A sad letter of apology for a wasted life

Shalom Bomb: scenes from my life by Bernard Kops (Oberon Books, £15.99)
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The Independent Culture

Bernard who? Although he has been written out of many theatre histories, Bernard Kops was once hailed as one of the most promising playwrights of his generation. His 1958 début, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, brought him fame and an Arts Council grant. He was photographed in the company of Angry Young Men and new-wave writers including fellow East End Jews Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker. He appeared on public platforms to discuss "commitment" with influential figures such as Kenneth Tynan; he was interviewed on television by John Betjeman. His poem, "Shalom Bomb", was sold on the Aldermaston marches; and he hung out with "Sohocialists" such as Colin MacInnes and Quentin Crisp.

But those whom the critics applaud, they can also bring down. The follow-up to The Hamlet of Stepney Green bombed - and so did the follow-up to the follow-up. Reviewers turned on Kops with ferocity. To make things worse, he was an individualist who got up people's noses. He clowned around at gatherings of pious leftists. He didn't schmooze, wouldn't run with the pack, didn't sell out to Hollywood.

As Kops points out in his brief, compulsively jokey autobiography, he wrote plays that were expressionistic and symbolic when fashion smiled on kitchen-sink realism and social comment. When audiences wanted stories of working-class aspiration, preferably in regional accents, he gave them quirky, mystical and poetic essays.

And then there were the drugs. When his second play failed, Kops decided to console himself with a tab of speed. Before long, Lady Amphetamine had replaced his wife Erica as his solace in times of depression and his inspiration while scribbling. Kops introduces the drugs gradually. After sporadic mentions of Piccadilly dealers, secret stashes and the theft of a doctor's prescription pad, the pace suddenly accelerates, becoming markedly more intense when describing his amphetamine psychosis.

For a couple of chapters, Kops tears up the homely quilt of family reminiscence and celebrity anecdote to describe the hellish distortions and panics, the self-loathing, vain resolutions and ghastly relapses of the hopeless druggie. He finally pulls out of the nightmare - but only after a doctor tells him he has six months to live.

So the paradox is that Kops, a self-destructive writer who seemed destined to live fast and die young, lives to a grand old age. He even makes an amazing comeback in 1992 with Dreams of Anne Frank, a play for children that has done much to popularise the idea that this icon of the Holocaust was not a martyr but a flesh-and-blood teenager, a real person whose optimism and humour were cruelly snuffed out.

The problem with Shalom Bomb is that although it tells you what Kops was like - infuriatingly changeable, manic depressive, jocular yet provocative, productive yet disappointed - it doesn't tell you why. For that, you need to dust off The World is a Wedding, his own 1963 account of his upbringing in London's East End.

Shalom Bomb is more like a bag of anecdotes than a revealing read. Most of the stories are glimpses of celebs, such as Lindsay Anderson (caught shopping in a supermarket, examining the shelves with all the austere seriousness he brought to his films), Colin MacInnes (crashed out on the floor after one of his Notting Hillbinges) and the critic Harold Hobson (overheard magisterially regretting his early championing of Kops).

In the end, Shalom Bomb is a rather sad letter of apology to Kops's family for all the time he wasted on drugs. But the bland affirmations of the goodness of family life are not what you remember. No; they are swept aside by the unforgettable image of Kops manically driving his black taxicab across London at some infernal hour, his extraordinary eyes popping out of his head as he scours the streets for his next fix: "The pills! The pills! My Kinkdom for some pills!"

The reviewer's book 'In-Yer-Face Theatre' will be published by Faber later this year