Judith Kerr: If Carlsberg made grannies...

The artist and writer who gave us Mog and a certain hungry tiger is exactly as wonderful as her readers would expect. Katy Guest meets Judith Kerr

Sunday 06 September 2009 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the front room of Judith Kerr's house in a leafy suburb of London, there is a large bookcase devoted almost entirely to the work of her immediate family. "The top ones here are my father's," she explains, proudly counting off the volumes. "And these are Tom's at the end. And then from here to here are Matthew's... And these at the bottom are mine."

Her father, Alfred Kerr, was a German drama critic and journalist whose books were burned by the Nazis shortly after the family fled Germany in 1933. Tom is the family's name for Kerr's late husband Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatermass for the BBC. Her son, Matthew Kneale, won the Whitbread Prize for his 2000 novel, English Passengers. But the books best loved outside the Kneale family must undoubtedly be Kerr's own.

Here on a lower shelf are several editions of The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968). There is half a shelf of Mog books – 17 titles in a number of languages. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – the autobiographical story of her family's journey from Germany through Switzerland and Paris to London – appears in several neat editions (it is particularly popular now in German). A corner of a shelf has one lonely Shakespeare and an Antony Beevor, but "I have to keep moving them out," she says. Every time a family member publishes another corker, a major canonical writer must be booted upstairs.

Of all the starry writers I have interviewed over the years, none has provoked quite so much envy as Kerr. My generation grew up with Mog and her whimsical feline antics. Many of us can still do the voice of the naughty Tiger, just as he was read to us when we were children. Rereading Pink Rabbit, I realised that several whole passages have stuck in my head since I first set eyes on it when I was about 10. The scene in which big brother Max surmises that Hitler is probably playing with their Snakes and Ladders, and Anna replies, "And snuggling my Pink Rabbit!", must be one of the most heartbreaking in modern literature. So when we meet to talk about her new picture book, One Night in the Zoo, the author has an awful lot to live up to. Fortunately, she is exactly as wonderful as her readers would expect.

Kerr still lives in the house she moved to when her children were babies. "I've been here for... 47 years," she chuckles. "I think that's the only thing that's left from my childhood: I do like to keep things the same now. I've had my hair cut by the same man for, ooh, 45 years. And I've done all my work in the room upstairs." The front of the house is wrapped in a huge, aged wisteria. There is a very English cottage garden and a neat wooden gate. And Kerr has taken a break from "redrawing dolphins" to lay out coffee, biscuits and milk in a jug. "Would you like a cup?" she asks, fussing about the central heating. "Water? Whisky?" There is an almost permanent mischievous twinkle in her sharp brown eyes. If Carlsberg made grannies ...

Kerr's own grandchildren, who are eight and five, are lucky children. They last visited from Rome, where they live with their father Matthew, to see the stage show of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. And they were given a sneak preview of One Night in the Zoo, a counting book based on animals doing surreal and silly things. She showed Alexander the first page, in which "an elephant jumped in the air and flew. But nobody knew." "Elephants don't fly!" spotted Alexander, who then added: "I think this is going to be a good one."

For several generations now, children in the Kerr and Kneale households have grown up around writing. "My father's the only person I know who corrected his books, not only after they'd been printed but after they'd been burned by the Nazis," she laughs. "That's where I get it from, by the way: the endless rubbing out." Nigel Kneale's father was also a journalist. But her husband, Kerr insists, was the real storyteller of the family. "He did a series called Beasts," she recalls, "and he was telling me one of them, and the phone rang and he had to answer. I was so cross! Because I wanted to know what happened next. And Matt, I think has inherited a lot from Tom ..." Matthew Kneale, like his mother, is an adventurer, a traveller and a linguist. When I once interviewed him about his book, When We Were Romans, he was full of compliments for his mum. "Oh I didn't realise," she blushes when I tell her some of them. "I'm very glad he said that. How nice of him."

In return, she tells me that she and Tom read the manuscript for When We Were Romans shortly before Tom died in 2006. "We were so lucky," she begins, typically. Tom was ill, and had to be passed each page, but still he read it in a day. When he had finished, Kerr dialled Matthew's number for him and Tom left Matthew a message: "'We've read your book. It's a masterpiece.' I'm so, so glad that happened ..." Behind her glasses, her eyes light up every time she says her husband's name – which is often.

