'We would speak every Sunday to compare notes on writing' - author Matthew Kneale on his mum Judith Kerr

'The way people have connected to her is rather the way I connected to her'


To millions, Judith Kerr was the writer and illustrator of their favourite children's books like the Mog series and The Tiger Who Came To Tea but to author Matthew Kneale she was “the nicest mum to have.”

“She was exactly who she was in public as she was in private,” he told the JC after her death last week at 95. “A lot of people talk about having to put on a performance, but not her. The way people have connected to her is rather the way I connected to her.”

Mr Kneale, who is himself the author of seven novels including the Booker-shortlisted English Passengers, said it was “a great comfort” to know his mum and her work had meant so much to others and played such a “meaningful” part in so many childhoods.

“She was very family minded and only really started writing the books when we went to school because that is when she finally had time,” Mr Kneale, 58, said.

Mr Kneale, who has a teenage son and daughter, “hadn’t realised the personal attachment that so many people had to her,” but said it was easy to understand why people formed such a “natural” connection to the writer.

The pair spoke every Sunday to “compare notes” and Mr Kneale would often give her advice if she ever got stuck with what to write to accompany her pictures.

“She loved the pictures but would sometimes get stuck on the words. She would help me because she had a simple wisdom. She saw things as they were.”

As well as having two creative children - Mr Kneale's sister Tacy Kneale trained as an actress and became a special effects designer for films - Ms Kerr's husband was screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best remembered for sci-fi show The Quatermass Experiment. They were married from 1954 until his death in 2006 at 84.

“She understood what writers were like,” Matthew Kneale said of his mother's relationship with his father. “If he was grumpy or wanted to be off in corner she understood it was just how they were.” 

Ms Kerr was born in Berlin and fled the Nazis with her parents in 1933, travelling to Switzerland and then France before settling in England. 

Mr Kneale said his mother always felt “lucky” to have escaped. As a refugee in Britain “she wanted to be brought up to be as English as possible". Both her children grew up in a secular household.

“I think it is very understandable, but it is a shame for me as I would have loved to learn another language. I love languages."

Ms Kerr wrote the Out of Hitler Time trilogy of novels based on her family's experience, of which When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was the first volume.

Mr Kneale said one of the reasons she wrote the books was because he saw The Sound of Music and asked her "Is that what it was like?’

“I think she was horrified that all I’d know about the Holocaust was Julie Andrews,” he said.

Mr Kneale said his mother was “very proud” of the OBE she received in 2012, which was for both her books and Holocaust education. She was an ambassador fro the Holocaust Educational Trust and spoke at its conference last year.

“She understood how difficult it was to be a refugee and she was absolutely angry about the Windrush scandal,” Mr Kneale said.

He recalled the “disgust” and “passion” she expressed about the scandal during one of their weekly phone calls.

“These people were like her, they had come to Britain to do everything they could to fit in and to be treated the way they were made her furious.”

When asked if he could pick one lesson or memory of her that stands out, Mr Kneale said it was impossible but added he would always be comforted knowing “she felt like she had the life she wanted.”

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