was Spain, Morocco, Paris. “Just sitting there and starving. This blew my mind, if you like. And other cultures, incredible cultures … I was totally in this amorphous world of different communities, different societies, different attitudes.”
Throughout, he was writing poetry; he had tried his hand at song writing; eventually a novel was under way. Why drama?
“Easy. First I come from a very verbal society. The Jews and the Irish are very good at drama, the gift of the gab, mimicry, the ability to take on different personas. You watch the old men in the street, and they’re still fighting the Russian revolution all wanting to be heard. In my family everyone wanted to be heard.
“And at the critical age, about 18 or 19, I happened to be passing Toynbee Hall, and I saw on the board ‘Drama’, and I thought I’d go inside and see what it was all about. Luckily I happened to choose one of the best teachers of drama that existed in the country, Marion Watson. I went into her class and I learnt about improvisation, about Stanislavski and all of those things that were completely foreign to me.”
He had to improvise a play. “I was amazed at how I could have brought it to life, and then I realised it was really to do with having the gift of the gab; it was to do with dialogue. And dialogue is one of our greatest features. It’s to do with the value of each word, with the nuance, the use of language. That led me to drama, which embraced me.”
The key word is nuance. “So you see, it’s that use of language, which television has killed to a great extent. I’m just pre-television, and the language of the streets, the nuance of the use of language, it’s not a big leap from there to understand why, of all the writers of my generation who emerged, almost 50 per cent were Jewish.
“Look at Pinter with his use of language, and Wesker, how language is so important in his plays … it’s that value of the word; it’s the emphasis of the word and how important each word is.
“In drama, you don’t have a linear narrative; you have to go on each word having a quality and a value, a weight of its own.”
Kops has been described as the Chagall of playwrights and as a master of poetic logic. What does that mean?
“Well, when you look at Chagall you don’t question. You just accept there’s a cow flying. And it’s to do with that leap into the unknown and taking off from the real world and trying to find a way of expressing yourself. Lots of golems come into my work. I’ve always thought of the unseen world as very influential. I’m not talking about God and all the rest of it, I’m talking about the power of death and birth.
“I’ve just had a new little baby in the family, my first great grandchild. My granddaughter’s very young, she brings the child here who’s just been born, and you should see the people flocking to see her and admiring. And it’s universal, it’s the power of arrival from God knows where into this family, and it’s magic. It’s wonderful.
“And I think I just like to travel beyond the material world, and trying to make a connection between the two. It’s the same as trying to make a connection between different people all over the world, and what unites us.
“A family is cemented together by death and births and weddings. In my new play, I’ve got love – a new love affair that blossoms and dies – I’ve got birth, I’ve got a wedding, I’ve got a death, I’ve got another death, I’ve got a kind of rebirth. All these things happen in the family. So I get right back to where I started.”
The family is a theme in much of Kops’ work. “I feel it all happens in the family,” he says.
That includes long-running vendettas.
“One of my aunts one day met my mother and they got into an argument. And my aunt said, cruelly because we were starving, ‘I’ve got the quids.’ And my mum said: ‘Yes, but I’ve got the kids.’ And there was this battle that was going on, you know, amongst cousins.”
He recalls a big family wedding when one uncle accused another of having an affair with his wife. Eventually the police had to be called in. “I put that straight into one of my novels,” he says.
Does he see himself as a specifically Jewish writer? Is there such a thing?
“I’m a writer who happens to be Jewish. I travel a lot. I do feel very Jewish. But it’s like a doorway. It opens up every door for me, and I try and find the universality in all people. If you try to deny it you get trapped in it. If you embrace it, it frees you. It’s the same old thing like the discipline of freedom.”
He refers to “two wonderful young writers” among his students who happen to be Muslim. The important thing is people. “I cannot stereotype any more. I cannot live on the level of I don’t want anything to do with them, because he’s a Tory or he’s an anarchist.
“I look for the human being within, behind the cloak.”