A very belated and very happy new year to you, dear reader. Today, the daffodils in the roundabout at the end of the road have burst into flower – Vita, in her pushchair, looked rather puzzled as I manically pointed to them in joy. Hooray, spring is on the way… and so, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, are some thoughts on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
I have been reading proper grown-up books – promise! – but I couldn’t resist writing about this children’s book. I think it haunts me so much because of a conversation I had in the bookshop, back before Vita was even thought about.
An elderly lady came in one day and asked me to find her The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then she asked me to look up what year it was published.
I told the lady 1968, which felt slightly odd, because I suppose I’d always thought of it as sort of timeless – aren’t all classics? – and I briefly wondered what on earth children read before Judith Kerr created her tea-taking tiger.
The lady said that was the year she came to England from Czechoslovakia. A lot happened in 1968, she said. Then silence, as the full weight of her words sunk in, and I thought: what can I possibly say to someone who fled The Prague Spring? So I commended her on her choice of children’s book, telling her it was one of my favourites. The lady smiled and said it was one of hers too.
The Tiger who Came to Tea has become one of Vita’s favourites too. I have spent hours reading it to her over the past fifteen months, sitting together on the sofa, in bed, on the floor, usually in a static fuzz of exhaustion. In these peaceful moments of turning the pages together, I often think of the lady in the bookshop arriving in England in the same year that the tiger first arrived for tea.
Judith Kerr was a refugee too. She left Berlin in 1933, fleeing the Nazis with her parents – a journey she wrote about beautifully in her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Children’s author Michael Rosen is not the only person to posit that her tiger could symbolise the Gestapo, who were likely to turn up at The Kerrs’ front door, unannounced and threatening. While the tiger certainly turns everything upside down, eating all the food and drinking all the drink, he also lets Sophie cuddle and stroke him, which makes me feel he is too friendly a tiger to be a Nazi.
Instead, I have come to think of the tiger as an outsider, like Kerr, and like the Czech lady in the bookshop. If the tiger does stand for a refugee asking to enter the country, then Kerr has picked a significant moment for his arrival, for surely there is no more quintessentially English tradition than that of tea?
Most of the book happens inside and the pages are white, pleasingly bright, as we move from Sophie’s kitchen to the bathroom, hall and living room. When Sophie’s Daddy decides they should go out for supper, however, we suddenly enter the world outside.
It is always a shock when we turn this page and the background changes from white to black, as the world expands from Sophie’s home to the length of a street, but – crucially – the street is not scary. Though the world outside is dark, it is also full of light: there is the soft yellow glow of the street lamps, the lit windows of the houses, and the warm circle of the moon (you can’t quite see it in the pic above, sorry). There is a jolly red bus, and the colourful shop fronts of the High Street – a toy shop, a fishmonger, butcher, florist and dress shop – most of them with the proprietor’s names inscribed above. There is also a cat, stripey like the tiger, only shrunk down to a normal, less frightening, size. The world outside in 1968 – the world of the tiger and other outsiders – is shown to be not such a terrible, terrifying place after all.
If only the High Street today were such a cosy, comforting spot, lined with independent shops with pretty awnings. Instead we’d be more likely to find the cold strip-lighting of a supermarket, charity shop and a nail bar – not so rosy a scene. Similarly, at the start of the book when the doorbell rings and Sophie’s mummy wonders who it could be, the possibilities seem almost ludicrously outdated: the milkman, or the boy from the grocer on his bicycle with a basket. When the doorbell rings today, it’s probably a courier with an internet-ordered package, or the Ocado man, who is different every time.
In a way, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is about the wonder of shopping – for resolution only comes when Sophie and her mummy go shopping and replenish their supplies. Only Kerr’s portrait of consumerism in 1968, with its milkman, the grocer’s boy on his bicycle and independent High Street shops, is rather a lovely one, showing that shopping then wasn’t just about buying things, it was also a means of creating a community. (Where on earth, though, did they buy that tin of tiger food? Is this some weird forecasting of the online ‘everything store’ that was to come?)
When I read the book with Vita on my knee, nearly fifty years after Kerr wrote it, I mourn the loss of the feeling of safety and community which lights up the world outside. I think what a wonderful welcome the tiger is given in 1968, when he turns up to tea … and I think of the Czech woman who came to England then, and Kerr who arrived thirty-five years before, and the welcomes they received.
Next time the door bell rings, once we get over our disappointment at no longer having a milkman, we ought to wonder what sort of welcome we’d give a tiger who came to tea today.