The playwright, poet and novelist Bernard Kops will turn 90 this year. It’s the sort of milestone age, he jokes, that says ‘hello! I’m going to die soon! I’m still here!’ Going to meet Kops for tea and biscuits at this home near the Finchley Road, I also meet his wife Erica, two of his daughters, a son, a-son-in-law, a grandchild and three great-granddaughters. Sitting out in the communal garden which the area shares, there’s a real community feel, with the children having a water fight and interrupting our chat to get biscuits and kisses from their great-grandfather.
Bernard knows exactly what he wants to chat about. ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on with me.’ He says more than once. ‘I’m feeling a bit bereft because all the writers I came up with, they’ve all died, and I have no-one’. The recent passing of his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker has clearly affected him. But Kops still writes every day, so I ask if the people of London still inspire his characters and stories. ‘No’, he says, ‘it’s much more interior now. Parents, children, dying, living.’
‘I’m very anti-God at the moment’ he warns, before treating me to a reading of some new poems he’s been working on for an upcoming collection. The poem he wants to read is about his mother. A child’s view of a vast, warm, all-engulfing mother who gathers her family in her arms, mixed with images of the stress and worry of raising seven children with little money, and of the wider story of his family – genocide, holocaust, missing mothers, entire generations of missing mothers.
We speak a lot about Kops’ childhood and upbringing, and I’m fascinated by stories of London in the 40s and 50s. ‘There’s a place in the East End called Toynbee Hall, and on a sign it said ‘Drama Classes’, so I joined! The first play we did was a Sean O’Casey play, and I loved O’Casey, and he took me to other marvellous writers – Irish mainly – and poets, especially poets! And because I’m Jewish, there’s a kind of thing with the Irish… resonant… very similar.’ At one of these classes, the first play Kops ever wrote was about an IRA gunman hiding out, inspired in part by Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. ‘Desperation, alienation, surviving against everything, and poverty were all in my head.’ Kops says, again aligning the Jewish experience with the Irish.
‘As a young boy I had no education because we were so poor, and the war bombed us out of our house. And then one day I walked into a library. If you’ve read the poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ that will tell you the story of my life, really.’ ‘We lived in Shoreditch, and at that time it was stinking, you could push your finger into the walls of the house.’ Having no money to take his wife of 62 years, Erica, on a first date, he took her instead to the Italian Catholic church in Clerkenwell to Christmas Eve mass. The plan backfired when the strong incense which filled the chapel made Erica faint, causing a scene, much to the annoyance of the priest! Bernard still laughs at these stories, and talks about Erica at any opportunity. ‘She is beautiful and wonderful, but still down-to-earth and practical.’ ‘I live in a kind of little paradise’ he summarises. And, sitting in the sunshine discussing Yeats, Frost, and O’Casey with one of the most prolific and talented writers of our time, I have to agree.
Bernard Kops will turn 90 this November, with celebrations and events planned throughout Autumn ’16 at venues such as JW3 and The Jewish Museum.