Great Lives: Enid Blyton – Radio 4 and The Tiger Who Came For Tea – Channel 4

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There was quite a contrast between these two Christmas Eve broadcasts, and not in the way I might have expected.  The tiger, who can be pretty scary, was just good fun in this lovely, cheerful interpretation of Judith Kerr’s books, with music by Robbie Williams, whereas the programme about Enid Blyton, who’s brought so much joy to so many children, was rather sad, focusing on her unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her own family rather than on her books.

Like a lot of children, I grew up with Enid Blyton.  I was so obsessed with the Noddy books that I knew them off by heart.  I insisted on having them read to me for bedtime stories, and, if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a bit out, I’d howl with indignation.  I drove my dad mad to make up more stories about Amelia Jane, because there weren’t enough of them to suit me.  Nearly everyone in my class at primary school was into the Famous Five, the adventure and mystery books, and to some extent the Secret Seven, and the girls at least were very keen on the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books.  When someone scribbled on the walls of the boys’ toilets, we tried to look for clues, like the Five Find Outers would have done.  The culprit never was officially unmasked, but I have my suspicions as to whom it was!  And my sister and I solemnly collected bits of food from our tea, to have for midnight feasts … although, at that age, we never managed to stay up till midnight!

As far as the criticism which Enid Blyton now gets showered in … well, it never occurred to me, as a little kid, that the golliwogs were any sort of racist symbol, any more than it occurred to me that Aslan’s resurrection in the Narnia books was any sort of religious allegory.  I blithely assumed that, had I gone to Malory Towers, I’d have been best mates with Darrell and the rest of the in crowd, never stopping to think that they’d have made mincemeat of a fat swotty kid with a Northern accent. And I still don’t see why people think the books are sexist.  OK, Anne in the Famous Five books and Lucy-Ann in the Adventure books are rather wussy, but they’re only two characters.

I can understand a lot of the criticism of the books now, though, but I do feel that Enid Blyton gets a lot of criticism which other authors, apart from Laura Ingalls Wilder, don’t.  No-one complains that The Tiger Who Came To Tea is sexist because Mummy’s at home making cakes with Sophie whilst Daddy’s at work, or calls Shakespeare as a bigot because of his portrayals of Shylock and Fagin, Dickens a bigot because of his portrayal of Fagin, or Jane Austen as a snob because all her heroines are from posh backgrounds.

The programme was ambiguous about all that.  You can argue about it until the cows come home.  But it did talk a lot about the poor quality of her writing.  One of my primary school teachers once complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like Enid Blyton!  I only wish I did, given that she sold over 800 books.  Teachers had a real down on Enid Blyton in the early 1980s, and I think they always have done … rather paradoxically, given that most kids love the books.  The programme did claim that there wasn’t much competition in the children’s book market during Blyton’s heyday, and that that was why her books were so popular, but I thought that that was rather unfair.  Kids like the books because they’re exciting … and the books probably do have to be about the upper middle classes due to that, because only kids from well-to-do families are likely to go to boarding school or go away for the entire school summer holidays.

It also said a lot about her difficult family life – the breakdown of her first marriage after both she and her husband had affairs, the way she airbrushed her first husband, the father of her two children, out of her life, her difficult relationship with both her mother and her children, and the trauma she suffered when her father ran off with another woman when she was in her early teens.  Her mother, understandably in the society of the times, pretended that he was just working away, and it’s thought that that’s partly why Enid became  so involved in telling stories.  It even said that she had fertility problems because the trauma of her father leaving affected her physical development.  I’ve no idea if that’s medically possible or not, but that’s what it said.  And it does have to be said that she doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.

All rather miserable, really.  But it praised her business acumen, and pointed out that, as a woman in a man’s world, she had to be tough.  Even more importantly,  it acknowledged that her books have got so many kids into reading.  And she deserves respect for that, and that’s why hers was a great life.

