With her illustrated children’s classics as popular as ever, Judith Kerr tells Chitra Ramaswamy what made her return to her childhood in Nazi Germany for a second novel
Judith Kerr’s first novel for 37 years opens with a tantalising dedication. “To my father who once kept a seal on his balcony,” writes the author of children’s classics including The Tiger Who Came To Tea, the Mog books and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. And of course, this being Kerr – one of our most quietly surreal and honest writers for children – he really did.
“You wouldn’t imagine you could do that,” says Kerr with a hearty laugh. She leans forward and behind giant spectacles her eyes flash with mischief. “But it didn’t seem that surprising, knowing him, that he had a seal on his balcony. Well, why not?”
Mister Cleghorn’s Seal is a beautifully rendered story of a lonely retired man who rescues an orphaned sea pup and keeps it on the balcony of his city flat. He feeds it milk mixed with cod liver oil, runs it copious baths, and man and seal quickly develop a loving bond.
The result is vintage Kerr: a tale at once funny, consoling, life-loving and sad. The real story is sadder still. “There was this stuffed seal in my father’s study… it was clear it hadn’t lived very long,” she recalls of playing with it in Berlin before the family were forced to flee in March 1933. Just one day later Hitler came to power and the Nazis came for their passports.
It turned out her father, Alfred Kerr, the most celebrated writer and critic in Germany of his day, rescued the seal while staying with a fisherman’s family in Normandy. He brought it back to Berlin, where he attempted to keep it alive on his balcony. He had a habit of rescuing animals. “He was once walking along a beach and found a whole lot of jellyfish washed up on the strand. He spent the morning throwing them all back. I always thought about that.”
When the Nazis confiscated their possessions, the stuffed seal and toy pink rabbit that decades later gave Kerr the title of her first novel were taken too. It is not a happy story but in Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, Kerr gives it a happy ending. “All my books start with something real,” she says. “I’m not so good at thinking of things otherwise. It’s a bit of a problem.”
We’re in Kerr’s elegant sitting room in deepest, greenest south-west London. The coffee has been poured and the table laid with plates of biscuits. Kerr is just as I imagined: modest, sweet-natured, quick to laugh, with a clarity of thought and candour instantly recognisable from her writings and drawings. Books and photos line the walls, many of them by and of members of her remarkable family. “My father wrote a novel in his 70s, which he had never done before,” she tells me. Giving something a go late in life “runs in the family”.
Though Kerr has lived here alone for the past decade since the death of her husband, the celebrated screenwriter Nigel Kneale, it’s a home that resonates with industry, warmth and life. Just like its sole resident, now 93 years old and still drawing until 7pm most evenings, after which she likes to go for “a long walk”. “Ninety is the new 70. When I boast about it people say to me, ‘Oh, my aunt is 97.’ I’m getting all the credit for something that is universal.” The loss of her husband, with whom she has two children – Matthew, a prize-winning novelist, and Tacy, an artist who worked on the Harry Potter films – and without whom, she tells me, she would never have become a writer at all, has made her more productive. “I haven’t had anything better to do. You need something outside yourself, I think,” she says of coping with grief.
And what Kerr has always done is draw. Her first sketches as a child in Berlin were of people in movement. “It is still what interests me now,” she notes. “I can draw people and animals but everything else is a bit of an effort. Trees are a problem, and cars are a dead loss. Cats are all right though,” she adds with a grin. When her family escaped Germany, first for Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, one of the few possessions her mother packed was her drawings. She still sees herself as “much more of a drawer than a writer”.
We talk about those early years as refugees with neither money nor home. For Judith and her brother it was a great adventure. “We wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” she insists. For her deeply cultured, intellectual parents it was devastating. In England they carried suicide pills in case of a German invasion, and in 1948, shortly after returning to Germany and suffering a massive stroke, her father ended his life with the help of his wife.
“I loved Paris but my father wrote letters [while we were there] saying he was very worried about my mother. She talked about suicide and about taking my brother and me with her, which would have been extremely annoying.” She smiles ruefully. Finding that out must have been shocking. “She was an extraordinary woman. Wonderful at everything she did. But she was a bit inclined to think about suicide.”
“One thing I’ve always regretted since writing the books is the way I described my father in England being rather inactive, just writing, which was the impression my brother and I had at the time,” she continues. “Well, in fact he tried everything [to make money] but he never talked about it. I didn’t know and I hugely regretted having got that wrong. But there’s nothing you can do.” She sighs. “You can’t rewrite it.”
Kerr describes her father as having “a talent for happiness”. “He was a writer who lost his language in a country where he didn’t know anyone and it really did get very difficult,” she says. “But he found things to look at and to be happy about. He just thought the world was beautiful, which it is incidentally.”
She smiles and I tell Kerr that she appears to have inherited his outlook. “Yes, I think people who draw have it,” she says, looking pleased. “They just go round looking at things. I don’t have any of the huge worries my parents had so I can just walk about and think how lucky I am.”
• Judith Kerr is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 28 August