When Mark Gatiss came to tea with Judith Kerr

Mark Gatiss visits childhood hero and author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, to chat children's books, family and sci-fi

After your family settled in England you trained as an artist at the Central School of Art. How did you meet Tom?

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I was having lunch with a friend in the canteen, and Tom sat down at a table. At that time, he’d won the Somerset Maugham Prize, but had no money because short stories don’t sell!

He was so funny. I know a lot of widows and we talk about something, and they say, “Oh, yes! Jack would say…” I never knew what Tom was going to say, never. Right until the end of our marriage. I would never have written anything if it hadn’t been for Tom. I learnt so much from him and he encouraged me.

Was Tom’s influence and encouragement mostly about structure, or style, or dialogue?

Well, I think he once said he thought he was as good as anybody. In fact I think he thought he was better at construction, which is a terrific thing, which is everything. Obviously, I picked that up from him. But also encouragement, you know. I thought I would write about my childhood for the children, and it was terribly difficult and terribly slow, and I was going to give up. And so he read it and said, “No. You must do this.”

But I still look at stuff I’ve written, especially some of the picture books, and Pink Rabbit, and the suggestions he made, which were absolutely vital. The title is his, of course. He thought of nearly all the titles. I think he wrote the blurb for Pink Rabbit. He was hugely… not just encouraging, but I mean I just learnt so much from him.

He was a hugely intelligent and adventurous man who loved the world, but he had this total sun allergy. One day they went to the seaside, and it was a beautiful day, and Tom played in the sand and got dreadfully sunburnt, and could never go in the sun again.

I suppose, without stretching it too far, temperamentally it sort of puts him in the shadows, doesn’t it?

Yes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in this beautiful world and always be held back by something that everybody else could enjoy. I think that sometimes it must’ve made him angry.

Your world view and Tom’s feel quite different. Having come from a very dark and turbulent time, your vision nevertheless seems to be much more rosy, and Tom’s is sort of the other way round.

Yes, well I was healthy, you know? And I loved these experiences of my childhood. It all felt like an adventure! My only concern, as of all refugees, was just to belong here as quickly as possible. So I became very English, though I still think twice before I say we”! Whereas my mum, who was in love with England, would say “we” with a sort of slight German accent. I remember she once said, “When we won the First World War,” and everybody was a bit taken aback!

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Do you think one of the reasons that Mog and Tiger have never gone out of print is because children are, at a certain stage, immutably the same?

They respond to the same sort of ideas or stories? I think so. I used to be introduced to people, and they would say, “This is Judith Kerr, who wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea.” And they’d say, “Oh, yes, my mother used to read that to me!” But then at a certain point they started saying, “Oh yes, my mother used to read that to me – and now I’m reading it to my children.” And I think that must be an important moment, when suddenly you become far more… you become a national treasure. Probably.

I think it’s partly because I’m so old! A friend was telling me that one of the tests for dementia is the question “Who is the prime minister?” That made me laugh.

They’ll be putting everyone in a home!

Being 94 is a huge asset, and especially because in fact it’s not particularly unusual to be 94, but people haven’t realised yet. Because I boast about it. I say to people on the Underground or wherever it is, “I’m 94,” and they say, “Oh, yes? My nan’s 97!” But it still looks like something special. I think a few years from now they’ll realise that 90 is not the norm exactly, but not extraordinary.

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I remember when I met you and Tom, he said he’d effectively stopped writing. Whereas obviously your work is just a continuing excitement to you. Do you think he just reached a point where he didn’t have anything else to say, or just didn’t want to do it?

No, I suppose he just couldn’t think as fast as he had done. There was one he always wanted to write, which was a pre-Quatermass Quatermass…

I got terribly excited because he just casually mentioned it – Quatermass and the Third Reich…

He’d have loved to write it but he hadn’t got the energy. His heart was bad as well, and he would sort of come and go a bit. I’m sorry, I’m not weeping, my nose is running! But he missed it terribly, I think. He was a writer, he just… never stopped.

It must have been a wonderful moment when your son Matthew won the Somerset Maugham Prize just as Tom had all those years ago.

Well, yes, it was extraordinary. We went to pick it up with him, and I was the only person there who hadn’t won it!

There’s still time!

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No, I get prizes for longevity now! I’ve just started a new picture book. I don’t have all the time in the world, but I like doing them. So I get on! I spend quite a number of days when I don’t speak to anybody, and I work, and I go for a walk, and I go to bed. Which suits me it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m quite happy.