Interview: Bernard Kops
The veteran writer has come to terms with the Jewish background he once rebelled against.
Kops: "I just love people"
'I believe that energy has to be used to get more energy," says Bernard Kops. And his is a remarkable energy. He has written more than 40 plays for television, stage and radio, nine novels, seven volumes of poetry and two autobiographies. According to the writer, producer and one of Kops's playwriting class participants, Michael Kustow, he is "one of Britain's most celebrated and prolific authors". In recognition of this literary contribution, Kops has the rare honour of a Civil List pension, bestowed on him in 2009 by the Queen.
To commemorate his recent 85th birthday, the Jewish Museum in London celebrated with a sell-out staged reading of his first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, which was first performed in 1958 at the Oxford Playhouse. Kops describes it as is "a sad comedy with some songs", but it is also thought of as one of the cornerstones of the then new wave in British kitchen-sink realism, a trend that had begun with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. It was also the play that catapulted Kops to recognition and success.
Kops's work can be unashamedly Jewish. It is witty, dark, vulnerable, sad yet full of vitality. The son of Dutch Jewish immigrants, his writing is often influenced by his poor East End upbringing, his despair at wanting to leave home and a turbulent adulthood.
It has been said that he is concerned with the individual who is trapped within the confines of a close Jewish family. "I've always said that the things you run away from, you run right into," muses Kops, sitting in the living room of the West Hampstead flat he shares with Erica, his wife of over 50 years. "Family," he says, "is the sustaining force. My life is dissected into all the concerns and joys of the family", all of whom live in close proximity. He acknowledges the irony - that he created the very thing he had wanted to escape, and notes: "It was sheer sheer luck that I met Erica because [without her] I could not have survived".
Kops is skilful at chronicling an individual's search for identity and it is a theme that he returns to in his latest novel, The Odyssey of Samuel Glass, due for publication in February 2012. He agrees that much of his writing has been about "the journey; the quest is important", and adds that this was why he chose to put the word "odyssey" in the book's title. Samuel, the 17-year-old protagonist, is eager to get away from home and embarks on a voyage of discovery in 19th-century Vitebsk where he meets his great-great grandmother, the leader of a small group of anarchists. He joins her and a "red rabbi" in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II - a story based on real events. "His desperation to get away leads him straight into action and the book is a series of terrifying and funny conflicts," explains Kops. "In many ways all the characters are different aspects of me. Certainly a lot of the words that come from Samuel's father or mother and grandparents are me."
The personal and the creative narrative are intertwined as Kops was an anarchist and a communist, although he describes himself as "a great joiner and a great getter-out-of sort of person. I went from selling the Daily Worker outside Whitechapel station to moving up to Soho".
The conversation turns to last August's riots and he says he tries to understand the motivation of those involved. He says his work in prisons, where he ran writing workshops, and the experience of being on the "edge of non-survival" - he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital - has shown him that "morality, justice, freedom, friendship and trust can at some point seem to fly out of the window. Possibly out of desperation".
Born: East End of London, 1926. Parents Dutch-Jewish immigrants.
Career: First play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, staged in Oxford in 1958. A key member of the group of playwrights - many of them Jewish - responsible for the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and 60s. Later plays include 1992's The Dreams of Anne Frank. Also poet and novelist. Jewish themes feature prominently in his work. Awarded a Civil List pension in 2009 in recognition of his career.
Personal life: Married to Erica for over 50 years. Four children.
Although he has not been part of any campaign against library closures he is aware that many people have used his poem, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East to demonstrate their importance. In fact the first nine lines of the poem are illuminated in the window of the archive room in Whitechapel Art Gallery. Having left school at 13, Whitechapel Library gave him his education and he became "sucked into that world of great poetry and great drama".
Kops has always been obsessed with Yiddish theatre and remembers as a child going to see The King of Lampedusa at the Grand Palais (a Jewish folk theatre on the Commercial Road) with his father at the end of the war. His attraction to Yiddish theatre is because "audiences believed they were part of the play". During a performance of King Lear in the East End, he recalls a woman standing up and calling out to the actor playing Lear: "How can you do that, you bastard? To nice Jewish girls?" He says it was not out of humour. "I suppose theatre balanced the terrible lives that people were going through. They composed themselves into the drama - they weren't divided from it." Kops believes that one of the reasons for the emergence of Jewish writers in the 1950s - including Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and Peter Shaffer - was a reaction to the fact that theatre then was "very upper middle-class".
He says: "We brought our backgrounds, our experiences and our traditions. We were writing about the kind of things we knew or felt or dreamed of. An authenticity came and wiped away the middle-class, like [Terence] Rattigan - a marvelous writer, but the audiences didn't want that any more."
He no longer goes to the theatre as much as he did, perhaps twice a month, but he still teaches playwrighting from his sitting room. He reveals that he gets up at 5am to write. "There's something about the stillness of that time. The only thing I can hear is the foxes screaming."
He thinks that the enduring quality of his work is simply that "I just love people". He is constantly watching what goes on around him and says that he can go out for coffee with Erica and suddenly have an idea but has to write it all over his arm as he often forgets to bring paper. "I never trust memory," he says.
As the interview draws to a close, the phone rings. It is his granddaughter. It seems that his family, of which he is so proud, is never far away.
'The Odyssey of Samuel Glass' is published by David Paul Books