Bernard Kops’s place in the canon of English writers is probably assured. And anyone with doubts will have had them dispelled by the May 17 event at JW3, the Jewish cultural centre in north London.
We have to declare an interest; Bernard is JEECS life president. He is also the last of that band of writers, including Emanuel Litvinoff and Sir Arnold Wesker, who, coming from the Jewish East End, have used consummate artistry to capture its ethos and atmosphere.
At JW3, we had first the premiere of a documentary about Bernard by Jill Campbell, a successful American playwright and film-maker who was one of Bernard’s students at his advanced playwriting workshops. She is unabashed about describing him as her mentor.
The Hamlet of Canfield Gardens – the title refers both to Bernard’s West Hampstead home and his early drama success The Hamlet of Stepney Green – was followed by Bernard himself reading from a new anthology of his poetry and a question and answer session with the packed audience involving both Bernard and Jill Campbell.
The film combines fascinating archive footage – a youthful Bernard with parents and family members at what appeared to be a Sabbath eve meal – with recent shots of him with his family, playing the fool for the benefit of his delighted great granddaughter Lily.
We see excerpts from a much earlier documentary made ahead of the Broadway staging of The Hamlet of Stepney Green; there is Bernard in the swinging London of the 1960s with naked civil servant Quentin Crisp; and there he is with his typewriter working away while also selling second-hand books from his and his wife Erica’s stall on the Charing Cross Road in its days as a Mecca for booklovers.
There are extracts from his works, including one of his best-known poems, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
We follow him on walks in the woods, in discussions with friends, at the Jewish Museum for an 85th birthday reading of The Hamlet of Stepney Green. The film does not shy away from problems – his two breakdowns and a – thankfully – abandoned suicide attempt are honestly dealt with.
Erica, that great stabilising influence to whom he has been married for over 60 years, is, naturally, much in evidence throughout and the film is notable for the good-natured, loving banter between the two – much to the pleasure of Bernard’s family who filled the first two rows of seats at the screening.
Bernard is now in his 90th year, and the subjects of death and nature of infinity are recurring themes in the film, but always treated with humour and even whimsy rather than sadness.
Jill Campbell, who said of the years – 2000-2003 – she spent studying under Bernard’s wing that “every day was a blessing”, is herself a big part of the film, in conversation with Bernard and talking about how much she has learnt from him.
During the question and answer session, she described the film as being “a circle” – first there was the writer (Bernard) who became the teacher and then the new writer (Jill).
Bernard himself, after reading from the new poetry anthology, This Room in the Sunlight, with a vigour that belied his years, said: “I think a poem can say more than a whole play.” And his reading from that selection of a lifetime’s work certainly suggested the truth of that statement.