Ju­dith Kerr – still writ­ing at 95

As a child, Ju­dith Kerr fled Nazi Ger­many and be­gan a new life in Lon­don which led to her cre­at­ing much-loved chil­dren’s best­sellers. With a book just out and still work­ing at 95, she talks to Va­lerie Grove

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Va­lerie Grove

When Ju­dith Kerr ap­peared by chance at an Oldie event in Septem­ber, we were all quite struck by her: so chic in her black trouser suit; so amaz­ingly spry. Spurn­ing an of­fered cab, she strode off to Pic­cadilly Cir­cus to catch the tube home to Barnes. At 95!

It was David Wood, the chil­dren’s play­wright, who brought Kerr along. He was ad­dress­ing us about the film if.... in which he starred 50 years ago. Co­in­ci­den­tally, it was also the 50th an­niver­sary of Kerr’s first book The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Wood’s stage ver­sion of which has been run­ning for 10 years. Kerr’s story of So­phie and her mother and the tiger who eats ev­ery­thing in their kitchen, oblig­ing them to go out to a café for sup­per, is revered by three gen­er­a­tions. In the world of chil­dren’s books, The Tiger has clas­sic sta­tus.

‘It seemed a mad idea,’ Kerr says, ‘to make a 55-minute play out of it. And yet, when­ever I see it in the theatre, 200 three-year-olds are watch­ing en­rap­tured, and there’s not a sound.’

It may be slightly ex­as­per­at­ing al­ways to be asked about The Tiger, and not about her dozens of other books, but then she re­calls how lucky she is. Her late hus­band, Nigel Kneale, was sim­i­larly linked ir­re­vo­ca­bly with his ter­ri­fy­ing tril­ogy of Qu­ater­mass TV se­ri­als, de­spite be­ing a pro­lific drama­tist and screen­writer: he scripted Os­borne’s Look Back in Anger and The En­ter­tainer, and staged Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-four.

The lat­est Ju­dith Kerr pic­ture book, just out, rather alarms me. In Mummy Time, the mother sets off to walk in the park with her dar­ling blond tod­dler, all en­ergy and cu­rios­ity. But the minute they are out­side, mummy rings a friend on her mo­bile and is soon sit­ting on a bench chat­ting about a re­cent party, yat­ter yat­ter yat­ter...

Mean­while, the sweet boy tod­dles off and be­friends a St Bernard dog, picks up (and eats) bread scat­tered for the ducks, falls head­long into the lake, is mer­ci­fully res­cued by a swan... and, af­ter many mis­ad­ven­tures, is de­liv­ered safely, by the St Bernard, to mummy.

I am aghast at her neg­li­gence, and re­mark how dif­fer­ent she is from the at­ten­tive, home­bound 1968 mother in The Tiger. Of course Kerr is point­ing out the truth as she ob­serves it to­day – young moth­ers are for­ever on their phones and can’t pos­si­bly see what their chil­dren are get­ting up to.

‘But I am sure they are very good mums at other times,’ Kerr says, as one who seeks the best in peo­ple. ‘And moth­er­hood can be wildly bor­ing some­times,’ she re­flects, adding, ‘I’m sure I would have been de­lighted to have a mo­bile phone.’

Her own full-time moth­er­ing of Tacy and Matthew turned her into an au­thor. They would walk in Hol­land Park where pea­cocks slept in the trees. At dusk, the ‘All out’ men ar­rived at the gates, shout­ing ‘All out!’ Tacy – now a wildlife artist – adored be­ing out af­ter dark; hence the café episode in The Tiger. Kerr wrote it down ex­actly as she’d told it – ‘many, many times’ – to Tacy.

Her draw­ing board over­looks the gar­den of the Ed­war­dian house she has lived in for 56 years, now shared only with Katinka, cat num­ber nine. Like Kerr cre­ation the for­get­ful Mog, she is white with a tabby tail – but, at 13, get­ting thin and spiny.

‘In Barnes,’ Kerr says, ‘dogs are the thing. Ev­ery­one has to have one. And they all walk on Barnes Com­mon ev­ery day – but the dog-own­ers aren’t on their phones, un­like the ones with chil­dren.’

Her trim fig­ure re­flects her walk­ing regime. Walk­ing was ‘a good an­tide­pres­sant’ af­ter her hus­band died in 2006, and ‘a good way of think­ing about work. It seemed to ab­sorb some­thing that would oth­er­wise get in the way.’ We walked to­gether over Barnes Com­mon to my bus stop, ob­serv­ing mum­mies on mo­biles...

