The Roots of Writing: Bernard Kops, Emanuel Litvinoff, Harold Pinter & Arnold Wesker
Chair: Melvyn Bragg
The first session of Jewish Book Week 2003 presented an unforgettable celebration of the wealth of writing to come out of the East End and Hackney in the middle decades of the 20th century. Bernard Kops, Emanuel Litvinoff, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, four of Britain's most distinguished writers, discussed with Melvyn Bragg the influence on their writing of an area that in recent years has been much mythologised and romanticised. This session was a unique opportunity to hear these writers’ thoughts about the influences that shaped them.
Bernard Kops was born in the East End of London. Since The Hamlet of Stepney Green (1959), he has written over forty plays, nine novels and seven volumes of poetry, including Grandchildren and Other Poems (2000).
Emanuel Litvinoff made his name as a poet in World War II. His acclaimed memoir of growing up in London's East End, Journey through a Small Planet (1972), was reissued in 1993.
Harold Pinter, born in Hackney, is one of the pre-eminent British playwrights of the 20th century. He made his name with The Caretaker(1959). He has also written many screenplays and is an acclaimed actor and director.
Arnold Wesker is the celebrated author of forty two plays, including Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I'm Talking about Jerusalem (The Wesker Trilogy, 1960). He has also published collections of short stories and essays.
‘The Roots of Writing’ was held in association with The Jewish Quarterly to launch The Golden Chain, edited by Natasha Lehrer, an anthology marking the 50th anniversary of the magazine.
“It was an extraordinarily interesting atmosphere to grow up in because we had no doubts about one thing, and that is that we belonged in England and that we regarded ourselves as English. At the same time we obviously were Jews and we had our own customs and our own food, our own kinds of songs, for instance, that people brought from eastern Europe. And it never bothered me at all as I remember as I child, nor can I remember it bothering other Jewish kids I knew. But you could well understand it. We were the predominant people there.” [Emanuel Litvinoff]
“I know that a sense of Jewishness, a Jewish sensibility, pervades what I write. I know you’re going to ask me, ‘What is a Jewish sensibility?’ It’s a question of values. I can think of two things. There’s an absence of a spirit of revenge in Jews. Revenge doesn’t come easily to Jews. Pity comes to Jews. There’s also a need to build, to add to the sum total of human knowledge. There’s a sense of family. You can claim that for the Italians as well. But certainly it’s there for the Jews and that affected my writing. I mean I would have to present you with an essay to go through all the list. But a Jewish sensibility�I mean, ask people here what they understand by Jewish sensibility. I bet you would find a lot that they share in common.” [Arnold Wesker]
“I must say that my experience during the war and after the war was of a world which is extremely precarious, to put it mildly. Fraught with anxiety and fear and dread of what was to come on the very next day. And this wasn’t a superficial thing by a very long chalk. This informed our lives and I think it remains with us. It certainly remains with me over all these years. The same characteristics, in other words, obtain. Even more so, in fact today, this very day if you like, when we’re sitting here, the world is now even more precarious than it ever was even then and the bombs now sixty times bigger than they were, to put it mildly, six hundred times more effective than they were then.” [Harold Pinter]
“I think these three elements: kind of belonging, feeling slightly different from the Irish people living down the road who had no shoes, and realising there was another world out there and this was safe. My mother had always said, ‘Don’t go beyond Cambridge Heath Road, there be dragons.’ There were, in fact, there be fascists. So those sort of enemies together, they were my roots, I think.” [Bernard Kops]
Experience the event as it happened:Transcripts