No.72 Brian Alderson
Thoroughgoing and endearing gormlessness in Mog the Forgetful Cat
Hitler started it.
Had he not seized power – and Judith Kerr’s pink rabbit into the bargain – things might have been very different. With her father a prominent and distinguished German essayist, poet and theatre critic (but Jewish, and with a marked aversion to the National Socialists), who knows what his daughter might have become? The leading light perhaps in some artistic Jugendbewegung of the 30s and 40s when books would not have been burned in the streets nor artists vilified for a presumed degeneracy?
But peripatetic exile
was what actually occurred. Warned to flee Berlin just as the Führer wangled his election as Chancellor, the young Judith and her family made their way to Zürich, to Paris, and eventually to London (where he then tried to drop bombs on them). Instead of a life lived within predictable norms, there were daily struggles: with prejudice, with tackling one new language after another, with unaccustomed poverty, and with continuous worry over an unpredictable future.
You may read all about it
in Judith Kerr’s lightly fictionalized essays in recollection: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) and The Other Way Round (1975) which themselves now have classic status on the increasingly crowded shelves of WW2 literature for the young. The refugee daughter had early been impressed with an idea that you need ‘a difficult childhood’ in order to become famous, or even fulfilled, so that she was inclined to see her tribulations as intriguing rather than harrowing. But as she grows up the persistence of everyday difficulties serves to obscure any clear path towards the desired end. For the first readers of Pink Rabbit however the outcome was already known, since the little Anna of the story had belatedly emerged as a figure to be reckoned with in the unlikely medium of children’s picture books.
Three years before the story had come out
Judith Kerr had charmed her audience with the cheerful absurdity of a diversion that she had invented for her own children: The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Its plot was of the simplest, consisting mostly of the tiger’s ravenous progress through Sophie’s household after he’d invited himself in for afternoon tea. Not so much as a baked bean was left for Daddy’s supper when he got home nor yet water in the tap, so the only recourse to a happy ending was sausage and chips and ice-cream in a café down the street.
All the qualities
of Judith Kerr’s later work were present here: brisk writing matched in to simple foregrounded drawings for whose colouring ‘gay’ is unavoidably the happiest term. A grub-scoffing tiger however does not offer much scope for further narrative development and the craft that Kerr had so successfully deployed in his interest was now directed to the more fruitful adventures of a feline successor: Mog the Forgetful Cat.
(A foreign forebear
had in fact appeared momentarily during little Anna’s fateful train journey out of Germany and into Switzerland. No sooner is the family over the frontier than a fellow-passenger, an old lady clutching a scrabbly-sounding basket, is prevailed upon to open it. ‘That’s my mogger’, she says, and a tom-cat pokes its head out and says, to the delight of the children, ‘Meeee’. His picture-book descendant however, the Mog who comes to live with the Thomas family, has none of this street-wise confidence and is indeed given to a drollness that is at odds with the aloof self-obsession characteristic of most of her species.)
especially in the matter of the purpose and location of her cat-flap, is hinge for the comedy of her first story, but that failing is not harped upon during its dozen or so sequels, it being merely one symptom of her thoroughgoing and endearing gormlessness. Thus, in the book’s immediate successor, Mog’s Christmas, she takes umbrage at her seeming neglect and at the strange behaviour of a walking, talking tree. She decides to take up permanent residence on the roof, only to tumble down the chimney. ‘“It’s Father Christmas!” cries one of the aunts. “No dear… it’s Mog.”’
that are rung on her progress through the hazards of family life are of much the same order, whether in picture stories or incorporated into the alphabetic extravaganza of Mog’s Amazing Birthday Caper or the board-book presentation of Mog’s Family, where we meet fourteen moglets from four generations. Kerr’s texts – more ingenious than they appear, especially when they enter into Mog’s elementary thought-processes – as well as her drawings retain an unpretentious simplicity, not the least remarkable feature being her portrayal of Mog’s eyes. The two or three pen-strokes involved in this tiny element of the picture give rise to a range of expressions: pride… apprehension… astonishment… woe… that are among the chief delights of the books.
What with falling down chimneys,
escaping the wheels of motor-cars, crashing through the tops of marquees, Mog eventually uses up her nine lives and in Goodbye Mog we meet her as a beneficent ghost supervising the arrival of a new kitten in the Thomas household. (‘I knew they couldn’t manage without me.’) It’s a pretty thing, gingery-yellow with green eyes, but, with Mog in charge, who’s to say that it won’t turn out to be a tiger?
Addendum While this article was being prepared, an announcement was made that Judith Kerr has generously made over her complete archive to Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books, on long-term loan.
The illustrations are taken from the HarperCollins edition of Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr (978 0 00 717134 7, £5.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Book Editor for The Times.