There are no dull mo­ments with Kerr.

Men­tion her son Matthew’s Lon­don day school, Latymer (she hated board­ing her­self, and would never in­flict it on her chil­dren), and she tells me he was in Hugh Grant’s year at school and Ox­ford.

Two schools, in Lon­don and Ber­lin, have been founded in Kerr’s name, and in 2008 she re­ceived the OBE for ser­vices to chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. She do­nated her Tiger il­lus­tra­tions to Seven Sto­ries, the chil­dren’s book ar­chive on Ty­ne­side. I was there on the day of the draw­ings’ ar­rival, which caused parox­ysms of ex­cite­ment.

The OBE ci­ta­tion also men­tioned ‘Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion’ – based on her won­der­ful mem­oir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rab­bit, about her fam­ily’s flight from Ber­lin, just in time, in 1933. She won­dered how to tell it.

‘In most books where chil­dren fall on hard times, they are OK be­cause their par­ents can cope; the mother can cook and make beau­ti­ful clothes; the fa­ther can make fur­ni­ture. Mine weren’t like that.’

It’s a thrilling story, telling what it’s like to live un­der an op­pres­sive regime, and to be a refugee. It’s com­pul­sory read­ing here and in Ger­many – and she feels sorry for Ger­man chil­dren hav­ing to write es­says about it.

‘How can you be ex­pected to feel guilt about some­thing that hap­pened be­fore your par­ents were born?’

When I men­tion the rear­ing of anti-semitism in to­day’s Labour Party, she muses, ‘Well, there’s so much else wrong with Cor­byn...’

She has never joined Labour or any other party, de­clares her­self ‘not at all po­lit­i­cal’ and, like her fa­ther, she is an athe­ist. Her chief feel­ing re­mains one of grat­i­tude: to stress how lucky her fam­ily were, with so many other Jewish refugees, to find a warm wel­come in Lon­don.

Here she went to art school, be­came a BBC scriptwriter (‘a six-part adap­ta­tion of Buchan’s Hunt­ing­tower nearly killed me’), and met her hus­band. Her late brother, Sir Michael Kerr, did equally well, be­com­ing an Ap­peal Court judge.

Their clever, witty fa­ther, Al­fred Kerr, had been so fa­mous in Ger­many as a drama critic and anti-nazi broad­caster – ‘in the mould of Bernard Levin or A A Gill’ – that his nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion was spon­sored by Ge­orge Bernard Shaw and H G Wells. Kerr dis­cov­ered this from her fam­ily files in the Pub­lic Records Of­fice.

‘You can get a copy for a mod­est sum. Even my own file was this thick with tes­ti­monies. They even checked my bank ac­count – about £9. But I wish I’d known then how highly my art school tu­tor re­garded me.’

Ev­ery­one’s con­clu­sion was that Kerr would be ‘an as­set’ – as in­deed she has been.

Anna, her al­ter ego in Pink Rab­bit, pre­dicted that she could never be fa­mous, be­cause her fa­ther was. Kerr only wishes she could tell her fa­ther that she too has found fame as a writer; a hered­i­tary link in some fam­i­lies. Her son Matthew fol­lowed her hus­band in win­ning the Som­er­set Maugham Award for fic­tion, ‘just like my hus­band’s friend Kings­ley Amis and his son Mar­tin’.

Matthew Kneale, a su­perb nov­el­ist and his­to­rian, lives in Rome, which Kerr loves to visit, tak­ing her teenage grand­chil­dren to lunch ‘one at a time’; good grand­parental prac­tice.

Be­cause her fa­ther mocked the Nazis, his books were burned. In ex­ile, he of­ten de­spaired of get­ting work. ‘Be­fore he died, in 1948, he wrote that his life might have been eas­ier if Hitler hadn’t hap­pened. “But then,” he said, “I would never have seen my son win the Prix d’ex­cel­lence [a French school prize], nor would I hear my daugh­ter say, ‘Isn’t it lovely, be­ing a refugee?’ ” ’

He had a tal­ent for hap­pi­ness, Kerr re­flects. Which she has in­her­ited,

too.

Ju­dith Kerr’s ‘Mummy Time’ is pub­lished by Harper Collins, £12.99

Ju­dith Kerr (op­po­site page) and her much-loved 1968 best­seller (be­low)

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