It is 50 years since Judith Kerr and her late husband Nigel Kneale first saw the Victorian home in south-west London where she still lives – and she remembers it with her illustrator’s eye for detail. “The house was pitch dark. It had brown panelling and was full of lodgers and they’d all put dressing tables in front of the windows. We said, well, it faces south, it must be light,” she says. “We brought the children up here, worked here. I love this house, couldn’t bear to leave it. I wouldn’t know who I was somewhere else.”
The author of the children’s picture classics, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog the Cat books, is small and neat, and she conveys a great deal without using many words. If Kerr’s strong sense of belonging seems unusual, it is worth remembering that as a child she was a German refugee. Her Jewish father, Alfred Kerr, a celebrated theatre critic who was bold enough to criticise Hitler, left Berlin suddenly in 1933 when the Nazi regime burnt his books, and urged his wife to follow with their two children. They escaped 24 hours before the Nazis arrived for their passports. Kerr was nine. “My mother was marvellous, I had no idea it was dangerous, she was so protective,” she says.
The family lived in Switzerland and Paris before reaching London in 1936, where they led an impecunious existence in a single room at a modest hotel in Bloomsbury and were known as “friendly enemy aliens”. Kerr is now 88 and as always, her sense of the ridiculous, combined with her ability to see emotional truths clearly and without sentimentality, enables her to tell fantastical stories that make perfect sense. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, published in 1968, and the Mog books, first published in 1970, have sold more than 9 million copies. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, her account of her young life and another bestseller, is widely read in Germany where it is used to explain the Nazi regime to children.
“France was an adventure and my parents had great hopes when they came to London because my father had sold a film script to [the director] Alexander Korda,” Kerr says. “The film was never made. I wonder if he ever had any intention of doing it or whether he was just helping. In any case, he saved our lives. Otherwise we’d have been caught by the Nazis in Paris, we would never have got to England.”
In London her father, unable to speak English, was out of work and her mother, a composer, gamely worked as a secretary, yet it was during the war that Kerr came to regard herself as British, she says. “To be poor in London was much worse than being poor in Paris because in Paris food, wine and sunshine are cheap. But the English people – nobody said British in those days – were marvellous. Nobody ever said anything nasty to my parents who were wandering about in the Blitz with their German accents.”
Another stroke of good fortune was meeting her husband, the acclaimed author of the BBC’s 1950s science fiction series, Quatermass. Initially they rented a flat in Holland Park but by 1962 they had two children and Tom (as she has always called him) had written a film script which enabled them to spend £7,500 on the three-storey, five-bedroom house in what was then a bohemian neighbourhood full of actors and writers. Instinctively they knew that it would provide them with a family home and somewhere to work, Kerr says.
“It was terribly grotty here and our friends were sorry for us having to move to this awful place. I had a ragged fur coat that someone had given me, known as The Dog, and I used to wear it when we came here because it was so cold. Tom could see how [the house] would be. He said if you get up for breakfast and then go upstairs to work, you have to have a view. We look out towards trees.”
Today, surrounded by neighbours who are bankers and lawyers, Kerr’s home retains many items of 1960s furniture that she and Tom bought when they moved in – Katinka, Kerr’s cat, dozes on an Ercol armchair. Many of the walls are white, a backdrop for a painting of Kerr by her daughter, Tacy, who has worked on the Harry Potter films, and photographs taken by Kerr’s son Matthew, the Whitbread prize-winning author of English Passengers.
Tom died in 2006 but photographs make him a constant presence, as he is in Kerr’s conversation. This is a home in which priorities revolve around family life. “We’ve never owned anything expensive,” Kerr says. “We hate the idea of having something we had to be careful about. We’ve just got practical things.”
Briskly she leads the way to her attic studio. All her work is done here, including her latest book, My Henry, the story of an old lady who dozes off and dreams of surreal adventures with her late husband. They hunt lions, ride a dinosaur and have drinks with the Sphinx. The gentle humour, warmth and lightness of spirit that characterises all of Kerr’s work – and enables her to explain difficult subjects to children – is here in abundance.
“I’ve never done a book so quickly without having to think,” Kerr says. “I’ve always been very conscious that people stay with you. Tom was ill for four years, and after he died it was difficult to know how to remember him. The weird thing is it took some time before I really remembered him as we were for most of our 54 years together. To be able to do work that you like compensates for everything. It’s the only thing that does.”
“The thing that matters most is my room at the top of the house. We’ve been here so long that the trees across the road have grown so I had to paint everything white because I couldn’t see. On a sunny day you open the door and it’s like stepping into a bubble.
“There’s a photograph of Tom on Brooklyn Bridge and I’ve got things the children made. There’s a photograph of my parents and my brother and me in Germany. We’re in knitted green matching outfits that we only wore on special occasions. I had a tricycle and I had just learned to turn corners and I thought that in the photograph I must look like someone who can turn corners.”