Judith Kerr is one of the greatest children’s illustrators of our time, and a brilliant storyteller. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to listen to her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Although she’s now ninety years old, she had the whole audience gripped. When the hour was over – and it zoomed by! – the entire room rose in a standing ovation. What a fabulous storyteller!
I was a child myself when I first read one of Judith Kerr’s books – her classic fictionalised autobiography When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is the story of a young girl’s flight with her family from Berlin, just after the Nazis came to power, and it’s a testament to Judith’s story telling that I can remember scenes from it even now, after all this time.
Judith Kerr’s father was a writer and critic who attacked Hitler in the press in the early days of National Socialism. The day before the elections in 1933 a sympathetic policeman contacted him, advising him to leave the country immediately, and so he had to flee, leaving his family to follow. Judith, her brother Michael and her mother escaped a few days later by milk train, and the family eventually settled in France. I still remember the scenes in the book when they are escaping by train, the difficulty the young girl has trying to learn French in her new country, and how the family has to flee to England when France is invaded. Judith had to begin all over again learning a new language at school.
If you’ve heard of Judith Kerr, you probably know this part of her life, as she has often spoken about it. There is a recent Telegraph interview here, for example, where she talks about her father, who apparently was number two on the Nazis’ wanted list before the war, and who was wanted dead or alive by them even after he escaped from Germany.
What Judith Kerr hasn’t often discussed is her lifelong marriage to Tom Kneale, who died in 2006. In Edinburgh she spoke about her husband for the first time, and since it’s such a romantic story I hope I can do her story telling abilities justice here by retelling it.
After the war Judith took a job teaching art in a technical school, opposite the BBC building in London. In those days, she told us, television was a mystery to most people. Hardly anyone had a TV set, and the young Judith was curious to know what went on behind the doors of the BBC. When a friend asked her if she’d like to come to lunch in the BBC canteen, she leapt at the chance to find out! So, Judith was lunching with her girlfriend when Tom Kneale came and sat at the table. They got talking, and later he got in touch and asked her if she’d like to go to the theatre. Of course she said yes :)
Judith recounted that the play was terible, and they laughed all the way through it. Afterwards they went for a Chinese, and as they went their different ways on the tube that night, they each thought separately they’d met the person they were going to marry. (I said it was romantic :) )
Tom Kneale studied drama at RADA, and when Judith met him he was a scriptwriter, writing dialogue for wooden vegetables (!) voiced by himself and the Carry On team. It was the Coronation a few months after they married, and the start of a revolution in television. Everybody wanted to get their hands on a TV set to watch Princess Elizabeth crowned, and afterwards, there was a real need for talent to fill the screens. I was amazed to find that Tom Kneale wrote the screenplay for Quatermass and Quatermass and the Pit. Those early TV series are legends in sci-fi, and were the first drama series ever on television to empty the pubs at night – everyone wanted to stay in and watch.
Tom Kneale gave Judith ideas for her books and encouraged her to write, as well as illustrate. For forty years they wrote in adjoining rooms and, she says, they never ran out of things to talk about.
At the end of her talk Judith read one of her delightfuly illustrated stories, about an old lady in a nursing home. Every day after lunch the lady falls asleep and her dead husband comes to take her on adventures. Together they fly around the world, going on lion hunts and doing all the scary things he never dared when he was alive. Then she wakes up in time to have a cup of tea. It was a typically lovely, simple and moving story.
Judith Kerr has a new book out called Creatures. It’s an illustrated autobiography covering her childhood, her parents’ struggles in exile and her marriage to Tom Kneale. She has dedicated the book to ‘the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted.’
Before talking in Edinburgh, Judith Kerr was interviewed by a journalist from The Guardian who asked her what advice she would give her ten year old self. Her answer was: Keep calm and carry on.
I hope you carry on for many more years, Judith. Thanks for all the pleasure you brought me and my own children :)