There is something quintessentially English about German-born Hungarian beekeeper, teacher and poet, Kornel Kossuth. Maybe you’ve seen him, on the South Bank, perched over a vintage keyboard like some Wodehousian dandy, clad in cravat, waistcoat and top hat, writing poems for strangers.
‘I’ve always felt I’m English,’ he says, in his quintessentially English cottage in rural Kent, ‘and England is where I want to be.’
Kossuth – originally pronounced Koshoot – was born in Stade, near Hamburg, then moved to England when he was five years old. His first languages were German, natürlich, and Hungarian, nyilvánvalóan. His great great great uncle was Lajos Kossuth, who led the 1848 revolution against the Hapsburg Empire and was for a time Regent-President of Hungary, and he is almost certainly the only man – Kornel, that is – to have ever declared a year in Bristol ‘balm for my soul’.
When he was 12, he moved with his family to Vienna, but the years he spent in Norfolk were to have a huge impact on his life. It was there, for example, that he first became aware of poetry.
‘I had a great, fearsome English teacher,’ he says, ‘who introduced me to poetry and instilled a love for the language, for English.’ Kornel didn’t actually start writing poetry, however, until he was 16 and there were no more spaces on the short story module of the summer course he wanted to do. So he plumped for poetry instead and found, serendipitously, that he ‘had a knack for it’.
The following year, his English childhood came to an end and he returned to Vienna, switched back to German and studied to become a lawyer. He had considered studying English, but aside from harbouring some scepticism about the standards of English-teaching in Austria, he didn’t really see the point. In Austria, you study for your career, and the last thing young Kornel Kossuth wanted to be was an English teacher.
On completing his studies, he found work at an Austrian law firm, specialising in energy and later pharmaceuticals. He enjoyed the work. ‘It was good fun,’ he says. ‘It was very logical.’ After five years with the same firm, however, he had to make a decision.
‘There comes a point,’ he explains, making it sound ever so slightly sinister, ‘where you have to buy into the partnership, and once you buy in, if you ever want to leave, it gets more difficult. You leave less than naked.’
Ultimately, there were numerous factors that saw Kornel giving up his career and his home and moving to the other side of Europe to retrain as an English teacher, not least the rather dark influence of the shady world of pharmaceutical law, where one of his duties was to deny the efficacy of rival companies’ drugs. He recalls one occasion where ‘just to prove something they knew they couldn’t prove … they did experiments with six dogs, which they killed.’ His soft voice is suitably grim. ‘And those are the kind of things that make you wonder who you’re working for and is that something that you really want to do?’
It wasn’t. So he came to England, did a PGCE in Canterbury and found a job in the English department of an independent prep school in rural Kent. Having previously returned for a year to the UK in his mid-20s to do an MA in English Literature – the soul-balm year in Bristol – this felt very much like a homecoming.
‘I left everything behind,’ he says. ‘I used most of my savings to finance the course and then found a job at the school where I still am today. It’s a lovely, lovely school,’ he says. Indeed, the love he has for the career he thought he never wanted is a beautiful thing to behold, and he speaks of the school, and the kids, with incredible fondness.
Mr Kossuth is one of those teachers who gets involved. This is why, as well as Head of English, he also teaches fencing and supervises the debating society. It’s also why, as well as 400 children, he looks after around 80,000 bees.
‘I’ve always wanted to keep bees,’ he tells me. ‘I went on a bee-keeping course in around 2010, which was really fascinating. And I thought before I commit to keeping bees, there are two things that need to happen. First, I need to have looked into an open hive … because suddenly having 30,000 insects flying around you can be quite frightening. And the other thing was, I needed to get stung.’
So that’s what he did.
‘The stinging wasn’t bad,’ he says, ‘and I love the bees.’
A small number of parents chipped in to help him get the hives off the ground four years ago, and now it’s a going concern, with two hives of 40,000 bees apiece. ‘They are fantastic little creatures,’ he says, ‘and you do develop a real bond with them.’
I ask him if the bond he shares with the bees is a connection with the entire hive or if he has relationships with individual bees. He laughs at this notion and declares that it ‘sounds a bit dodgy’. Dodgy, of course, is in the mind of the beholder. Or, in this case, the bee-holder.
As it transpires, the average worker bee only lives for about six weeks in the summer, so getting to know them is ill-advised. It would be far too painful.
