Having resurrected one of her most-loved characters for a Christmas ad, children’s author Judith Kerr tells Etan Smallman what will inspire her next work
Published in The Sunday Times, News Review – November 29, 2015
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
If you see a sprightly nonagenarian bounding through southwest London with an inquisitive eye and a wry smile, do tap her on the shoulder and say hello.
Judith Kerr – author and illustrator of classics that have enchanted generations of children - says, aged 92, that she is now getting recognised, thanks to a BBC documentary that marked her 90th birthday and “because I still wear the same old awful jacket”.
She is enjoying all the attention. “It can be slightly sad being old or being alone and so it’s very warming,” says the creator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books. “They always say such nice things.”
It is time for coffee, rather than tea, tiger and buns, at Kerr’s beautiful home in Barnes. “I know why I’m feeling tired,” she says hesitantly as she doles out the fancy biscuits. “It’s sort of a slightly shattering thing …”
Kerr, who was widowed in 2006, explains that she has just received a bundle of papers from her father’s biographer. It is a package that has transported her straight back to her turbulent childhood.
Alfred Kerr was a cultural critic in Germany, whose commentary on the Nazis put him on their death list. The family were tipped off by a stranger that their passports would be seized the morning after the 1933 election. They fled in the nick of time, first to Switzerland, then to France and eventually to England (where Judith has lived ever since), as told in another classic, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
The stash of letters Alfred Kerr sent immediately after his escape contain desperate appeals for work and sanctuary. “It really just got me,” says Kerr. She takes a deep breath and a smile forms. “Yes, well I’ve said that. Now we can have an interview about Mog’s attitude to advertising.”
It is a throwaway line but with it Kerr neatly sums up one of the magical threads running through her work - her alchemy of mixing the light and comical with just the slightest hint of darkness and threat.
Television audiences have seen this on a grand scale of late as Mog, the cat she controversially killed off in 2002, has been resurrected to do battle with John Lewis in Sainsbury’s Christmas advertising campaign.
Kerr even has a cameo in the commercial, her overriding memory being how they put her in “what I think was a very unbecoming orange coat”. (You see, the writer - who is today wearing a navy jumper, tartan skirt, pearl necklace and a natty pair of black glasses - could almost certainly have done without the help of Sainsbury’s stylist.) She is still coming to terms with her new flush of success. The accompanying Mog book has become her first to reach No 1 in the national book charts.
Even aside from Mog - whose profits are all going to Save the Children’s literacy programme - Kerr is managing to shift as many books now as at any point in her 50-year career. But, other than splashing out on posh food for her ninth cat, Katinka, she has no spending sprees planned.
One thing that she does require is a new hip in fact, it is essential to her creative process. Frustratingly, she has yet to come up with her next bright idea and so she is seeking inspiration by taking epic - and speedy - four-mile walks.
“I go up to the river and I go over the bridge to Chiswick and walk along the river to Hammersmith. But then I get a bus back, whereas proper people walk back as well. I can’t walk as much as I should like now, so I’ll have to get my hip done so I can draw again, which is a bit roundabout.”
She says she spends too much time watching global horrors on the news: “I’ve lived through the end of two tyrannies, the Nazis and the Russians in their bad time, so it’s slightly annoying just when you’d got everything straight. There’s always something, isn’t there? Now we’ve got Isis and climate change.”
That Kerr can turn so easily from such matters to uplifting picture books is perhaps partly down to her evergreen capacity for getting into a child’s mind. Despite being 92 and far removed from the digital world inhabited by today’s younger generation, she has something of the little girl about her. “Sorry, I’m making so much noise eating my biscuit I didn’t hear what you said,” she declares after one question.
She also maintains her illustrator’s eye: “I like being in the world and being part of it all and it excludes you slightly if you’re not looking at your thing all the time. I don’t know exactly what a smartphone does but I hate that, because they don’t see the real world.”
None of this stops Kerr being a hit online, of course.
When I tell her the Mog Christmas video has been watched 17m times, there is a long pause. “Oh God,” she says.
“I wish I’d worn a different coat.”