Now, it seems that the junior Kneales have an eye on the family business. "Alexander was asked at school, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' I expect he was about four or five at the time. He said, 'Read and write.'"

It is just like Kerr to see the "lucky" side of a tragic situation. Of her childhood, the sudden flit from Germany because of her father's anti-Nazi leanings, her near-death in Switzerland, suddenly having to learn French and then, a year later, English, she says: "Oh, I wouldn't have missed it for anything!"

Only the other day she found some letters written then by her father which she had never seen before. Letters "pleading for money". But her parents never let the children know what trouble they were in; even made it seem like an adventure. I ask her about Anne Frank, who also described the Second World War so movingly from a child's point of view. "I don't think I am in that class," she immediately says. "But I think that children only understand a certain amount and they write about their life, which does consist of going to school and having a row with your best friend and a good teacher and a bad teacher ... And if everything is all right at home with your parents, you know ... I think divorce must be far more difficult to cope with than anything I had to cope with. I would have thought so, wouldn't you?"

Kerr only found out much later that, the day after the family crossed the border to Switzerland, the Nazis came for their passports. She finds it difficult to visit Germany now. The station where she and her brother set off for swimming and fun bears a plaque: "From this station the Berlin Jews were transported to Auschwitz."

Like Anna in Pink Rabbit, the real-life Kerr dreamed as a child of being a famous writer. But she only really started writing and drawing books when her own children were learning to read. The Tiger was inspired by Matthew, who announced one day that he was not going to read another word of the "boring" children's books that were on offer. "And I realised, having learnt to read in German, which is dead easy because it's all phonetic, that these poor creatures were having to learn this awful, awful language to read. I mean it's a wonderful language. But very hard to learn. [The Mog books] were very much inspired by Dr Seuss in that I used as few words as possible, used them again and again and made it funny. And I didn't put anything in the text that was in the picture ... Because that's an awful effort to get nothing!"

Since her husband died, writing has become more important than ever. "It fills my life. In fact, when I'd put the last little bit of yellow on a lion in the Zoo book, I immediately panicked: 'What now, what now?'" But now she is working on a book which, she says, is obsessing her. To begin with, she won't say what it is about. But then she lets slip: "It's about an old lady. Doing ridiculous things. So..."

The nine-year-old Judith Kerr would not have recognised the old lady she has become, she says. But being a well-known writer has its benefits. "It is a comfort to me, now that I'm on my own: to feel that there are other people who sort of know one a bit, you know. It's less lonely, and that's very nice." She pauses, her mind drifting back up the stairs to her office. "But you know," she adds, "I still have to redraw that dolphin."

One Night in the Zoo, by Judith Kerr, is published by HarperCollins Children's Books, £12.99. A retrospective exhibition of her work launches on 19 September at Seven Stories: The Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle. It will then tour the UK

A life in pictures

1923: Born in Berlin, Germany

1933: Fled Germany with her family, as her father, a socialist critic and broadcaster, was wanted by the Nazis who had just come to power. Settled in the UK three years later after stays in Switzerland and France.

1940: Worked for the Red Cross during the war, after which she became an artist – decorating nurseries – and a BBC scriptwriter.

1954: Married Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass television series, who died in 2006. The couple had two children, Matthew, a Whitbread Prize-winning author and Tacy who illustrates children's books.

1968: The Tiger Who Came to Tea, one of the most successful children's books of all time, is published. It is still in print 41 years later.

1970: Published Mog the Forgetful Cat, the first of 17 Mog books based on her own cat.

1971: Published the children's novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about a Jewish girl who has to flee Hitler, based on her own experiences – Pink Rabbit was a favourite toy she was forced to leave behind.

1974: Won the German Youth Literature Prize for Pink Rabbit.

2002: Killed off Mog in Goodbye Mog, a critically acclaimed children's book about death.

2008: At the age of 85, she published Twinkles, Arthur and Puss, about a cat with three different lives

Andrew Johnson

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