‘You could, if you like, bond with the queen,’ says Kornel, ‘as she’s around for about three to four years. But you don’t necessarily see her that often and also you don’t really do anything with the queen. You just try and make sure she’s there and that she’s safe. But that’s about it.’
Still, keeping bees, en masse, is a clearly a source of great pleasure and Kornel waxes lyrical about the whole experience. ‘They’re all busy!’ he cries. ‘Whenever you open up the hive, they’ll just crawl on your hands, or they’ll be flying around and interested in things. It’s great!’ He really loves the bees.
The kids love the bees too. Or most of them do. A couple still hang back and cower, but most are happy to get the little suits on and get involved, learning in the process how to make honey and soap, and more recently, candles. Kornel shows me a couple of candles they’ve made and then produces a pair of candlesticks. He has a friend who happens to be a blacksmith, so he took a quick lesson and came up with the goods. ‘You can tell they’re handmade,’ he says. ‘They’re completely rubbish.’
Thankfully, Kornel Kossuth is not a candlestick-maker. He is a teacher, and he is a writer. And like most natural born writers, he has always written. Whether he was sending off poetry to magazines, publishing legal periodicals, writing English exam practice books or working on a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he has always been driven to write.
Kornel Kossuth the Poetry Busker, however, was ‘a long time in the making’. It started with the feeling he’d always had that, ‘If you’ve got something, why not bring it to the public somehow?’ Having become disillusioned with the rigmarole of seeking publication in specialist poetry magazines, which was unpredictable and disappointing at best, he started considering alternatives.
He’d once fancied the idea of busking with a guitar, but ‘I was a hopeless musician so that was never going to happen’. Then he heard about an Austrian street-writer who used to hang his poems from trees, for people to pick like low-hanging fruit. Others told stories on street corners. Then a friend of his said: ‘Why don’t you just go out and do something?’
‘I thought that was a good idea,’ says Kornel, ‘but I also thought, if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly. So I wasn’t going just sitting there, huddled over a plastic table in an anorak.’ Instead, he decided to dress up – ‘top hat, waistcoat, all that – you’re representing something,’ he says. ‘You’re also selling something at the end of the day. And the modern just isn’t as evocative.’
Then he found himself an old typewriter.
‘A beautiful, beautiful machine from 1936.’ An old Remington, a piece of history. ‘I’m so grateful and glad to have it and to be still using it now, and I look forward to its hundredth birthday.’
So having established his image, which is very much a reflection of his true self – wit and style, quintessential Englishness with just a pinch of steampunk – he set out his stall with a sign and found himself a nice spot on the South Bank.
On his first day busking, he figured he’d be happy if he made enough money for his train fare home. After a slow start that would become standard, things picked up and eventually he did quite well. So he became a regular fixture on The South Bank, rocking up opposite the National Theatre and writing impromptu poems for anyone who gave a damn.
As with any kind of busking, poetry busking proved a fitful affair. Some days people seemed much friendlier than others. Some days he felt beaten down by the rain. But on the whole, it went very well and he still remembers – with some considerable joy – the first time he had people queuing up for his words.
After a year of fairly regular busking, he was eventually approached by a couple of South Bank bouncers who informed him he needed a licence. So he got one, and he’s now officially licensed. ‘I fall under the category of statue,’ he says.
As statues go, Kornel Kossuth has had some pretty memorable encounters on the South Bank.
His muses are myriad. Some come with no idea what they want from him and ask rather tritely for a poem about London. Some come with challenging titles, pre-prepared, such as An Apology to the Panda or The Contribution of Typewriters to Bureaucracy. Some come with kids who marvel at his typewriter, perplexed by this USB-free machine from a bygone age, an age with no delete button. Some come with kids who marvel at his words, their worlds opened up by their first foray into the possibilities of poetry. Many come with stories, like the 82-year-old man who wanted a poem about the love – the unrequited love – he’d felt for the same woman, for 62 years. ‘It still hurts,’ he said.
However they come to him, they all leave with at least two stories. One of the eccentric Englishman they think they met by the River Thames; and one in the form of a poem he wrote for them, about their lives, about all life, right there, while they waited.
Check out The Poetry Busker on Facebook, then, if you can, check him out in real life.
And here, for your delectation, are some of his words…