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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Tigers on the Tiber
I've just been writing an ABBA post about the recent controversy (if that's not too dramatic a name) surrounding Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea. A couple of years ago, Michael Rosen said that he saw the story as partly inspired by Kerr's early experiences:

Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away. She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment by either the Gestapo or the SS - he was in great danger.

Kerr by contrast claims that the tiger is "just a tiger." Who is right? Both? Neither? Someone else who hasn't spoken yet?

Well, I won't go into that debate here, since that's what my ABBA post is about (it'll be up on the 11th), but if I were to seek a secondary reading for this story I think it might be as a fable of post-Imperial anxiety. The tiger, a native of India, comes to eat and drink tea (no doubt Assam) in the imperial homeland - a colonial kitten come to roost. And while the family are happy to offer hospitality, the tiger doesn't stop at one bun, or one cup of tea - he eats and drinks the lot, until the store cupboards are bare.

The anxieties provoked by Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, given in the same year, are powerfully evoked here. There is, happily, no real conflict within the story: having eaten his fill the tiger goes equably on his way, and the humans solve the problem of their lack of food by eating at a nearby café and then stocking up at the shops. Money doesn't seem to be a problem for them - but any adult reading is likely to think at least glancingly about the financial implications of feeding a large influx of tigers.

Interestingly, the supplies the family buy include a tin of Tiger Food - which suggests that the tiger had overstepped an important boundary in eating the same food as his human hosts. Since the tiger never returns we don't know how he would have reacted had he been offered Tiger Food instead of more buns on a return visit: would he have been touched by the thoughtfulness, or insulted? We can only speculate.

Does the purchase of Tiger Food not indicate that, on the contrary, the family will now begin to eat the food of their unnerving guest: it's the first step on the way to chicken tikka becoming the nation's favcourite dish.

I look forward to reading your ABBA piece.

That would be an altogether more satisfactory outcome, I agree, but alas the text makes it clear that their purchase is "in case the tiger should come to tea again. But he never did." I think we have to assume that it is even now sitting at the back of their cupboard, just behind the Vesta curries.

Oh, well, if you're going to refer to the text...

I look forward to reading your ABBA piece.

FYI, the piece is now up.

Thanks - interesting. Was Blake really the first sign of tiger-awareness in English? Does the tiger really have so short a 'history', compared to the lion?

Comparing yout two illustrations, I am struck by how cat-like the tiger is, compared to the lion: an outsize cat, certainly, but still an altogether more domestic animal, with his neat white bib...

And is it going off at two much of a tangent to throw The Wolves in the Walls into the mix?

Tigers indeed appeared in literature before, often as embodiments of fierceness - I'm pretty sure I've seen that in Shakespeare, for example - but I think Blake was the first to bring out their ambiguity by pointing out that they came from the same workshop as fluffy little baa lambs. Though when he says "Did He who made the lamb make thee?" he's admittedly also pointing obliquely (at least in my mind) to Isaiah 11.6: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

Wolves definitely need a post of their own!