It also talked about food!  There is so much food in her books … mostly published at a time when rationing was in force and children could only dream of all those enormous teas and picnics.  And, of course, food is key to The Tiger Who Came To Tea as well, although that was published long after rationing had ended.  The tiger is a bit scary, as I’ve said, because he eats them out of house and home and even uses all the water from the tank … but no-one wants scary stuff on Christmas Eve, and this production was all smiley and happy!  I wasn’t convinced about Mummy wearing a green dress, a blue cardigan and an orange coat all together, nor about Daddy going to work in checked trousers, but never mind!   Purists may have found some of the cartoon scenes a bit too modern, but I thought it was all good fun, and a perfect antidote to the doom and gloom that the soaps seem intent on serving up over the festive season.  It was a real treat.

So that was Christmas Eve, for supposed adults who still like children’s books!  If you’re reading this, thanks for doing so, and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all the best for the new year xxx.

Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me (Judith Kerr) – BBC 1

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This was originally shown in 2013, but was repeated recently as a tribute to the late Judith Kerr, who died in May. Part of it was about the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and there were some references to her personal life; but most of it showed her revisiting Berlin, in the company of the BBC’s Alan Yentob, and talking about her experiences there – as told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As the programme explained, the book isn’t only widely read by children in English-speaking countries but is also a set text in German schools. Various other authors were interviewed about their views on Judith’s books: Michael Rosen said that children’s books were a place of safety. Maybe that’s partly why some of us keep on going back to them, even when we’re supposedly grown up.

During her visit to Berlin, she went back to her old home, and met the people living there now. It must have been very strange both for her and for them, but she was very calm all the way through. It was so emotive – and even more so when she went to the local railway station and saw all the memorials there, with the dates of the wartime deportations, the numbers of people deported and the names of the concentration camps to which they’d been sent.

As she said, it was all very well having memorials, but no-one did anything at the time. The Nazis came to her family’s home, intending to confiscate their passports, just two days after they’d reached safety in Switzerland. Two days … had they stayed in Berlin just another two days, they’d almost certainly have ended up on one of those death trains. But, as in her books, she didn’t seem bitter. She just said how thankful she was too have been so lucky, and how she felt obliged to try to make something of her life, when so many people had been denied the chance to make anything of theirs.

It was also interesting to hear more about her father. I don’t think I’d realised just how important a figure he was. Apparently, he was considered to be second on the Nazis’ hit list. He was even friendly with Einstein, and hoped to join him in America – but America wouldn’t let the Kerrs in. It was very poignant to hear about how he felt that he’d lost not only his country but also his language: how could he keep on writing in German? It’s not the most obvious of issues to think of in terms of refugees and persecution, but it’s a very good point. If you’re someone to whom it’s important to write, and especially if you’re a professional writer, how do you cope when you lose your language? He went back to Germany after the war, but took ill soon afterwards, and, with the help of his wife, committed suicide. As we’re told in the books, they had suicide pills with them all through the war.

Judith and her brother didn’t; but she spoke about her terror in 1940, when the threat of invasion seemed so real and there was nowhere else to run to. Towards the end of the programme, we heard from some of the German children, two of them Jewish, studying When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit at school. They all spoke excellent English: most British schoolkids of that age can’t speak a word of German or even French! They’d have been about the same age that Judith was then, and they’d clearly taken in what the book was saying, but they didn’t seem scared.

It’s not a scary book. And I was the over-imaginative kid who had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator! Not all children’s books, even those aimed at very young children, are a place of safety.  Mind you, I never re-read Roald Dahl’s books.  I suppose the children’s books that I do read over and over again – and there are many of them – are a place of safety, even though some of them take the reader to some pretty disturbing places along the war..  Michael Rosen was actually talking about the Mog books, and how Mog ends up curled up safely in a basket, with a fish, but the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit books aren’t scary either. Maybe Roald Dahl wanted to scare kids. Judith Kerr didn’t. It takes one hell of an author to be able to write a book about fleeing Nazi Germany, with the word “Hitler” actually in the title, informing kids about what happened, without scaring them. Judith Kerr was that author.

