Judith Kerr at 95
It was ‘rather unrealistic’, said Judith Kerr's putative publishers, that The Tiger Who Came to Tea drank all the water in the tap – mind, how likely was it that a tiger might turn up at someone’s house, devour everything in sight (to the children’s joy) and never return? Very likely, of course, if like Judith Kerr you were born Jewish in Germany and so knew that powerful beasts did turn up unexpectedly at your house. And though they might eat up everything you had, you were not alarmed – because miraculously the Kerrs got out of Berlin before they were harmed. Tiger is a charming pictorial reworking of that terrifying experience, a version in which the children are kept safe.
Her father Alfred Kerr (previously Kempner) was Berlin’s most famous theatre critic, top of the hit list the Nazis had created for when they came to power. Witty and iconoclastic ( 'The Tokyo String Quartet played Brahms last night. Brahms lost') today Germany theatre prize are named after him. The family was Jewish but totally assimilated. Tipped off, they fled to Switzerland just ahead of the SS who were coming to take their passports: this happened early in 1933, before Hitler was elected.
At the 2018 Hay Festival Judith Kerr – now 95 – told a rapt crowd the story of ‘how I almost gave us away by being stupid’. Told by her mother not to say one word at the frontier when the passports were examined, the nine-year-old obeyed. ‘But as the official was leaving the carriage I began to say - There you see, nothing’s happened – and my mother gave me such a terrible look that I didn’t quite get the phrase out.’ And yet Kerr, so very British in her self-deprecation, insists that this wasn’t traumatic: ‘my parents were both very confident and protective and I was a very unobservant child so I didn’t realise how dangerous it was.’ In their peregrinations to Paris and eventually London, these cultured, intelligent parents protected their children from such cruel facts as their mother’s depression, their poverty and their own despair.
Kerr’s fiction has arisen directly from her life: the two are inseparable. In her hugely successful first novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit the family arrives in Paris. While her father agonizes over how to get the family safely to London her alter ego, Anna, suddenly realizes that she has learnt to speak perfect French. Her linguistic ability wins her a prize and transforms everything – meanwhile her father sells a script on Napoleon and the thousand pounds he earns gets them out. Alfred Kerr had indeed sold a script about Napoleon to Alexander Korda, which never became a film; that purchase most probably an act of generosity. The sale rescued them, and sent her extremely bright brother Michael (who would become a barrister and eventually Lord Justice of Appeal) to a good school. When this remarkable young man was interned, he wrote to Michael Foot (then a journalist) and was released, later becoming one of the very few German pilots in the RAF. Kerr’s mother was a child of privilege who had written operas but never cooked – in London she became a secretary and the main wage earner, while her father tried to keep on writing. But how do you write when your very language is reviled?
Daniel Snowman’s thorough and illuminating book The Hitler Emigrés movingly depicts the ways in which refugees from Nazism made a lasting mark on our cultural life. Here, among other stories is that of the FDKB Freier Deutscher Kulturbund – Free German League of Culture – whose members included Stefan Zweig and whose first chairman Alfred Kerr became. They found a place to meet and bond in Hampstead where ‘for a few hours you did not have to worry about how others regarded you – your accent, the fur or feather in your clothing, the way you spoke with your hands, how you held your knife and fork.’ Here you could perhaps even laugh at the English. Cabaret and satire flourished and many members gained cultural réclame – but not Alfred Kerr whose books had been publicly burned, and who Snowman tells us ‘had lost his public voice and thereby his authority, once he had lost his language’.
Writers with important reputations on the Continent were barely known in their country of adoption; their preoccupations after their personal catastrophe would necessarily be very different from the mood of post-war England, which ranged from optimistic social reform to cultural elitism. When Alfred Kerr returned to the Hamburg theatre in 1948 the entire audience rose in acclaim – some hours later, he suffered a stroke. A few days later, he ended his life with the assistance of his wife. Throughout the war, ever fearing a German invasion, they had carried suicide pills; Judith’s mother – lacking her husband’s talent for happiness – would also attempt suicide.
Unlike their parents the two talented children thrived. By now they had learnt perfect English and entirely lost their accents. Kerr never considered going back. ‘We were officially categorised neither as “Enemy Aliens” nor as “Friendly Aliens” but as “Friendly Enemy Aliens,”’ she wrote in her charming illustrated autobiography, Creatures – that word being their family term for much-loved people as well as animals. ‘This Alice in Wonderland term alone seems to me almost enough reason to want to be British’.
The Hay Festival interview with broadcaster and writer Clemency Burton-Hill - a huge fan - was a treat and most sensitively conducted. The event was sold out, the audience packed with fans of all ages from 2 to 82. Burton-Hill, introducing Kerr as one of our greatest authors and illustrators, asked her interviewee to read Tiger and even before she began said 'I'm crying already, it's very emotional.' Burton-Hill was not alone. This small woman with her delicate, intelligent amused face and cloud of grey hair is a great heroine of mine, too, one of those rare people whose work arises in a strong true line from their deepest selves.
