Judith Kerr and Nigel Kneale

In The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017), Christopher Fowler writes of Thomas Nigel Kneale (1922 – 2006):

“He became a legend in his own lifetime, a shining example of how to rigorously explore fantastical subjects without sacrificing believability. Kneale was raised in the Isle of Man, moved to London and joined RADA, but quickly abandoned acting to become a writer. His debut short-story collection, Tomato Cain and Other Stories, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1950, but although his publisher pushed him to write a novel, he chose to write for television, something he did successfully for over forty years.”

He met his future wife Judith Kerr (who would become one of Britain’s most successful children’s authors) by chance while having lunch at the BBC canteen, where she later worked as a scriptwriter. They married in 1954 and had two children together.

Judith Kerr (1923 – 2019) was born in Berlin, but left Germany with her family in 1933 to escape the Nazis. They arrived in England in 1936, having spent the intervening years in Switzerland and France. Her father, Alfred Kerr, a writer and critic, had his books burned for mocking the Nazis. He fled Berlin for Switzerland in 1933, on a tip-off that his passport was about to be confiscated. He sent for his family just in time: two days later, Hitler came to power. The family moved to Paris, then to London in 1936. George Bernard Shaw sponsored Mr Kerr’s naturalisation.

Flora Watkins interviewed Judith Kerr at her home for Country Life towards the end of 2018, a few months before the author died. The resulting article opens:

“Visitors to Judith Kerr’s house can’t help but exclaim ‘Oh, it’s the kitchen from The Tiger Who Came to Tea. These Formica worktops from the much-loved picture book will be familiar to the generations who grew up with Sophie and the tiger and Mog the Forgetful Cat, plus her successor, Katinka, now 13 and dozing on a chair upstairs.

Judith Kerr and her late husband, Quatermass author Nigel Kneale, installed the kitchen in their tall Edwardian house in Barnes, south-west London, in 1962, when the area was ‘grotty — no one wanted to live here’. The kitchen was ‘built when they made things to last,’ she adds, rapping the worktop.”

Kerr told Watkins that her favourite place in Britain was “London: walking along the river from Barnes to Hammersmith”. Watkins told readers that “Miss Kerr is working on a new book, ‘sort of in between a picture book and a full-length novel, with lots of drawings’, for 8–9 year olds. She maintains an impressive work ethic, starting after breakfast, when the light is good, and going on ‘as long as you’re sort of getting somewhere’.

At the arrival of our photographer, Miss Kerr dashes up three flights of stairs to tidy her studio, then picks up the interview exactly where we left off. She’s the epitome of a good life, well lived.”

Judith Kerr died on 22nd May, 2019. The following day, The Guardian printed a tribute by Nancy Banks-Smith:

“When I went to interview Nigel Kneale about Quatermass he would keep talking about his wife. Apparently she was a writer herself. The more I hauled the steering wheel over to malevolent Martians and aliens in the attic (he kept the Quatermass monster in his study) the more the conversation drifted back towards pink rabbits and tigers who dropped in for tea. Some powerful gravitational force was at work here, professor.

God knows what I made of it all.

Years later, when Nigel Kneale was dead, I found a little note from him thanking me and mentioning gently that Quatermass was not, as I thought, a name from his Manx background. He just found it in a telephone book. It was a handwritten note that I found physically impossible to throw away – I often find things impossible to throw away, which was why it was there in the first place – so I sent it to his wife. Who, I now realised, was the equally famous writer Judith Kerr. She was surprisingly delighted.

As we wrote and talked to each other over the next four years I had a familiar sensation. Wherever we wandered, the current of the conversation always carried us back to her husband. She called him Tom. He called her Judy. She said she would never have written anything if it hadn’t been for Tom. He dedicated Quatermass to Judy. I had identified the strong gravitational force. It was undying devotion…”.

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