Thanks to the BBC for repeating this: I didn’t see it first time round.  I’m glad I’ve seen it now.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

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Judith Kerr, who died yesterday, fled Nazi Germany with her family at the age of ten, eventually settling in Britain and becoming one of our best-loved children’s authors. This book’s based on her childhood experiences. Most people (if anyone’s reading this anyway!!) will know this book, but I just wanted to write something about it, to mark the passing of a great author.   Most of the tributes in the media are referring to her as “The author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, and she’s also known for many other books, notably those about Mog the cat, but this is the stand-out one for me. I’m better with history than animals, even illustrated animals! It’s a near-perfect example of how to explain difficult subjects to young children in an “age-appropriate” way.

How do you get “Hitler” and “pink rabbit” into the same book title? We see it all through the eyes of Anna, Judith Kerr’s alter ego, nine years old and part of a secular Jewish German family. The book starts off in Berlin in 1933, with elections looming and the Nazis set to take power.  Her father, a journalist, has written articles criticising the Nazis. They have to flee.  Anna and her brother Max each have to choose one toy to take with them. Anna chooses a woolly dog. Later, she regrets it, and wishes she’d taken her pink rabbit instead. When people start talking about the Nazis going through their house and taking their things, she imagines them taking Pink Rabbit. It’s part of a trilogy of books, the second set during the Second World War and the third set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, but this one’s special.

At the beginning of the story, Anna, at nine, doesn’t really understand that anything’s going on.  Max and his friends, at twelve, have heard things, names, but don’t understand the potential consequences.  They have fights in the school playground, Nazis versus Sozis, but it’s more a case of each gang wanting to beat the other than knowing what either label stands for.  And everything’s normal.  They go to school.  They play out.  They go home and tell their parents about their day.  And they haven’t grown up with the mindset of being part of a persecuted minority, or even any minority at all.  This isn’t Anatevka, where one community lives apart from another.   Like Sarajevo, like so many other places before all hell broke loose, everyone just lived together.   And Anna and Max’s family are assimilated: they don’t even really bother with religion.

Judith Kerr shows so well how normality can just fall apart.  One minute, Anna and Max and Mama are sat round the table eating apple strudel for afters.  The phone rings.  The next day, Papa’s gone, and they’re planning to go too.  Just like that – leaving their entire lives behind them.   They go to Switzerland, just outside Zurich, and they settle in there, and everything seems to be OK … until some Germans come there on holiday, and the kids aren’t allowed to play with Anna and Max because they’re Jewish.  Meanwhile, a price has been put on Papa’s head.  Again, Anna doesn’t really understand what it means.  Just that it’s not good.

Then they up and leave again.  This time, it’s for Paris.  Another new country, another new school.  New friends.  This time, a new language too.  They’ve just got settled there, and Anna’s doing really well at school, and then a film script that Papa’s written is bought by a film director in England.  So it’s another new country, another new language, another new start.

On the final page of the book, Anna ponders whether or not she’s having a difficult childhood.  She decides that she isn’t – because she’s always been with Mama and Papa and Max, and because it’s all been interesting and some of it’s been funny.

That was Judith Kerr.  She lived this, and yet she could say that, in this wonderful book that she created.  A lot of it’s funny  – their grandma’s obsessed with her annoying dog, the train journey to Switzerland is enlivened by a woman with a cat in a basket, and, when they’re on the train in England, they see adverts for Bovril at every station along the way and think it’s the name of all the places.  But there are struggles too, like their father’s shame when Anna is given a coat by a relative who works for a charity providing clothes to poor children.  And there are moments of real horror, like when they hear that Onkel Julius, a family friend who stayed behind in Berlin and fell foul of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws, has committed suicide.

It’s not bitter. It’s not preachy.  Unlike some articles (it tends to be articles rather than books which do this) written by people who have never even faced persecution or been refugees themselves, it doesn’t try to make the reader feel guilty. Like so many things written by wonderfully brave people who have faced persecution and been refugees themselves, it’s so astoundingly free of self-pity that it humbles you.  It tells a story – and it does it so incredibly well. Children’s books are written by adults, which is problematic because it’s not easy for an adult to speak like a child, think like a child and reason like a child, especially about one of the most difficult subjects in world history; but Judith Kerr managed it.

Rest in peace, Judith. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with tributes to you within minutes of the announcement of your death.  Your books meant a lot to very many people.  And you were an inspiration in yourself – an inspirational person who led an inspirational life and wrote inspirational books.