Bob Copper

“A Man of No Consequence”

Coppersongs (No ISBN)

“I likes you, Barb, you be such a happy man.  I’m so glad that you turned out to be a man of no consequence.” ­ Enos White

Enos was talking to Bob during his time working for the BBC collecting folk songs in Sussex and Hampshire in the 1950s.  Of course, Bob covers his meeting with Enos in great and loving detail in one of his previous books, Songs and Southern Breezes, and he refrains from repeating himself here.  In fact, we know a good deal about Bob from his five previous books.1  In this book, he writes about times in his life that are not covered in his previous publications; in the main, times away from his area of the Sussex coast and away from the family songs.  This is not to say that this is just an ‘odds and ends’ autobiography.  It is not; it is much more than that.  His writing is as vibrant as ever, perhaps more reflective than previously and there is certainly a great deal to learn about this important figure, even for people who knew him well.

He starts with a couple of chapters from his boyhood and there are some quotations from Tom Sawyer and these include youthful jobs of rook scarer, lather boy for the local barber then working first as a tea-boy and later junior labourer in his own native area of the Sussex coast.  Despite having what he calls “a singular lack of ambition or desire to ‘better myself’”, he had a desire to see something of the world.  Having rejected the romantic notion of the French Foreign Legion, the 18-year-old Bob applied and was accepted to join the Life Guards and we are treated to five really vibrant, at times hilarious, chapters on the training of recruits and then a young soldier’s life in Knightsbridge and Windsor.  Clearly, Bob was enjoying himself there but a change was not that long in coming.  Comparing notes with a lifelong friend who had joined the police force in West Sussex, Bob became increasingly convinced that this was where his future lay.  Bob writes lovingly of the way his parents “managed to scrape together the money necessary to purchase my discharge.”

Before him lay another period of training (to become PC Bobby Copper!) but in the interval before that Bob was a barber in Holborn and worked for a boss who was also a very strong literary influence.

In the longest section of the book, Bob deals with his years in the police force.  After training, he was based in Worthing, first as a bobby on the beat and then as a detective constable, then something else came along:

Clearly, there were grim experiences with everything from suicides to neglected elderly people to young airmen of both sides washed up on the shore after Battle of Britain dog-fights, but he recalls this as a happy time - a young married man with a baby daughter.  Also this was a time of voracious reading and of meeting with a small literary group that even led to some of his poems being published in the USA.  But increasingly the feeling that he was expected to be ‘married to the job’ was pleasing neither Bob nor Joan.  When Joan’s parents, who ran the Central Club in Peacehaven, said that they were thinking of retiring, the ideal get-out had arrived.

The army and the police experiences are all described in lively, animated prose; Bob’s writing at its best, but they do provoke some chilling thoughts.  What would have been Bob’s chances of surviving the second world war as a professional soldier?  And another ­ If Bob had not decided, in the end, that an all-hours, all-embracing police career was not for him, would he have ever moved back to Rottingdean and Peacehaven?  Would he have been able to spend the time with father, uncle and cousin that renewed his interest in the regular singing of the family songs?  If the iconic figure of the Copper family had not been around when the collectors and other enthusiasts popped up in the 1950s, would we all have been able to gain as much as we have from the Copper Family as we have done?  It is certainly a strong possibility.

Here is an extract from the long obituary that I wrote about Bob for Folk On Tap.  It refers to the long years that I was involved in the BBC Radio Sussex folk music programme, Minstrels' Gallery:

The years when I had most contact with Bob were during the first five years of the Coppersongs folk club when we compered the evenings and through the radio programmes and the earliest of these years coincided with his wife’s illness.  I don’t recall that Bob talked about her much and we do not form a very strong picture of her in his previous books.

She takes a central place here.  We learn in a beautiful section how bowled over he was at his first sight of her.  He was writing some sixty-odd years after this happened, but in his vivid description of her looks and his feelings, he could be writing about something that happened very recently:

After making what he describes as a poor first impression, Bob finds out where she lives and manages to go out of his way to make a strong impression both on her and her parents.  Subsequently, we read of a couple that were very happy together, good companions and sharing lots of happy times.  Joan gets the credit for inspiring and developing Bob’s interest in literature.

Most of Bob’s previous books have included a small smattering of his poetry.  These have led me to believe that Bob was a man who had an extraordinary and varied way with prose who also wrote poetry, with the latter somehow being of a lower quality.  There is more poetry this time, again some of it is somehow lacking, but this time there are others whose power leaps off the page and grabs you; sets you thinking; as good poetry should.  The longest is probably also the finest; Ancestors has the strength that sometimes came across in conversations with Bob about his predecessors.  Here is a short extract:

I have known three generation of the Copper Family quite well; Bob, his cousin Ron, his two children and his six grandchildren.  One of several things that they all have in common is a sense of who they are.  Obviously, this derives from the strong bonds that they have as a family and the way that they can trace their links back over generations which add up to centuries.

In my last job before retiring, I was at a special school only a few miles away from Peacehaven and it was a frequent occurrence for a very angry young child to be brought into my office by an adult telling of their outrageous behaviour.  It was my task to try to give a firm reminder of what was acceptable whilst not destroying fragile self-confidence and trying build trust.  It was also my job to find why they were so angry and what could be done to deal with it.  Tears often followed a period of calming down and at this stage there were occasions when I heard, “I don’t even know who my dad is!”  Invariably, I reflected on the Copper Family after these situations.

That first example comes from his Worthing police days.  The other example is comes after his return to Peacehaven and managing the Central Club.  Bob was really enjoying life again, but having to face the dilemma that all in the licensed trade have to face; that of how far they should join in with the social drinking of their customers.  There would seem to be a line that should not be crossed and, following what he describes as a “monumental bender”, Bob realises this and gives us some honest self-assessment in a poem called Awakening:

Towards the end of the book there is a change of style in one chapter as Bob gives some diary entries of a 1998 family singing trip to the USA.  The first impression is that this was added as an afterthought but no, the Publisher’s Note at the beginning states 'The manuscript was completed to Bob Copper’s satisfaction at the time of his death in 2004.'  However this chapter in a basic note form serves as a reminder of just how satisfying the rest of his writing is and how much I was wishing to get through this chapter to return to his utterly pleasing prose and the conclusion of this excellent read.

Finally, there ought to be a mention for the 30 or so pages of lovely photos that help so much to augment the text.  These vary from the really well-known, familiar images such as the one of Bob, Ron and their fathers Jim and John at the Albert Hall and of the same four leaning on a wall through to ones that I had not seen before and I have seen many photos of Bob from the years when I was preparing multimedia shows with the man himself and subsequently with Shirley Collins.  The book is now available from Amazon, priced at £15.

Vic Smith - 26.7.13


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