Jewish Museum London: Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit – A Judith Kerr Retrospective



I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the Jewish Museum in Camden before. I mean, I’m not actually Jewish, but that’s a terrible reason (arguably a greater impetus to visit in fact), and my husband is and therefore our child has Jewish heritage. Two of my friends have worked there (one still does). But this post isn’t about how I’m a terrible person; it’s about how I’m a ludicrously emotional person.

What finally shoved me through the doors was this small but beautifully curated exhibition of the work of Judith Kerr. I don’t know of a child who didn’t grow up on The Tiger Who Came to Tea; it was one of Ramona’s first memorised books, that she’d ‘read’ to me before she knew which word was which. It has charm, more than a touch of the bizarre, lovely touches of mundane realism that ground it and, most of all, gorgeous illustrations – the deft work of a talented woman who is still announcing new work at the age of 92.

Kerr was very nearly silenced before she started. Fleeing Nazi persecution in childhood, her family ended up in the UK via Switzerland (see what ‘migrants’ can offer? Not that it should matter whether they turn out to be artistic genius or not; human beings are always human). Here she has been ever since, and both the famous Tiger and her series of Mog books based on the adventures of her gorgeous tabby have won and broken the hearts of three generations of children (and their parents). I finally read Goodbye Mog for the first time, at Ramona’s insistence, sitting in the museum, in a giant cat bed. I cried and the beginning, and I cried at the end, and Ramona gave me a gentle cuddle and then sprang off to see more.

The four sections of the exhibition take in Kerr’s childhood, with a smattering of her youthful works of art – and a funny aside about how she failed the book illustration module of her first formal art training because she was so focussed on painting – leading into the more serious side of her work through novels such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. More teary eyes.

Suddenly, you turn right into Sophie’s kitchen, where a Tiger sits, devouring the all the sandwiches on the plate and all the tea in the teapot. Yep, as I sat in Sophie’s Daddy’s armchair, and tried on Sophie’s Mummy’s orange coat – Ramona in Sophie’s red one – I cried some more. I’m ridiculous.

Finally, kids can crawl through a cat door (adults don’t have to) into Mog’s world, and dress up as her as they curl up in her bed and have a catnap. Perfect.

Although we missed it, there is daily storytime at 10:30 while the exhibition is on, and there are arts and crafts workshops and activities available at other times. I’m absolutely gutted that I missed the opportunity to book a slot at Kerr’s talk – in person! – about her work.

The exhibition continues until mid-October. Entry to the recently beautifully rebuilt museum is £7.50 for adults and £3.50 for children (5-16) with concessions and family tickets available. That of course includes access to the rest of the museum too, which is rich with all aspects of Jewish history; the Holocaust, yes, of course, because how could it not be, but also the reality of Jewish life today, and Jewish practice in real homes of varying observance. It’s a gorgeous, airy, space and I intend to go back and explore properly, possibly without an overexcited 5yo, on another occasion. A note: the museum is open on Saturdays, which is when we went, but due to the kosher licence the cafe does not operate during Shabbat.

No disclosure needed – although I do have a friend that works there she had no idea I was going!

Happy Birthday, Dear Pickle

birthday 2 candleI am now mother to a two year old. That is all kinds of weird. But also all kinds of brilliant. The funny thing is, I was really terrified of this stage, but while it’s nothing like easy, it is less horrifying, and far more enjoyable, than I expected. The tantrums, while louder and more stubborn than before, are also more avoidable; when they’re old enough to have things explained to them, and can have more forewarning, you can head certain issues off at the pass.

Reading a book and sneaking a cuddle have always been wonderful things, but now they’re even more wonderful because she’s so engaged with what’s going on. She’s memorised her current favourites (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Slinky Malinki and Wocket in my Pocket this week) and can narrate them aloud even with no book in front of her. It’s almost like I’ve accidentally trained a Victorian child to read poetry to the class! What’s really funny is she keeps in my inflections too, so it’s like listening to a slightly scrambled radio recording of myself being beamed scratchily in from somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Europe:

Shlinky Malinki was blackern black!
A TALKING and YURKING aventchrus cat!
He had bright yeyyow eyes,
A WAR-bing wayul,
An’ kink at end of his YONG black tayul.

I could listen to this all day. Or this:

Once there was a yittle girl called SO-phie, and she was having tea wiv her Mummy  in the KITCH-en. Sudd’ly, there was ring at the DOOR.

Sophie’s Mummy said, “I wonder who can THAT can be?”…

When she recites “It can’t be DADDY because he’s got his KEY”, she tends to interject “a other one Daddy”, in case I think the book is about her Dad. “A other one” always makes me laugh; her bed time snuggle toys are called Weasel and A Other One Weasel.

