steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

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.
Tags: books

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