From the earliest age, Judith Kerr had always drawn. Her first memory is of ‘aged 2 or 3 playing in the street as we always did then. I was sitting on the kerb and stirring petrol with a stick and making all the colours change. And I remember the other children shouting – come and play – and I remember that it was more important to stir the colours.’ (Her remarkable mother included her drawings among the very few objects she brought out of Germany – some were shown on the screen at Hay and many are depicted in Creatures.) The much-loved eponymous pink rabbit was among the many objects left behind. ‘I had been given a wooly dog for Christmas and hadn’t had the chance to be properly acquainted with it and it looked rather good so I thought I’ll take this toy dog – who turned out to be extremely boring compared to pink rabbit who had always been my favourite creature.’
Kerr described the dark days of the blitz and how the patience and humour of ordinary people wearily struggling to work through broken streets made her a Brit too. And, though her parents both spoke with unmistakeable German accents, nobody ever said anything nasty to them. This tolerance of outsiders and aliens (which Brexit seems to have reversed) was remarkable to a German child. “Both my brother and I always agreed that the childhood we had was in fact a great improvement on the childhood we would have had if there had been no Hitler.”'
After the blitz was over, the girl who had always drawn started Sunday classes at St Martin’s School of Art to learn to draw from life. She describes having no idea what to do, and on her first attempt making a ‘knotted nest of fingers’ that was so awful, she had to go back (the drawings in her book are very fine). When arts schools re-opened after the war, she wasn’t eligible for a scholarship, being foreign born, but was helped with a trade scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts to design textiles. Not wanting to do textiles, she signed up every morning for the illustration class and went where she wanted to instead. ‘In my last term some bureaucratic person decided we must get a diploma and exhibit work and write a thesis. I tried desperately to do some and couldn’t, had done none – so I wrote a thesis saying, look at Picasso’s illustrations and that illustration was not a separate branch. This didn’t go down well and I failed. The only exam I ever failed in my life – I was horribly good at exams – was as a book illustrator.’ And how this still rankles (though at Hay of course it got a very big laugh).
In 1954 she married scriptwriter Tom Kneale (known as Nigel professionally) the writer of the wildly successful Quatermass Experiment that riveted Britain to its black and white tv sets in the 1950’s. There’s a glorious description in Creatures of the two of them making the creature that terrified the nation out of two gloves covered with tendrils and twirls of wire, leather and threads. They had two children and Kerr settled into bringing them up. Her discriminating little son (writer Matthew Kneale) rejected the dull children’s books of the day and Kerr conceived her first picture book, The Tiger who Came to Tea, as an antidote. Tiger was the favourite bed time story of her little daughter Tacy, then two going on three and ‘so bossy. She dismissed the others, which were perfectly good, and said ‘talk the tiger’. So I kept telling her this story which she liked and I suppose that she edited it, in the sense that there were bits in it which she thought were boring so I left them out.’ Happily and perhaps inevitably, the rigorous two-year-old would become a professional editor.
This was the first and only book which presented itself as a finished text : she wrote it down exactly as she told it. Then, she says, she had no idea how to illustrate it: should the tiger wear clothes, for instance? Colourful, humorous and charming with its excitingly hungry beast, the book put her own life, her house in Barnes, and her children, into the mixture: ‘I gave them our kitchen and just plunged in.’ From Dr Seuss, Kerr borrowed the idea of a 250 word vocabulary. It took ‘the best part of a year to get to the end’ – and how different that end was from the usual run of kiddie stuff. Tiger was vivid and modern with its bright mugs and 70’s clothes, and the latest thing in Formica kitchen tops – though Kerr didn't have any great hopes it was an instant hit, this year celebrating its fiftieth birthday. Kerr described how ‘the publishers rang me up – and said, look, we don’t want to alter your story at all but do you think, do you mind if we took out the word "and" at the beginning of every sentence?’
This is how Kerr speaks: slowly, calmly, deliberately, every word measured in slightly old fashioned perfect diction. Hers is the voice of somebody with no illusions, with great clarity. She is entirely factual, unsentimental and unsparing of herself and how things are generally, and also terribly funny – characteristics threaded through all her work. No wonder her slightly surreal and charmingly simple tale hit a chord with children and parents alike. And there’s an added element, which Michael Rosen explained in Claire Armistead’s 2008 Guardian interview: 'Judith has created a totally feasible unfeasible experience, the juxtaposition of two realities in a way that would be impossible in our world. The result is both very funny and slightly unsettling.'
