Sunday, 27 September 2015

An evening in conversation with Judith Kerr

It was on a balmy September evening that I traversed the rippling crowds of the City to a leafy corner of Camden, to visit the Jewish Museum, where they were expecting a very special guest. I joined the seated crowd, gathered around a microphoned stage in a windowless room, and patiently waited. It could have just been the unseasonal warmth, but the air felt electric with anticipation. We weren’t kept waiting long as amid a sudden eruption of frantic applause a gentle, elderly lady was welcomed onto the stage. At 92 years old, Judith Kerr radiates an astonishing energy, as she sat down in front of her microphone, beaming back at her captivated audience. I’m not sure there is any other writer that has had such over-reaching influence on me as that of Judith Kerr. I have early, yet vivid memories of sitting cross legged on the carpet at Primary School, drinking in every moment of our teacher reading aloud the tales of Mog, along with that hot summer at secondary school, where my world was filled by Anna’s adventures in ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. Now I read ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea’ to my own children, repeatedly at their insistence. 

The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead joined Judith on stage to conduct the interview, a role I thought an enviable one, until I realised that actually this was no easy task. After all, where on earth do you start with asking Judith Kerr about her life and work? Fortunately today was a very special day, as it was the release date of ‘Mister Cleghorn’s Seal’, Judith’s latest book. 

This new book tells the tale of an elderly gentleman who acquires a baby seal, and Judith dedicated the story to her father ‘who once kept a seal on his balcony’. I couldn’t believe it when Claire reminded Judith that she had said once before that she didn’t write fiction, so was the story true? Judith explained that her father used to tell her the story of how, long before she was born and therefore over 100 years ago, he had gone on a fishing trip. Whilst out on the boat they were surrounded by lots of seals, which the fisherman declared were eating all the fish and produced a gun. He proceeded to shoot some of the seals, but then realised he had killed the mother of a baby seal pup. Whilst the fisherman’s actions sound callous this fisherman was aware that having now killed the mother, he must now shoot the pup, as it wouldn’t survive on it’s own. So instead Judith’s father offered to take it home, which he did, on the train back to Berlin. Apparently on arrival he realised he needed to get the seal some sustenance, so ordered a taxi to take him to a restaurant, where he ordered the seal a glass of milk. He then took the seal home and kept it in a tin tub on his balcony. Unfortunately because the seal wasn’t weaned, Judith’s father realised that it wouldn’t be able to survive on cows milk and so tried to re-home it at the local zoo. Sadly they were unable to take it and so it had to be put down. He then had the seal stuffed, a practice that was common-place at that time in Germany. Naturally, and without spoiling the story, the lovable Mister Cleghorn in Judith’s book has far happier experience. Judith talked about how, by writing the book, it gave her a reason to do lots of pencil sketches which, in her view, is drawing in it’s purest form. 

Judith being interviewed by Claire Armistead
Claire then moved on to ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, asking how close to the truth was the story. For example, was she really pelted with shoes by the boys in her class in Switzerland? Judith responded that this had actually happened, in a bizarre demonstration of their affections for Judith. This, hysterically, had then inspired her brother, who had developed a crush on a girl, to do the same, but instead of shoes had used unripe pears. Judith then recounted how her father, a revered journalist and critic was open about his dislike for both Hitler and his Nazi supporters. As a result her father realised that as soon as Hitler came to power things would become very difficult and left Germany for Zurich. He then received a tip off that once the Police knew he had evaded them, they would confiscate his family’s passports, so they could be held to ransom to bring him home. So Judith’s mother, a young pianist, had immediately packed up their lives and put them on a milk train to Switzerland, a fortunate move as the day they arrived in Zurich, the authorities arrived at their house in Berlin, to find them gone. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ was also translated into German and had won an award in the 1970s. However, Judith was quick to point out that this prize did not count as she was convinced no one would have dared vote against it winning at the time, for fear of being dubbed pro-Nazi. 

Judith talked with warm affection about her mother and father, how difficult it must truly have been, to have gone from a country where you were successful and respected to start again somewhere else, where everything was foreign, in every sense. However, with every tale that Judith told, there was always an amusing ending. Even when her Father was invited back to Berlin after the war ‘to cheer up the Germans who were very depressed’, he had received a hero’s welcome. They asked him to review a play and, on entering the theatre, he had received a standing ovation. Apparently the play was terrible and Alfred Kerr returned to his hotel that evening and suffered a massive stroke. He was found the next morning by a friend, unable to move but aware of what had happened to him and immediately had reassured his friend he’d had a stoke and it wasn’t because the play had been so awful. The only time where Judith’s voice tailed off quietly was when she touched on her own Mother’s suicide attempt. 

However, Claire masterfully brought the mood back up by moving on to ’The Tiger Who Came To Tea’, which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1968. Judith recalled that the story had come about from when she was at home with her young daughter Tacy, whilst her husband Tom was away on long filming trips. They often would wish somebody would pay them a visit. Claire asked if it had always been a tiger and Judith quickly pointed out why would it be anything else ‘they are orange and covered in stripes: just fantastic’. Apparently at the time Judith’s publishers had pointed out that there was a part of the story that was unrealistic, where the Tiger drinks all the water in the tap, which Judith thought was quite amusing. Micheal Rosen had also said that the Tiger represented the Gestapo. Judith smiled at this comment and she loved Micheal Rosen very much indeed but that he was wrong. Claire then asked Judith if she considered herself an artist or a writer. Judith smiled again and said she was neither, she was a drawer. 

The audience were then invited to ask questions and someone asked what had become of their beloved housekeeper, Hiempie. Judith’s mother had managed to track her down after the war to Eastern part of Berlin. She had worked as a rubble lady, helping to clear the wreckage of war from Berlin’s ruined streets, and Judith had continued to keep in touch over the years posting her food parcels. 

There were so many questions I wanted to ask: Judith came to England as a refugee - what were her views on the refugee crisis now? In ‘The Long Way Round’ she had said she wouldn’t teach her children German, did she stand by this? Yet my questions felt too intrusive, this wasn’t the time or place to demand the political views of this delightfully gentle lady, with her beautiful BBC English accent, who had warmed the hearts of generations of children. It was far better to hear her talk about her beloved cat, who will happily exit the house via the cat flap, but can only enter in via the back door. Clearly the spirit of Mog lives on. 

Tiger, Mog & Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective is on at The Jewish Museum Camden until 14th October
Liberty will be releasing the Judith Kerr print in November

Mumsnet Hackney did not receive any incentive, other than her own Judith Kerr fixation, to write this blog.