A tribute to Judith Kerr
Never meet your heroes, they say. Blow that, I thought. It was the autumn of 2001 and I had the chance to invite one of my lifelong idols, the visionary scriptwriter Nigel Kneale, to a screening of his work at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Someone kindly passed along his home phone number. When I rang, he answered the phone and seemed astonished that it was him I wanted to talk to, rather than his wife.
His wife was the beloved writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, who has died this week at the age of 95. Kneale made it to the Cornerhouse event, but the first thing he wanted to do after it was over was to call Kerr to let her know how it had gone. At the time they were both approaching 80, with their 50th wedding anniversary on the horizon, and they couldn’t have seemed more deeply or contentedly in love.
As a consequence of that screening I went on to write a biography of Kneale, and for a time I was a regular visitor to their house on the edge of Barnes Common in south west London. They’d lived there since 1960, raising both of their children in that home. The children had grown up and moved out, of course. Their daughter Tacy became a gifted artist and designer of special animatronics effects for films, while their son Matthew had become – perhaps not surprisingly – a writer, whose 2001 novel English Passengers was garlanded with major awards, not least a Booker nomination. The family’s writing achievements went back generations, in fact. Kneale’s father was a prolific journalist who’d ended up editing a Manx newspaper. Kerr’s mother had written two operas and her father was a writer and broadcaster whose work found a whole new readership after his death.
The story of Kerr’s childhood is well known. Born of Jewish descent in Berlin in June 1923, by the time she was 10 her father Alfred’s outspoken public opposition to the rise of the Nazi Party made targets of him and his family. Tipped off that they should leave the country, the Kerrs fled Germany just one day before the Nazis came to seize their passports. Kerr turned her subsequent travels across Europe to England into the remarkable 1971 children’s book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In later years the book was used in German schools to teach young students about the dark days of the war. Alfred’s published works were among those publicly burnt by the Nazis, but by the late 90s they were back in print and their success became something of a phenomenon. The Kerr/Kneale home needed a dedicated shelf just to house books by members of the family. That wasn’t including Kerr’s works, which numbered The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and nearly 30 other picture books, of which 17 followed the adventures of Mog.
Being in the home of Kerr and Kneale could be disconcerting once you noticed it was the inspiration for and backdrop to many of Kerr’s bestselling books. Rooms seemed strangely familiar because they’d already been seen in illustrated form by me and millions of other readers while growing up. At the very top of the house were adjoining workrooms where Kerr and Kneale would spend their days, stopping to share meal times and a civilised drink. Kerr credited Kneale with coining titles and inspiring plot deals for many of her books. He suggested that Mog’s first outing needed the arrival of a burglar to lend the story some shape. In fact, he’d even been the artist’s model for the ‘Daddy’ of The Tiger Who Came to Tea (except for days when he was working away, when their lookalike neighbour, the actor Alfred Burke, would step in). The Mog books star the Thomas family, too, in honour of ‘Thomas’ being Kneale’s real first name.
A great deal of Kneale’s work is haunted by the Second World War and, presumably, the knowledge that he so nearly didn’t meet the love of his life. Some observers have classed him as a writer of horror, but it wasn’t a tag which he would stand for, insisting “real horror would be Auschwitz”. Kerr, too, was swift to acknowledge how fortunate she’d been, dedicating one book “to the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”. She was also unstinting in her grateful admiration for the England which had taken her in and offered her a new home. Her story is a shining example of someone making a good, happy life out of initially difficult, indeed potentially catastrophic, circumstances.
After Kneale died in 2006, Kerr was quick to mention him in every interview she gave, making no bones about the fact that she missed him terribly. She stayed in the same house and kept on working, declaring that it was even more vital to her now that she lived alone. If anything her reputation continued to grow, and in recent years she’d become a true national treasure, awarded an OBE in 2012, made the subject of a BBC Imagine… documentary in 2013 as well as illustrating the festive Radio Times cover in 2014 and giving her blessing for CGI Mog to star in the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert for 2015.
For my part, I’ll be eternally grateful for the warmth and hospitality which Kerr showed me during the writing of my Kneale biography. She was just as twinkly as you’d hope and seemed quite tickled by the fact that someone was ringing them up on a regular basis but not to speak to her. During one visit, she drove us on impulse to an Italian restaurant by Barnes Pond where the waiters clearly knew the couple well. With my hand on my heart I can now say that I went for tea with the creator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. (Did I peek into her workroom where all those beloved books had happened? You know it.)
Judith Kerr became the nation’s dream Grandmother. We all said that she seemed so lovely. I feel deeply honoured to be able to say, in my own small way, that I know for a fact that she was. Rest well, Judith.
In memory of Judith Kerr. June 14, 1923 to May 22, 2019.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Judith Kerr and her life should seek out her beautiful illustrated 2013 memoir, Judith Kerr’s Creatures.
Main image: Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr. Credit HarperCollins.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.