Meet an ALCS member: Bernard Kops

In the latest of our 40th anniversary profiles of ALCS members, we meet playwright and poet Bernard Kops, an ALCS member from the very beginning, and still working hard in his tenth decade

Who are you?  

I am Bernard Kops, still alive and working at 90 years old. I’ve seen everything and loved everything. And died and was born again and again.
And I live each day with 17 of my tribe around and around me. And my wife, Erica my muse, who has been my guide in every way for 63 years.

What do you write?

I have been a member almost from the start when I heard about the battle ALCS had conquered for the sake of all writers…Who could turn their back on an organisation doing that enormous job for all of us?

I write my journey. Poetry. Plays. Novels

Do you have a ‘day’ job?

A day job and a night job: writing. I never stop working, even in my dreams. I remember an important prayer that came to me as a crazy young man. It came from the Bhagavad Gita, maybe more than a thousand years ago, from India. It still speaks to me. ‘If these hands do not work, how can these worlds survive?’ Those words stuck in my mind from the age of about 12. Even now I believe, as many years as I am, even though I’m as young as I am, I owe my life and my living to working and walking. So, every day is before me and everyone and everything is mine to share. And the family is uppermost within that. As Montjoy said to Henry V: ‘The day is yours.’ Well certainly each day is mine, and how I welcome her. Even the other night, waking up at four in the morning, the first thing that happened was a poem, out of my head and out of my mouth. But it did take another week to polish the poem into life, then laughing with tears. It was ever thus.

How long have you been an ALCS member and how did you hear about us?

I’ve been a member almost from the start, I think since the 1970s, when I heard about the enormous battle ALCS had conquered for the sake of all writers who were not getting what was literally theirs. Who could turn their back on an organisation doing that enormous job for all of us?

For what sort of uses of your work do you receive royalties from ALCS?

For the copying of my plays and poems in schools and universities.

Which is your most surprising source of ALCS income?

It’s always a surprise when you receive income out of the blue, however small it is. Every little helps the pocket and the soul.

How important are your ALCS payments to you as a writer?

I do receive a small amount of money from ALCS, which certainly helps, but I’m very fortunate that I receive a yearly pension from the Queen’s Civil List for my services to literature, and I also receive another pension from the Royal Literary Fund, who have helped so many writers to survive to old age in this rather wonderful and desperate world.

It’s always a surprise when you receive income out of the blue, however small it is. Every little helps the pocket and the soul.

Are you aware of any potential threats to your ALCS income?

Not aware of any. I think of ALCS as a sentinel that helps guide people like me, who are often so all over the place.

Which is your highest-earning work from ALCS income?

It was Dreams of Anne Frank. ALCS has helped me tremendously locating royalties for it. In many ways, I am so busy with the present, it’s not that I forget the play, it was one of my best and really very successful – but in a way royalties from it are a marvellous present to get – to know that you achieved something that is still needed.

When I wrote the play, Anne Frank was really a story only for older people. But I visited The Polka Theatre (a theatre for children), and when I saw the work they did, I suddenly thought that this was a story that could be told in this way. The play went all over the world. Children were able to associate themselves with it because they are able to understand more than just the life they live themselves, as it is in this country, and the story is about what happened to a girl of near their age. Children grow up and learn not just about the joys of the world, they are also learning about the fears, and how people can live through them and do something about it. The story is something that happened to a family, and to this girl. I wanted to write about her life from her perspective and her ideas about the world: her dreams and how she had her own life to think about. It’s about her imagination, about her falling in love. And up until then there wasn’t much where this story was seen through a child’s eyes, fears, dreams, hopes. I think that resonated with children.

What does the future hold for you as a writer?

Here I’d like to go into the past to tell you about the future because to me the past is the future.

I was always different from my brothers and sisters and I was always making things up. Living in Stepney in the 1920s and 30s was a play in itself and I was always dressing up and acting and hiding under the table to hear what others were saying about me. These were long stinking days of starvation and joy and no real education. One bath for seven children once a week in a zinc bath, bugs crawling across the walls, we lived on potatoes and cabbage and pea soup from the Jewish Soup Kitchen in Aldgate. There was desperation all around. Yet I was extremely happy.