When Kerr’s children said they thought Mummy’s past must have been just likeThe Sound of Music, she wrote her semi-autobiographical trilogy, to set the story right. In Pink Rabbit we see the parents’ strengths. The sequel, The Other Way Round is indeed a reverse: it takes Anna and family through London’s Blitz and all the difficulties of growing up with sad and confused parents. We see her father’s depression and kindness – her mother’s irritability – but also the triumphs of the adored brother. Salvation again comes through the acquisition of skills. This novel is particularly good on the mother-daughter conflict as Anna lies awake pretending not to hear her mother cry at night, for she simply cannot stand it. A Small Person Far Away takes the now thoroughly English and married Anna back to Berlin, where her despairing mother has overdosed because her elderly lover has had an office affair. The honesty, candour and tremendous readability of these novels explain why they have been successful for so long. The trilogy, also widely read in German schools, in 1974 won the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpreis (German Young Literature Prize).
Kerr’s greatest success, however, has been the delightful Mog. Two years after Tiger, the big beast transmogrified into the lovable striped tabby – a cat so very successful in the book world that it would take seventeen books for Kerr to tire of drawing stripes. Cat-loving husband Thomas was the prototype for the father; her children’s second names became those of Nicky and Debbie in the story, and of course the real cat snuck her way in: “A lot were things Tom and the children had said about the cat – I bet she dreams that she can fly, so I put that in”.
Mog does not get up to all that much, but is always herself. Kerr’s enduring creature was good-looking, nice but perhaps not the most intelligent of cats; she sulked, was a picky eater – often went on hunger strike and refused fish – could be jealous and behave absurdly. In other words she was exactly like the small children who adored her. For seventeen books nothing changes in Mog’s world where the 1970’s furniture and clothes remain bright and new. Yet, despite her cat having nine lives, in 2002 the (then) 80-year old Judith Kerr let Mog die of old age. Goodbye Mog begins thus: ‘Mog was dead tired’.
Mog, running true to form, was not obliging about her death – and she haunted the Thomases for a bit, and bossed around the kitten who succeeded her – but she did die and flew off to heaven, rather pleased with her new skill. This was outrageous stuff, shocking and unheard-of in the world of five to eight year old readers. Here is Mog’s delightful obituary by Kate Kellaway in The Guardian.
And here, also in The Guardian, the late Dina Rabinovitch tells us in a lucid and insightful interview with the author, that Mog had to die 'because cats do die. And so do grandparents …'. Kerr always knew that this was a book she had to do. Her much-loved husband died in 2006: 'We had been together for 54 years but we had never run out of things to talk about.' Unable to work for a year or two, Kerr eventually completed a new picture book, My Henry, which she says is her favourite book. This is about a widow who, while appearing to sit still in her chair, is in fact imagining wild adventures with her husband and flying with him in heaven. 'It’s very jolly and quite funny and totally ridiculous,' she said, 'Quite funny for children. It’s about this old lady fantasizing about what she might do'.
At the heart of this book lies an awareness of her own mortality and consciousness of what must come. And, like all her other books, it draws from life, transforming darkness into warmth and colour. She works harder than ever and says she’s become quicker at producing books since her husband died. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work, seven days a week if I want to.’ There’s another book coming out in October, which she was not allowed to talk about. She paused. ‘Actually I think it is quite good,’ she added in a very dry tone. And the audience at Hay cheered.
Asked by Burton-Hill whether she, a refugee, feared for the world in these dark days she told a wonderful story of being 17 in the blitz and lying on a kind of chest trying to sleep. ‘It was the summer of 1940 and we slept on anything – everybody expected the invasion at any moment. The US ambassador to London sent a message that Hitler would be here in a week - and knowing my father was on the blackest of black lists I thought oh dear, what a pity I will never get any older, will never find out what I can do. And the invasion didn’t happen. I thought like many other people that Hitler would win and the world would be taken over – that didn’t happen. Many years later in the Cold War it looked as if the world might become Communist. That didn’t happen either.’ Long pause: ‘With luck it will be alright.’
Kerr is a phenomenon. In 2012 she was appointed an OBE. Translated into 25 languages, she has sold over 9 million books world-wide. Dina Rabinovitch’s lovely article records Kerr explaining 'Because people do die, and you don’t lose them. You know, we have no religion, never have had. My parents didn’t have either … '. She remains a realist, and an optimist. And Rabinovitch reminds us of what lies under that simplicity: ‘But Kerr works, of course, in a biblical tradition; the simplest stories bear the weight of the profoundest emotions.’
The Tiger Who Came to Tea
17 Mog books : from Mog the Forgetful Cat to Goodbye Mog
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
The Other Way Round
A Small Person Far Away
All by Judith Kerr and published by HarperCollins Children’s Books
The Hitler Emigrés : the cultural impact on Britain of refugees from Nazism Daniel Snowman, Pimlico, London, 2002