I recently heard Judith Kerr – author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and the Mog books – speak at a book festival. She was honest, engaging, down to earth and with a wicked sense of humour.
She spoke about her life, her favourite character (“I don’t know if it would be Mog or Hitler”) and family legends (“so you see my father tried to take the seal to the zoo, but it had got quite attached to him and used to beat it’s flippers on the French windows and hoot if he left it out on the balcony at night, so he’d let it in and sprinkle it with water to make it comfortable”), but was most affecting when she talked about realising the strain that emigration put on her parents.
In the last 6 months a biography of her father published letters showing the desperate struggle to sell enough articles in “neutral” Switzerland to keep the family alive, and her mother’s conviction in France that she should kill not just herself but her children to keep them safe.
Alongside Kerr’s pain at realising her parents’ suffering, was an entirely genuine memory of her own and her brother’s enjoyment of escape and travelling.
Her comment “we both talked about it and felt we were far, far better off for everything that had happened going to Switzerland and France and then Britain than staying in Berlin” reminded me of the following quote in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows:
“Children, you must tell me honestly if I am wrong – but though I blush with guilt for having given you such a childhood, I think you have quite enjoyed it. Except for your father going away, I do not think you would choose to have had anything very different in our life.”
“Of course we have enjoyed every moment of it,” said Mary.
“Why wouldn’t we?” I said. “We are not soft.”
It felt a particularly important point to make on the day the Brexit referendum ignited.