She was very excited about her birthday, and kept announcing “is gonna be my BIRTHDAY soon, and I will have a birthday cake and blow out candles” – which is indeed exactly what happened. In fact we made a cake together on the day before, which then got chopped up and sent off to nursery, and then I made cupcakes the following day, which she enjoyed and which went down well with all the family. I’ve finally decided that life is too short for making frosting – I enjoy the baking bit so much more – and made Hummingbird Bakery recipe red velvet cupcakes* topped with piped on canned Betty Crocker vanilla icing. I then got out my decorating stash – red glitter, candy polka dots, jelly diamonds and sprinkles – and even used the mini chopper to blitz the thin slices I’d ended up with when levelling a couple of the cakes and sprinkled the crumbs on as a decoration.

The results can be seen here:

birthday cupcakes - red velvet and vanilla icing

And the ritual candle-blowing here. I wasn’t helping, honest:

Pickle Birthday Candles Alexandra R. Goldstein

I hadn’t intended to get Ramona very much for her birthday as she’s only two and has a full complement of grandparents and other relatives ready to spoil her, but I ended up going shopping that morning and splurging without quite meaning to. The official present from Mummy and Daddy was her first Peppa Pig playset (she loves playing with some her cousins have), but she also now has some gorgeous new clothes from the fantastic Tootsa MacGinty – I can only afford them in the sale, but it’s worth the wait! – and a really lovely range at M&S (I want these trousers in my size, too! Including the adjustable waist for after cake…!). She’s also already got stuck into reading Meg on the Moon (or, as she called it, “Meg Goes to the Moon”) and Dr Seuss’s ABC. What can I say? She’s a lucky pickle.

Even luckier, she’s actually having a party in a couple of weeks when more family can join us, so she’ll be getting more birthday cakes than years she’s been alive. Which sounds like a very good deal to me.

Two years of brilliant. And so many more to come. We’re all very lucky.

*My mother has given me two excellent pieces of baking advice (other than the obvious – Know Your Oven**) which have stood me in very good stead. 1) Unless your recipe genuinely depends on using butter, use Stork instead. 2) Unless your cake is supposed to be dense, use self-raising flour for everything, even when it says plain and you’re adding more raising agents. Fluffiest. Cakes. Ever. Trust me.

**No, really. I baked the first cake at 160 for 22 minutes, and the cupcakes for 13 minutes, again at 160. I just know that for most sponge-type cakes that’s the optimal temperature for this oven. Cookies are a very good way to find out if your oven heats unevenly, as you’ll be able to see the overcooked ones, and can open the oven door to check them which you can’t do with a cake.

Thus endeth the very amateur baking lesson. 

Reflections on Ramona: 22 months

I don’t know what happened, but at some point when I wasn’t looking, someone took away my baby and replaced her with a little girl. There are so many ways to define a very young child as a toddler, and all of a sudden Ramona seems to have hit the classic definition between the eyes.

The most obvious symptom is the fake tantrum. I fill a blue cup with water, and she flattens herself on the floor yelling “Nooo! Nooo! PINK CUP! MILK!” and then pertly looks over her shoulder to check if I’m impressed. She seems genuinely shocked when I say “Ramona, I know you’re not really sad, or crying” and, at the moment, seems to shrug and give up as if to say “well, it was worth a try”. I wonder how long before she starts digging in harder.

She’ll wander about whining “what’s wrong?!” until she gets asked, at which point it becomes evident that, in fact, nothing is. She keeps claiming to be hungry, which is a tricky one because I don’t like to ignore that, but I’m beginning to work out when it’s genuine and when it’s not.

Her memory is formidable. She can narrate the vast majority of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and could do after about the fourth reading. (And the tiger eating all the sandwiches in one big mouthful – OWP! – is the new supper wriggling away in terms of sheer hilarity.) She’s also really into building, which is nice. I get shanghaied into building wooden block “pyramits” more often than not, and then we take turns trying to balance blocks one on top of the other in a tower. If we succeed, it goes something like this:

Ramona: “WE DID IT WE DID IT!”
Me: “Well done, Pickle.”
Ramona: “Is gonna fall over?”
Me: “When you knock it over, yes.”
Ramona: (knocking it over) “It fall over. Oh dear. Try again!”

My mother’s taught her to say “Oh dear, how sad, nevermind” in a dreadful echo of that proud bastion of appallingly offensive sitcoms,  It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. I pretend I can’t hear it.

But the best bit is how brilliantly her singing is coming along. She brings home another song from nursery or a grandparent every week, and then proceeds to mash them all together and, if we’re not quick enough on the uptake, congratulate herself loudly on her, erm, tunefulness. We’ve been playing Laura Veirs’ lovely Tumble Bee* in the car, and today I sang a bit of one of the songs for her at which point she insisted “we can play music now?” and then, when Prairie Lullaby had finished, added “maybe Because, Because, Because now?”, which was her way of requesting Veirs’ lovely version of Woody Guthrie’s Why Oh Why?

That’s worth an Incy-Wincy-Spider-Goodbye-Song-from-Something-Special-Old-MacDonald mashup any day.

*I gotta admit, I did not see myself liking kiddie folk music. I blame Ash entirely.