Sunday 6 March 2016

'Judith Kerr at 92' by Lydia Syson ('We haven't always been old ladies...)

Every so often I go into a small grump about the way authors these days are forced into the role of performers.  Instead of being left to write or draw in peace, they have to climb onto stages and make witty conversation.  Their audiences sometimes seem keener to pay for tickets for such shows than buy the speakers’ books.  And then I go and sit at the feet of a literary heroine (or hero) and go wobbly with admiration and perhaps a little bit tearful and I think instead how wonderful it is that those of us who worship certain living writers now have so many opportunities to breathe in their auras, get a better sense of how they tick, and generally show our love and appreciation for their work.  It doesn’t matter one bit if you've read almost everything they’ve said elsewhere already (and possibly forgotten it).  There’s something indefinably remarkable about having heard that person say it again, out loud, in your very presence.  And there’s always something new too - a new book, a new thought, a new image - to treasure and mull over until the next opportunity arises.

Nicolette Jones and Judith Kerr at Jewish Book Week 2016
@photographer Enda Bowe
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was probably the first book anyone ever pressed into my hands and told me that I had absolutely got to read.  (The friend who did that, when I was about ten, was half-German, and she was absolutely right.) It was also the first book I ever read about growing up in Hitler's Germany. Last month I had the enormous pleasure of listening to Judith Kerr talking to Nicolette Jones at Jewish Book Week.  

Judith Kerr told lots of the lovely stories which you can read in her illustrated autobiography Creatures, which came out a couple of years ago when she turned 90: about the weird cat who stalked green beans, and the other weird cat who liked boiled eggs, and the two different fathers’ faces in The Tiger Who Came to Tea.  

@photographer Enda Bowe
She sat in her neat tartan skirt, looking like a perfect white-haired old lady, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, not even one she had noticed communing with his own reflection, spotted on a shiny car.  She talked modestly and honestly about her working life, her marriage and her children, always observant but slightly giving the impression that everything had somehow just happened.  But of course the firm resolve and gentle sense of rebellion so fundamental to her character and so clear in all her books kept surfacing.  The first German publisher of the Mog books had annoyed her by insisting in an ‘anti-feminist’ way that the cat was a male.  ‘How could a creature so enterprising possibly be female?’ they argued, and changed the cat's sex.  So Judith Kerr gave Mog kittens. 

There was sadness as well as humour.  When she became a widow herself, she began to notice widows everywhere, and started to draw old ladies getting up to things.  (My Henry, The Great Granny Gang. ‘We haven’t always been old ladies,’ she observed.  She also spoke of reading recently a new biography of her father, Alfred Kerr. 

Alfred Kerr, portrait by Lovis Corinth, 1907

When he left Germany in 1933 just before his passport was taken away, he was so famous an essayist and theatre critic that he was known as the Culture Pope, and his books were burned.  Yet Alfred Kerr ended up in England a nobody, without a language in which he could write. Judith and her brother Michael had quickly learned to love being young refugees, living in Switzerland and France, learning new languages, seeing the world; she conveys the adventure of it all beautifully in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.  But it is was only a few months ago that she realised quite how well her parents had managed to conceal the truth of their situation and their own emotions from the children, and how very desperate they had become.  At one point her mother had not just wanted to commit suicide herself, but to kill the children too.  Even without this knowledge, reading The Other Way Round in adulthood is a peculiarly painful experience because of the delicate way Kerr portrays the shifting relationship between parents and children when the family comes to England.  The book is now called Bombs on Aunt Dainty but I think the original title got to the nub of the book, and I wish it hadn't been changed.  

@photographer Enda Bowe
The week after this event at Jewish Book Week, the French government began to bulldoze a section of the Jungle Camp in Calais, where hundreds of unaccompanied and unprotected children have been surviving. Citizens UK believes 150 of these children have a right to be reunited with family in the UK, but the processes are not set up to help them, and they are stuck.  Judith Kerr talked movingly of the warmth of the welcome and the value of the help she and her brother received as young refugees, and has written that she became a ‘Brit’ in the summer of 1940.  Now she is a national treasure.


Miranda Miller said...

Great blog, Lydia, and how right it is to make that link b between different generations of refugees.

Ms. said...

Another author to add to my list. Beautiful post and thanks for the Guardian article about the camp and the wonderful efforts of Cumberbatch and others!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for posting this, Lydia!

Sue Purkiss said...

What an inspiration Judith Kerr is!

Katherine Langrish said...

I met her briefly at a HarperCollins party some years ago and was star-struck. A wonderful woman.

Sue Bursztynski said...

She sounds like a wonderful lady and we should treasure her while she's still around. I hope her session was filmed?