Judith Kerr confesses she has a bit of a hangover, due to a little too much prosecco at a National Literacy Trust party she attended the night before our interview.
Despite a groggy head, the author, who celebrates her 95th birthday in June, is sharp as a knife, with a quick wit that would rival someone at least half her age.
Not to be too morbid about it, she is acutely aware she may not have too many years left, however, and says she appreciates life more now – although she does have a “Do Not Resuscitate” notice should the worst happen.
“The doctor gives you a large piece of paper which he signs, but I often worry whether they’d find it and where to put it. I keep it in the hall. Sometimes I feel like sticking it on the front door but that’s a bit much and a bit depressing for visitors.
“Somebody said that the only way is to have ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ tattooed on your chest. But I never know exactly how to spell ‘resuscitate’.”
This is the type of humour which peppers the conversation, as we discuss the 50th anniversary of The Tiger Who Came To Tea, her hit children’s book that’s sold more than five million copies since it was first published in 1968 and has spanned generations of children, parents and grandparents.
She has gone on to produce 32 other books, including the Mog series based on the pet cats she’s had over the years, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a semi-autobiographical tale about a young Jewish girl forced to flee Germany in 1933.
For the few who aren’t familiar with The Tiger Who Came To Tea, it’s the story of a little girl – Sophie – and her extraordinary teatime guest who scoffs all the food. It was inspired by a bedtime story she created for her daughter, after they’d been to the zoo together and seen the tigers.
“I first told this story to my small daughter long ago. She was rather critical of my other stories but used to say, ‘Talk the tiger!’ So, when she and her brother were both at school and I had more time, I thought I would make it into a picture book – and much to my amazement, here it still is 50 years later.”
She says that her publisher, HarperCollins, is throwing her a joint 95th birthday party with the 50-year-old tiger, hopefully with plenty of prosecco.
Kerr is one of the few successful authors who also illustrates her books and has always loved drawing, creating her cats from her own pets over the years.
She had been working as a BBC scriptwriter when she met her husband – the late writer Thomas Nigel Kneale, who wrote the sci-fi series Quatermass – and once she’d had two children, Matthew and Tacy, she wanted to look after them rather than return to the BBC. They moved into a three-storey terraced house in Barnes, south-west London, in 1962 – where she still lives.
There, in the top-floor study, she created the tiger, Mog, and her other characters in her picture books.
“I’m not a writer. I draw, I went to art school, and that’s what I really care about. The book didn’t change my life,” Kerr continues, “only in the sense that it was my first book published and I was encouraged to do more.”
She was recently joined for a 50th anniversary celebration at the Storystock Festival in south London by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who narrated the story to visitors, and told her he reads The Tiger Who Came To Tea to his two sons.
“I think the request (to attend the event) must have come from him,” she muses. “You can’t really ask Benedict Cumberbatch, ‘Would you like to read The Tiger Who Came To Tea’? I mean, he’s got better things to do. He’s absolutely charming. I didn’t see his Hamlet but I saw him in the one about Bletchley (The Imitation Game).
“As I told him, it’s the only time I’ve ever been able to impress my children.”
Humour aside, Kerr’s fate could have been much bleaker had she not fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Born in Berlin, she came to England with her family after escaping the Nazis, travelling throughout Switzerland and France as a young girl.
Her father, Alfred, a Jewish theatre critic and satirical writer, had mocked and reviled Hitler and the rising Nazi Party and became a marked man.
In 1933, he fled to Zurich, followed soon after by his wife Julia and two children, Michael and Judith.
“I was nearly ten when we left. What I didn’t know at the time is just how hard it was for my parents. Once we came to England, I was a bit older, it became more visible. My father lost his language as a writer and could never keep the family as he would have wished to support us all.”
Her husband died in 2006, and she admits work has helped her cope on her own. “You have to become a slightly different person. I still miss him. I miss his advice, as a writer. We were married for 52 years and were together for 54.”
In recent years, she’s needed various hospital visits. “I’ve got new eyes (cataract operations), I’ve got a new hip and I’ve had operations on both hands for carpal tunnel syndrome. I can draw without pain. I’m not very good at doing up buttons but I can do everything that really matters.”
She gets some backache but walks for an hour every day to alleviate the aches and pains.
And work is ever-present. She’s currently concentrating on another book for eight-to-nine-year-olds, but won’t reveal details, while another picture book is coming out in the autumn.
“In patches when I’m not working, I get very gloomy because you always think about work even when you’re not doing it,” says Kerr. “Going for walks has always helped me to think. Walking is very good for the hip, and I look at things because if you draw you look at things all the time. And I think about the next bit of work.”