Monday 27 May 2019

Judith Kerr Obituary by Janie Hampton

photo: Rex Shutterstock
Judith Kerr, esteemed writer and illustrator of children’s and young adult books, died last week aged 95. I had two memorable phone conversations with Judith. The first was when I was researching my book on Girl Guides and the Second World War, which included Jewish Girl Guides coming from Nazi-occupied Europe to Britain. Judith told me about her arrival from Germany in London, aged 13 in 1936. She was born in Berlin, where her father was a well-known German-Jewish journalist who openly criticized the Nazis. In 1933 he was warned that his passport might be confiscated, and he fled Germany, just a day before he would have been arrested. Shortly afterwards his wife, Judith, and her brother followed. The family travelled via Switzerland and Paris and settled in London.
Judith had left school when the Second World War began. By now speaking perfect English, she worked first as a secretary and then volunteered for the Red Cross, before being awarded a scholarship at the Central School of Arts in London. Later, she described an air- raid in London as vividly as a picture: ‘The sky was red, reflecting the fires on the ground, and in it hung clusters of orange flares which lit up everything for miles around. They looked like gigantic Christmas decorations floating slowly, slowly down through the night air. In the distance, yellow flashes like lightning were followed by muffled bangs – the anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park. Suddenly a searchlight swept across the sky. It was joined by another and another, crossing and re-crossing each other, and then a great orange flash blotted out everything else.’ Judith met her future husband, television scriptwriter Nigel Kneale, in the school canteen where she was teaching, and he suggested she join the BBC as a scriptwriter.
The second lively conversation I had with Judith was when I was writing about the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. I was searching for other cultural events that year, and Judith told me about her work at the BBC television studios in Lime Grove. Nigel Kneale, known as Tom, was writing a science-fiction television serial when he, Judith and their colleagues watched the coronation on a black and white television. The Quatermass Experiment was to be about an alien arriving on Earth, but Kneale could not decide where the alien should land. As the coronation reached its climax, he realised that most television viewers had now seen inside Westminster Abbey: this would be the perfect place to first see the alien. ‘There was neither a budget nor the possibility of filming in the Abbey, so we bought a guide book, which included a photo of Poets’ Corner,’ Judith told me. Making television drama in 1953 required ingenuity and imagination. They photographed the guide book’s photo, blew it up and pasted it onto a canvas panel. ‘Then I put on a pair of wash-leather gloves, while Tom stuck bits of curled wire and twigs onto them. We cut a slit in the backdrop, and Tom put his hands through, wearing the gloves. He waggled his fingers very slowly. That was the scariest moment of the drama – when ‘the vegetable’ first appeared, this creep-crawly alien thing with tendrils which had absorbed the bodies and souls of two astronauts. The cameras could not move, and the cameraman saw everything upside down and back to front. It was all filmed live for the television, while another camera showed the actor in terror.’
Mog the Cat. copyright HarperCollins
Judith and Kneale were married in 1954 and had two children. When they complained that children’s books were boring, Judith told them stories about ‘Mog’ the cat. Later she wrote and illustrated the stories, and the series of 18 titles about Mog were published from 1970 to 2015. ‘Cats are very interesting people,’ she later said. After 30 years she wrote Goodbye Mog in which the cat died, a brave step for a children’s writer.
The Tiger who Came to Tea. copyright HarperCollins
Probably her best-known book was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which also began in order to liven up her children’s day. Asked by BBC presenter Emily Maitlis if the tiger symbolised the the overturning of suburban life during the 1960s sexual and social revolution, she simply replied, ‘No, it was about a tiger coming to tea.’ Kerr’s ability to see the world from a child's perspective enabled her to write and draw exactly what a child wants to see, not what an adult thinks they should. She never wasted their time by repeating in words, what was already in the illustration. The illustrations were clear and simple, with only the essential people and objects in them. Published in 1968, the book has never been out of print. 
Judith Kerr at work
Judith’s son was eight when he saw the film The Sound of Music and commented, 'Now we know what it was like when Mummy was a little girl.' Judith was determined that he, and other children, should know what life was really like and so wrote the semi-autobiographical Out of Hitler Time trilogy. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty (originally published as The Other Way Round) and A Small Person Far Away, describe childhood among of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, life as a refugee in Britain during World War II, and the post-war years. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit won the state-funded Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Children's Literature Award) in 1974 and became a set text in German schools. In 2004, she said, 'I think of the business of the Holocaust, and the one and a half million children who didn't get out as I got out, in the nick of time -- I think about them almost every day now, because I've had such a happy and fulfilled life and they'd have given anything to have had just a few days of it. And I hope I've not wasted any of it: I try to get the good of every bit of it because I know they would have done if they'd had the chance.'
After the death of Nigel Kneale in 2006, Judith found writing and drawing even more important and continued publishing books into her ninth decade. Over 50 years, she published more than 30 books. Her publisher at HarperCollins, Charlie Redmayne, said she was 'a wonderful and inspiring person who was much loved by everyone. She was a brilliantly talented artist and storyteller. Always understated and very, very funny. She loved life and loved people - and particularly she loved a party.'
photo Daniel Sambraus/AP
Judith Kerr was awarded an OBE in 2012 for services to children's literature and Holocaust education. A year later, the ‘Judith Kerr Primary School’ in London opened as Britain’s first German-English state bilingual school. Just a week before she died, Judith was nominated at the British Book Awards as Illustrator of the Year. She leaves her son Matthew Kneale, a prize-winning novelist and author of ‘The English Passengers’ and daughter, Tacy, who designs special-effects for films.
Anna Judith Gertrude Kerr, 1923 -2019. 


Ms. said...

I so adore her, the heart of her and the wonder and intelligence of her creations. What a treasure she was and still is through her legacy.

AnnP said...

A wonderful woman and a lovely obituary - thank you.

Ruan Peat said...

An amazing lady, with an amazing life that we must always remember. Loved her Mog books, and later when Hitler stole pink rabbit! truly amazing lady.