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p22 and 23 of JKerr Tiger

What We Agree to Understand

Melissa McCarthy

. . . through 2022 I was delivering monthly reports to the Glue Factory on all the important topics, such as war, photography, sharks . . .


ello everyone. I’ll start this evening with a children’s author of European descent: Judith Kerr, writer, born in Berlin, 14th June 1923, died in London, 22nd May 2019.

She has a huge long list of books to her name, with one of the most popular being The Tiger Who Came to Tea, of 1968. The plot of this is that Sophie and her mother are at home one day when a “big, furry, stripy tiger” comes round, consumes everything in the house—including all Daddy’s beer and all the water in the tap –, then leaves, and they have to go out into the lamp-lit streets to a cafe for tea.

Over the years there has been much discussion about what this all means. Is it a cautionary, Red Riding Hood-esque tale; a satire on second-wave feminism and the constraints of the domestic; a parable about German history; just a story?

Kerr herself, as she describes in an autobiographical trilogy that I now find far too horrific to read to my own children, had to flee Germany with her brother, mother and father in 1933, eventually settling in England. They were Jewish, and her father, a theatre critic, was targeted for his political views.

In a detail that I like, Judith (in a 2017 interview with Simon Kuper in the Financial Times) notes that her perfectionist father, Alfred Kerr, continued to revise and improve his books, not only after they’d been signed off, done, and distributed, but after the Nazis had burned them in the streets. Which shows commendable resistance and determination, but makes me think that he must have been a nightmare for his editors wanting to go to print.

There’s another great detail about Alfred Kerr in the same interview: in 1948 he went back to Germany to write about theatre, seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sadly, later that night he suffered a stroke. A journalist found him on the floor of his hotel room and, while waiting for the ambulance, asked what had caused this. “It was not the performance,” said Kerr. “It was bad, but not that bad.”

I’m dwelling on the funny parts here, as much of the rest is so awful. To get back to the question, though, of what’s The Tiger about? Judith Kerr herself made a comment that stuck in my head. She says, and this is my text for this evening, “You know, it’s not really about a tiger.” There are two halves to this.

“Not really about a tiger” is fine; as readers, we are used to ambiguity, metaphor, suggestion. We don’t even need her to explain what, if not really a tiger, it really is. And she doesn’t! The half that I find more interesting is the very short lead-in, “you know.”

How’s she using these two words? It could be a verbal tag, just to draw her interlocutor on to the main clause. Like, “well,” or, “by the way,” or, “it’s, like, not really about a tiger.” It could be a retrospective use of “you know,” acknowledging that of course the reader already knows that it’s not really. You have been aware of this before our conversation. Or, it could be casting forward, an educational sort of “you know”: I want to explain, and I’m hereby doing so, so that from here on you will know. Pro-jective.

Or, she could be using the words in the sense of “it is self-evident that” this is not a tiger. Of course—it’s obvious. There’s a logical necessity. Everyone permanently knows. But everyone, especially bed-time story listeners, everyone doesn’t know; after all, it is about, it is a tiger.

I think her phrase “you know” does something rather different from all of these, which is hard to pin down but is something about establishing a community of readers. Her two words bring in all sorts of ideas about, when I am writing and you are reading in your head or with your child, when we’re all doing this, we can agree to believe something together, or to enjoy it, or think about it, even though we know it’s not true. We’ll share some background agreements, some knowledge that we have, enough to be able to read the book. I’ll assume that you are willing to believe with me that for thirty-six pages there is a tiger, even if it’s only a story, or if it isn’t a tiger. Whatever it might be about that’s not really a tiger, that’s ok, we’ve agreed to go with it. “You know” sets up all these concepts and . . . complicities, I think I’d call them.

And then, once I was trying to wrestle (as you can see with a great deal of unclarity) with these ideas of “you know, of course, we know,” with this suggestion of going along with something that is not quite spoken, I saw it in other places too.

