It is 50 years since The Tiger Who Came to Tea was published and its author, Judith Kerr, was welcomed onto the Tata stage at this year’s Hay Festival by an enthusiastic round of applause. She was very clear in her diction and I am sure the smile never left her face, even when she was describing the dark days that brought her and her family out of the clutches of Hitler to England.
The interviewer, Clemency Burton-Hill, a Hay legend, asked her, “Did you have any idea of what was going on?” Judith replied, “I did not realise. My mother told us. My father had left by the next train. He wanted my mother and me and my brother to be out of the country!” A pause while she thought, and then “We were told that we must not tell anyone that my father had left.” Judith left her pink rabbit behind in Germany. But she said, “I got over pink rabbit!” who then became the inspiration for her story “When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit!”
However, it is a famous cat that we associate Judith Kerr with and that is Mog who got into all kinds of scrapes and adventures that are well documented and have enthralled children for decades. “Mog was like all cats, slightly mad. Being able to go out through a cat flap and totally unable to come back in!”
“Mog was part of the family. She did this funny thing of sitting on my lap. She nudged the pen with her nose!” Judith went on to say “She used to only sit on my lap when I was writing about her.” It seems that Mog was the inspiration and “All the various madness of these various cats I stuck on Mog!” Judith said that she liked drawing more than writing, and added “I am feeling my way with writing.”
After the war ended, she attended art college and was advised to get a trade! “One of the tutors at the school of art said ‘Why don’t you do illustration? That’s a trade!’” So, she learned to “draw, which was the one thing I really needed,” and yet, she added, “The only exam I’ve ever failed was book illustration!”
“It is never too late!” said Clemency and the audience laughed loudly. “People go on and on” with a wry smile, as she is about to turn 95! Clemency said, “You appreciate life …..” Judith Kerr agreed, “I did not talk about them (tigers) eating people.” Judith said that her daughter liked the tiger story and always asked for it, “Talk the tiger!” This explains why she told the story so many times and she added “I put in things that she liked!”
Clemency explained about Judith’s dry sense of humour and, back stage, had said to her, “We can always fall back on Hitler!”
Judith talked about her current cat, Katinka who she described as “quite mad!” “I got her about a year before my husband died. It is now just Katinka and me!” So, Katinka’s Tail – another new story about Katinka who is “fed on demand” should be worth snuggling down and devouring!
Regarding what she read, she explained that she only liked fairy tales. “I did not really want to read about the real world.” She said that since she was widowed, that she has “done more books in the last twelve years than before!”
When asked “How long does it take you to write a whole book and illustrate it?” she reminded the listeners, “As I have said, I have got quicker at it. It used to take me almost a year but now I can do it in seven or eight months.”
Another question “What is the next book you are planning to make?” She replied, ”I have finished one and it is coming out in October. I am not allowed to say what it is!” Her favourite book that she had written? “I like one called My Henry which is a bit different from the others.” With that wry smile again, she added, “The next one that is coming out is quite good.”