Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Tea with Tigers

Recently I was reading the children’s classic, “The Tiger who came to Tea” by Judith Kerr aloud to my kids. A tiger arrives at the doorstep one day, asks itself in for tea, and the mother and daughter graciously look on as the animal eats and drinks everything in the household. My two year old is delighted and appalled at the picture of the tiger pouring tea straight into his mouth from the teapot, my 6 year old son likes the impossible idea of the tiger drinking all the water out of the tap, so that the little girl, Sophy, cannot have her bath. And me? I am secretly impressed by the way the parents let their little girl go out in her nightie, albeit with a coat over it, when they have go to a café to have dinner, because the Tiger has eaten up all their supper. 

In the book, only one page is completely blocked through with colour, the scene where the family are walking down the high street, illuminated by street lights and car lights. On the other pages, the characters and the bare essentials of their surroundings stand out in pen and colour against white space. People sit on chairs and eat from tables, which could be floating in mid-air. A carpet, a front doormat gives occasional footing. Despite this, Judith Kerr creates a very homely and secure feeling in the pages, which has much to do with the characters expressions. Not even a tiger can disturb them.

Although the book was published in 1968, I wonder whether the illustrations were not even then a nostalgic picture of yesteryear in England. With the lovingly drawn pictures of a United Dairies milk float, a grocery delivery boy on his bicycle and the high street of independent little shops they create an atmosphere of stability and normality. But the tiger remains an enigma, strange and won’t be tied down to a normal life (‘and he never came again’).

Despite its surprise appearance, the tiger is not met by surprise, rather the mother and daughter accept the tiger in equal measures of curiosity and generosity. They do not protest when the tiger eats and drinks everything they had prepared for their afternoon tea. They are the politest of hosts and do not balk at his bad manners.  The little girl hugs the tiger and smiles upon him, as he continues to eat his way through the provisions, even the supper planned for that evening.

My friend, Vivian, lent me The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and hundreds of other children’s books by the way, so that I don’t have to translate German children’s stories into English when I read aloud to my kids, which is tedious and difficult and only delivers half the story anyway. She was also the one who told me about the semi-autobiography by Judith Kerr, which starts with the book, 'When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit'.  I have spent the last two weeks being glued not just to this, but the two following books in the trilogy.

It is a well written and moving story of how a nine year old Jewish girl has to flee Berlin with her family in 1933 because her father, a renowned theatre critic and writer, had opposed the Nazis. It shows a vivid portrait of the family, thrown upon it's own resources, as it were, to survive economically and emotionally a move to Switzerland, Paris and finally find safety in London, only to witness the daily raids of the Blitz during the war.

In the autobiography, there are no tigers, of course, but an uncle who is an eminent scientist.  When the Nazis take his job away as the curator of the natural history museum, his only solace is that he can still visit the Zoo to observe the animals and bring them food, until the Nazis take his Zoo pass away.  Then he takes his own life.

In the autobiography, a tiger doesn’t eat up all the family's food, of course, but the Nazis take everything the family are forced to leave behind in Berlin, including a beloved pink rabbit and the father's books are publicly burned.

In the autobiography, the mother doesn’t entertain a tiger, of course, but she manages to put on a brave face, to keep the family together and protect her children throughout.
“They made it feel like an adventure” Judith Kerr is quoted as saying about her parents. 

And despite the subject matter and experiences, she seems somehow to retain an optimistic voice in the autobiography, or perhaps it is her ability to observe everything that unfolds around her with clarity and keen perception that maintains her optimism.

I thought a lot about the tiger in The Tiger Who Came to Tea and about what it could possibly stand for. Could the tiger be not just any tiger, I wondered, but represent the uninvited and unexpected that enters lives, but out of which positive experiences can still emerge?
Judith Kerr has been quoted as saying “I much preferred it (her childhood as a refugee) to the sort of childhood I would have had had we had a so-called normal childhood.”

I thought about it again and again.
But I still I couldn’t work out what the tiger could be.

And then I realised. It was just The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

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