Sadly, my mother died before I ever worked…I know this is a long way of answering the question but it was that long amazing past that became the beginning of finding myself.

I was the youngest boy – the seventh of seven and as a baby my sisters used to fight to hold me. We lived in ridiculous clothes given to us by the Jewish Board of Guardians. As I grew I became aware of the dire poverty of our family. There was no work, but my mother was always singing Yiddish songs and Cockney songs – songs of desperation. Like, “Mary, Mary at the pawn shop door, a parcel in her hand and a parcel on the floor. She asked for 7/6 but they only gave her 4, so she pulled the blinking ‘andle off the pawn shop door.” She sang to me when she wasn’t crying or scrubbing and these songs went into the soup of my mind. One song stays with me especially: “Muvva I love you, I will work for you. Don’t let those tears run down your cheek, I’ll bring the wages to you every week. Muvva I love you. What more can a loving son do? You worked for me for a long long time and now I must work for you.”

Sadly, my mother died before I ever worked… I know this is a long way of answering your question but it was that long amazing past that became the beginning of finding myself.

The songs of my mother somehow opened a door for me. I had a great stroke of luck that really changed my life and gave me the path that I’m still on today. The man next door was Joe Lubin – he was amazing. One day he told me that he was a song plugger and worked in Denmark Street, and he took me with him to the street of songs and music and crazy people. He worked for Noel Gay, one of the most famous songwriters in the world, who wrote songs that everyone knew – “Lambeth Walk”, “Run Rabbit Run”. He asked me if I’d like to work for him. I was 14, just in time to go to work, so I said yes. He was such a kind man and he taught me an important thing. He said less is more, keep it short, give it more pizzazz, more strength. It was there that I found my path. I started writing songs, and that moved out to writing poems and plays. It also led to me wanting to get away from home, to find a path to something important. It was easy to become an actor then, so that’s what I did, and I learned about the structure of plays. I also wanted to get away from the East End, so I found myself in Soho, which was like another world. I loved it, but it was a crazy place, full of people searching, like myself. I started into the dark habits of the world, talking all night in cafés.

That day I decided to write my first play. It took three days and changed my life. The Hamlet of Stepney Green. From then on was the beginning of my literary life, so here I am, still alive, still working, still writing.

One day a man walked into one of those cafés and sat down beside me. “My name is Quentin Crisp,” he said. “Be kind and tell me the story of your life.” I told him my story and he said, ‘Follow your own star, do not deviate.” He seemed very strange and full of stories and every day and night he would be in the café. It was 1948, but the days were long, I was writing constantly without any thought of what to do with the words. I occasionally saw my parents and family, but I was lost.

And then suddenly I was found. One day an amazing woman came down the stairs of the empty café. “Oh”, I said, “oh” – I knew. I had fallen in love with her there and then and without a word. She left the café but when I walked to another café a few hours later, she turned up there too and my whole life was changed. Erica was going to be a doctor – she came from a family of doctors – but she wanted something different, so she left home. She wanted to be like me: lost. But we found each other. We lived together, and she soon became pregnant and I suddenly thought, she’s doing the most incredible thing of all – our creation – while I’m doing nothing. That day I decided to write my first play. It took three days and changed my life. The Hamlet of Stepney Green. From then on was the beginning of my literary life, so here I am, still alive, still working, still writing. Writing and love, the love of the family, the tribe of life. If the future survives. I shall be here writing.
A few years back, I decided to write a poem about Whitechapel Library, which gave me my education and the joy of reading: ‘Whitechapel Library Aldgate East’.

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East

by Bernard Kops
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 I 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’s latest book of collected poems is This Room in the Sunlight, published by David Paul. He’s also writing his next book, to be published in a few months time. So far it’s called Love, Death and Other Joys.