Interviewing Judith Kerr

Walking up the path to Judith Kerr’s home I am greeted by her gatekeeper Katinka the cat.

A slightly eccentric feline and fearless mouse-catcher, he is the ninth cat to join the Kerr home and one of the many inspirations for her Mog books.

But despite being a much-loved pet, he is no longer the focus of her writing.

For the 88-year-old has moved on.

“I used to know a lot of cats. Now I seem to know a lot of widows”, she said as she explained the premise for her latest book My Henry.

With her own painful bereavement still fresh in her memory – her screenwriter husband Nigel Kneale died in 2006 – the book marks an important milestone for her.

Dedicated to her husband, known to the family as Tom, you get a sense of her own loss.

“I don’t think it was about myself to start with, it was more about all these ladies I know.

“And then of course it does become something of you.

“It means a lot to me. I did feel  I needed to do My Henry.

“I was terribly pleased to be doing it because it was sort of right and I think Tom would have liked it.

“It’s tremendous fun to do something really rather ridiculous like that.”

My Henry follows the fantastic flights of fancy of an elderly lady as she is reunited with her late husband every day for adventures with dinosaurs, dolphins and unicorns before returning to Earth with a bump and a cup of tea.

It’s a gentle reminder to us all age is merely a state of mind and Judith, a grandmother of two, is the embodiment of that as sharp, witty and entertaining as someone half her age.

“You tend to think when you see an old lady ‘Oh, God thought he would make an old lady’ and you forget that she wasn’t always an old lady,” she pointed out.

The book cleverly weaves the themes of age and loss into an amusing tale for young or old with all the hallmarks of a Kerr storybook – fat cats, tea-drinking tigers and happy families.

“Really, it’s about marriage”, she said, “just the huge everyday joy of being happily married even when you do very mundane things.”
And it draws heavily on her happy marriage of more than 50 years to Tom.

She credits him with her move into an undeniably successful writing career. He was the man behind the BBC science fiction hit

Quatermass, who went on to have a long and distinguished career as a writer.

“Tom was such hugely entertaining man, he taught me to write really.”

Their son Matthew has inherited the writing gene winning the Whitbread Book Award for his novel English Passengers in 2000. While daughter Tacita has her mother’s artistic streak recently designing for the Harry Potter films.

Judith’s own father Alfred was a celebrated theatre critic and writer in Germany and her mother a composer.

But when the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, the family fled their comfortable home in Berlin fearing persecution as Jews and spent the next three years as refugees in Switzerland and then France before finally settling in England.

It’s an episode in her life, beautifully chronicled in her novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, she still views as a great adventure.

Although, she admits it was terribly hard for her parents who endured both financial hardship and loss of status.

Continued interest in the story of her family’s flight has seen the book become required reading in some German schools.

And now work is underway to make it into a film.

For Judith, it was an opportunity to become an accomplished linguist in German, French and English and sparked a love of language apparent in the carefully chosen words of her books.

“Sometimes it’s very hard work to find the right words. I have to go for very long walks to get the next bit written.”

Though trained as an artist and illustrator, a stint at the BBC as a scriptwriter with her husband Tom eventually led her into a writing career.

She said: “I used to write a lot of silly verse, but drawing was really my thing.

“I tried to do a picture book, I think when I was still at art school.

“But I hadn’t any children so it was the sort of picture book people do when they haven’t got children.

“It was quite funny but it wasn’t aimed exactly at what makes them laugh and how they think.”

The birth of Tacita and Matthew provided her with the insight into what children love and makes them laugh.

And it’s a skill she has not lost, though both her children have long flown the nest.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea started out as a bedtime story recounted regularly to her daughter as a toddler.

“I put in everything she liked, she loved going out in the dark. I think children do, it’s so exciting.

“I told it to her when she was about two or three.

“Tom was out filming a lot at that time and we just really wished somebody would come, we were getting very bored.”
The much-needed guest turned out to be a mischievous tiger, who has captured children’s imaginations ever since.

Snapped up by publisher Collins in 1968, it celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 and is now the basis for a West End stage production.

A series of Mog books following the adventures of a slightly rotund and accident-prone cat came next.

Sparked by the exploits of a succession of family cats, Judith began the series with Mog the Forgetful Cat.

“The Mog books came when my children were learning to read and I was determined they wouldn’t have to read a word that wasn’t necessary and very much inspired by Dr Seuss.

“I tried to make it worth the effort, at least to make it funny and never, ever to make them read something they can already tell from the picture.

“I think it should be complementary or even go against the picture which makes them laugh.

“I think one reason they like the Mog stories is because they know more than Mog.

“Most of the time when they are little everybody else knows everything and they don’t, but Mog gets things wrong.”

She went on to produce 11 further Mog books ending with Goodbye Mog, but admits she never intended it to be a series.

“I never meant to do a whole lot of Mog books but I was so entranced by the weirdness of cats,” she said.

Animals feature heavily in all Judith’s books and although she claims she has moved on from cats and is now “into old ladies” there is no doubt the odd feline friend will pop up in the latest book she is working on for next year.

A perfectionist to the core, she says she draws and re-draws to get her illustrations just right.

“I admire Quentin Blake, Michael Foreman, John Burningham, Raymond Briggs, Shirley Hughes – they are all incredibly prolific . I don’t think any of them struggle as much as I do over the drawings.

“I re-draw and re-draw. I don’t get it right.

“One of the very few advantages of being alone is this is one of the first times in my life I can spend all day and every day drawing. I don’t cook, I microwave, and so I think the drawing is possibly getting better.

Her exacting nature is a trait she inherited from her father.

“I am the daughter of a man who not only corrected his books after they were published but also after they were burnt by the Nazis.”

And as a passionate believer in the power of books and the need for stories, she is angered by the demise of local libraries as councils begin to cut back.

“Children love stories. We used to go to our local library all the time when the children were younger.

“And my mother and I discovered Putney Library when we came over here.

“Here was a place where you could take out books free of charge.

“This was a revelation, the most wonderful thing.

“It would be a terrible thing if it disappeared.”

Looking around her beautiful home in south west London, where she has lived for more than 40 years, it’s clear books and art continue to play a key role in her life.

The very latest work by illustrator Axel Scheffler sits on the side in the living room while the book case is filled with the works of her creative family.

And as I left, she was about to begin drawing and writing again, heading upstairs to her studio to continue work on her latest project.

“The book I’m doing now rhymes. I find the rhymes take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go which are just funny,” she said with a twinkle in her eye worthy of her tea-drinking tiger.

*My Henry is published by Harper Collins priced £7.99.

*The Tiger Who Came to Tea is at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand from July 6 until September 4.

*The V&A Museum of Childhood is hosting an exhibition From The Tiger Who Came To Tea to Mog and Pink Rabbit from May 28 to September 4 featuring original artwork and notes from Judith Kerr and a chance for little ones to take tea with a life-size tiger.