Judith Kerr : the cat’s whiskers

JUDITH KERR : THE CAT’S WHISKERS

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Judith Kerr at home in London with Katinka.  Photo: Sam Pelly

Judith Kerr, born in 1923, is a German-born British writer and illustrator. She has created both enduring picture books such as the Mog series and The Tiger Who Came to Tea and acclaimed novels for older children such as the autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit which gives a child’s-eye view of the Second World War.

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In 1933, just before the Nazis first came to power, Judith’s family left Germany, fearful because her father had openly criticised the Nazis. The family travelled first to Switzerland and then on into France, before finally settling in Britain, where she has lived ever since. She subsequently became a naturalised British citizen.She married scriptwriter Nigel Kneale in 1954. They had two children and were together until his death in 2006.

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Although she dreamed of being a famous writer as a child, she only started writing and drawing books when her own children were learning to read. Kerr lives in Barnes, London, the same house she has lived in since 1962. She says that since the death of her husband writing has become more important than ever and she continues to write and illustrate.

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Judith Kerr was interviewed in 2008 by the Guardian for its Writers Rooms series.

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My room is at the top of the house up two flights of stairs, which is very useful as people have to think before they disturb you. I’ve worked here for 42 years and written all my books and done all my illustrations here. For most of that time my husband, Nigel Kneale, worked next door. It was useful because we could pop into each other’s room when one of us had a bad moment. We seemed to come to a stop for lunch at more or less the same moment. It was a very good time; I was very lucky. He used to tell me about the plays he was going to write, and I used to show him my pictures. Sometimes he’d say “isn’t that child’s head too big?” and he was always right. But he always liked them, otherwise it would have been rather awful. There is a lovely light from the trees, and I have lots of lamps so I can draw without daylight. The drawing board is part of a desk that I bought with money my brother gave me when I was 20. We had to stick some formica on it at one point, but it is the same desk. There are probably more than a hundred crayons. I’ve got blues in one jar, reds in another and yellows and greens in another, otherwise I’d never find anything. Normally the wastepaper basket overflows and there is paper all over the floor. Last summer when I was finishing a book, I sometimes worked up here at five o clock in the morning, but I usually start about 11 and then go on until I run out of ideas.The original Mog used to come up here. She would sit on my lap and nudge the brush with her nose. She lived to be nearly 20. We’ve had nine cats altogether. My cat now is called Katinka. She doesn’t come up to sit on my lap, she’s into mice instead.

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Drawing from life: the author and illustrator Judith Kerr at home in her studio Photo: Andrew Crowley

This is a documentary filmed in Judith Kerr’s studio in 2010.

Judith was also interviewed by Elizabeth Grice of The Telegraph In 2013.

Despite the white hair and gentle twinkle of an idealised sweet old lady, Kerr is far from a spent force. Her brain is as sharp as it ever was, her eye for amusing detail no less acute than in the heyday of her success. She still spends every minute creating new books in the attic studio of her house in Barnes, south-west London. ‘I’ve always found work therapeutic,’ she says, climbing the stairs at a sprightly pace to the white-painted eyrie where she has written and drawn for nearly 50 years.What do they know, the passers-by who see Judith Kerr out walking on Barnes Common? How could they possibly guess that this brisk little lady with her large glasses and absent smile is nearing 90, probably wrestling with a problem in her latest book and almost certainly returning home to complete a day of monkish dedication at her drawing board?

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“I need to work,” she says emphatically. “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t working. Even if one’s made a total mess of the work all day, you go to bed and you think: well, tomorrow I’m going to redraw those legs, or whatever it is. I thought of rather a good thing in the bath this morning. If I’ve done a lot of work, I give myself a day off, but if there are a lot of interruptions, I feel edgy. I’m halfway through a new book and I don’t want to die before I’ve finished it,” she goes on, casually inspecting the marks the cat has left on her arm. “Mind you, you think that when you’re 40. You’re frightened that something’s going to happen. Because nobody else can do it. Of course, at my age, it’s slightly more urgent.”

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Kerr has written and illustrated 30 books in the top-floor workroom of the big house in Barnes where she has lived for the past 51 years. All have been done on the same cheap table she dare not now allow to collapse. Most of them, from The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series (based on the oddities of her own cats) to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a lightly fictionalised account of her family’s flight from Nazi Germany, have become classics. Since her husband, the celebrated scriptwriter Nigel (Tom) Kneale, died in 2006, her output has changed and accelerated to fill the void of widowhood.

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Sources:

  1. Guardian Writers Room 2008
  2. Telegraph interview 2013
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