As the much-loved children’s author dies at 95, a touching tribute from a writer who knew her well
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IT ALWAYS slightly irritated Judith Kerr that it was her first book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, that ended up as her blockbuster hit. It is now more than five decades since she made up the story of the peckish big cat for her two-year-old daughter, Tacy, when they were both at home feeling “a bit lonely”.
Despite writing more than 30 titles, including 17 books featuring much-loved tabby Mog, and selling more than 10 million copies of her books in 20 languages, it was always to the Tiger that readers – and interviewers – returned. Since publication in 1968, it has never been out of print.
But while generations of children, and their parents, savoured the wit of its words and the beauty of its illustrations – she always produced both – Kerr was never tempted to rest on her laurels. She continued to work at the same drawing desk in the same light-filled attic room at her home in Barnes, west London.
The author, whose death at the age of 95 was announced yesterday, was writing until almost the very end. Her final book, The Curse of the School Rabbit, is out next month.
Because her first hit the shelves when she was 45 – after having two children – she always felt she hadn’t quite “caught up”. Well into her 90s, she told me she was producing her best drawings. “For the first time in my life,” she said, “I feel that I know what I’m doing.”
Yet the Tiger was so iconic it rather took on a life of its own. Kerr could rarely get through an interview without having to debunk myriad theories about the possible deep meanings behind its innocent charm.
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, had insisted the creature represented the Gestapo, who had tried to capture her Jewish family in 1930s Germany. The BBC’s Emily Maitlis believed it was about “sexual awakening and ethnic difference in suburbia”. But Kerr’s standard response was: “Well, you wouldn’t snuggle the Gestapo, would you?” She was adamant. It was a story about a tiger coming to tea, and nothing more.
She told me recently that even now she still got a thrill out of seeing the big cats “because they’re always better than you remember them”.
THEY say you should never meet your heroes. But Kerr, who was my childhood literary heroine, was everything I could have wished her to be. I still remember the moment when it dawned on me that it was the same Judith Kerr who’d written my pre-school favourite about that tiger and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a lightly fictionalised story of her girlhood escape from the Nazis through Europe.
I first met her in 2014 and was lucky enough to interview her four times in all, most recently in October last year.
Each time, she welcomed me with a mischievous smile as she opened that large front door – around which the “big, furry, stripy tiger” had peered all those years ago – and offered me steaming coffee and fancy biscuits (tea and buns, I could only assume, were reserved for big cats).
Her yellow Formica kitchen was the same one from which the tiger “drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap”. Her publishers regarded this last bit as “rather unrealistic”, which she thought “odd” given the rest of the story.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923. Her father, Alfred, was a theatre critic dubbed Germany’s “cultural pope”; her mother Julia a pianist. She had a comfortable childhood with her big brother Michael (who became Britain’s first foreign-born judge since the reign of Henry II).
She told me last year she had “no awareness of Hitler” in 1933 when she was nine years old and the Nazis were on the verge of power.
But when her father received a call from a policeman warning he was on the Nazis’ death list and his passport would be seized the day after the election, he took the first train out.
Writing years later, she revealed: “I had no idea, until much later, that the Nazis published a list of people they were going to execute, and it included my father. My brother and I were totally unaware that he was broadcasting against Hitler. It was live and he had to go to the studio, which was considered so dangerous that the studio sent an armed bodyguard. “Within three weeks, we went from having a home and my father being a household name, to not being able to pay hotel bills. I found a letter written by my father about six months after we left. He said: ‘Children happily unaware of the changed circumstances’.”
Julia, Michael and Judith followed days later, moving to Switzerland, Paris and finally, three years later, arriving in London, where she remained for the rest of her life. Kerr won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she took the only course she ever failed – illustration.
She trained as a textile designer, producing children’s designs for John Lewis. But her future husband – screenwriter Nigel Kneale, who wrote The Quatermass Experiment, described as the Doctor Who of its day (though Kerr insisted it was “much better”) – persuaded her to apply to be a BBC scriptwriter.
She got the job and wed Kneale in 1954. They remained married until his 2006 death and had two children, Tacy and Matthew, also a writer. It wasn’t until 2015 that Kerr notched up her first number one on the UK book charts, with Mog’s Christmas Calamity. At 92, she was the oldest author to have achieved the feat. Then, in 2016, she won BookTrust’s lifetime achievement award at London Zoo.
But even up to 2019, her talent was still burning bright. In January, picking up The Oldie magazine’s Tigress We’d Like To Have To Tea award, she quipped: “That’s one in the eye for Hitler, isn’t it?” Just last week, she was named illustrator of the year at the British Book Awards. Despite this adulation, her humility never left her. She frequently chided herself for being “pretentious” and dismissed her two central themes, children and animals, as “very soppy”.
At the end of our first meeting, she expressed relief. I was surprised – she had been doing interviews much longer than I had. But she explained she had been lying awake the night before, worrying about it: the pictures in her new book weren’t good enough and what would we talk about – she had nothing new to say.
She was constantly saying sorry. “Sorry, I’m making so much noise eating my biscuit, I didn’t hear what you said,” Kerr once told me.
Late last year, I found her with her arm in a sling, nursing London’s most middle-class injury. She had broken it after gazing at a statue by sculptor Elisabeth Frink on Bond Street, and tripping over the plinth. Not to worry, she said breezily. She had been on the way to a hospital appointment anyway. And it was only her left arm, so all was well – she could continue working.
Many will wonder why the Beatrix Potter of our age was never made a dame. No doubt she’d have thought that far too grand. She did accept an OBE in 2012 for services to children’s literature and Holocaust education. In her 10th decade, she was shifting as many books as at any time in her career.
But her greatest extravagances seemed to be posh cat food for her ninth moggie, Katinka, and M&S ready meals. Apart from her rock-solid work ethic, her recipe for longevity was relatively simple: a brisk walk from Barnes Common up to Hammersmith every evening, a Martini Rosso with lunch and a whisky in the evening. “That’s 14 units (a week), so that’s all right!”.
A shadow of menace or tragedy often loomed over her books, like much fine children’s literature. She dedicated her 2013 memoir, Creatures, “to the one-and-a-half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”. Apart from the Nazis, there were birds with teeth in Mog In The Dark and she controversially killed off her leading feline in 2002’s Goodbye Mog (though she returned in CGI form in a 2015 Sainsbury’s Christmas ad).
A decade earlier, My Henry had explored her experiences of widowhood. She also spoke in favour of assisted dying, telling me: “Most people I know are over 80 and I certainly have a stash of sleeping pills – I think we all have, just in case.”
But “gloomy” conversations like that were quickly batted away.
After all, she had work to do. As she explained: “If you’ve been lucky enough to work at something you like, all your life, well, why should you stop?”