I saw it in Robert Frost’s 1914 poem Mending Wall, about a farmer whose wall falls down every year, so the speaker has to walk the line and repair it, alongside his neighbour, who doesn’t articulate matters in the same way. The speaker, debating what causes the stones to fall, says,

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather

He said it for himself.

Great phrase, “not elves exactly”; would be a good band name. The speaker doesn’t say what “it” is. The poet doesn’t. No one does, but it’s not elves exactly. This is just where the reader comes in—what are we willing to believe, to construct, deduce, that it is? What knowledge would we agree to infer, to have in common, about the elves, or the wall, or the fictional speaker, the poem, the poet?

Or, I saw the same idea, of “you know”-ness, in a much less well-known poem by the Canadian poet P. K. Page. It’s “Photos of a Salt Mine” (in The Metal and the Flower of 1954). In this, the speaking voice is looking at these photos, of tiny, stick-men workers cavorting in the cold dark of a salt mine’s reservoirs, and says,

Except in the last picture,
it is shot
from an acute high angle. In a pit
figures the size of pins are strangely lit
and might be dancing but you know they're not.

They “might be dancing but you know they’re not.” Who knows they’re not—the speaking/writing voice; a person they’re addressing; me, the reader of the poem; a hazily pronouned, third-person floating consciousness; us, the readers, or us as a social group with the luck not to be ourselves travailing down in mines; some other us? You know they’re not, is all the voice says.

I like the way all of these examples use the negative: not a tiger, not elves, not dancing. I’m not sure which rhetorical device this is: it’s similar to apophasis, like “I won’t mention your previous misdemeanors,” or litotes, as in, “this is no mean city.” But, it’s not quite those . . .

Then as my final example, there’s North by Northwest (Hitchcock’s film of 1959), when Roger Thornhill, a charming ad-man, is caught up in a fiction he doesn’t understand. So there’s a scene at the airport in which the sort-of-CIA head honcho explains to him just what’s going on and what they want him to do, and crucially, why.

Aha, thinks the bewildered audience, now we’ll stop being so confused. (You’ll feel for them.) And at just the moment in the conversation when it should all become clear, Thornhill and the boss walk beside a plane whose noisy propellors drown out their voices. They carry on talking and walking, then come to the end of the tarmac and of the conversation, just as the plane noise stops and the voices are audible again, and we can see that everything has been made clear. Except! Because of the engine roar, we couldn’t hear; it’s still completely confusing what’s going on. To be fair, it’s a little clearer than before. But still deeply bewildering. It’s all been explained except that we, the audience, don’t really know, we’re still in the negative, the deficit column, for understanding.

It’s a hilarious scene, but also gets to the heart, I think, of many of Hitchcock’s films. Or all films. Or all literature.

We will, like Roger Thornhill, agree to go along with this fiction—he’s going to continue promulgating the misapprehension that he’s the agent George Kaplan, who doesn’t ever exist, not really. Well of course he doesn’t; they’re actors. But: Hitchcock could have had the audience hear the explanation, or he could have expositioned it to us some other way, or he could have cut away so there was no chance of us hearing. Instead, he lets us hear it, but, hear it drowned out by the noise that is an equal part of the scenario. And this is where the audience is . . . snookered, really: If we agree to immerse ourselves into the film, then we have to also agree that a plane engine might well obscure some dialogue from our ears. We’ve consented to take part, —in this community of audience, characters, actors, director—while being made all too loudly aware that we’re just playthings in the hands of the director. And, we don’t mind.

So, something that is inaudible, not there, not quite surfacing, but at the heart of the matter—we have Roger Thornhill’s explanation (or the non-existent Kaplan himself), or not elves exactly, or Judith Kerr’s not really about a tiger. We have anything else vital that might suddenly loom out of uncertainty or silence—or might not actually be there. Regular listeners will know what type of creature does this so well. Something’s lurking, but we’re sort of ignorant, we can’t quite hear it right.

But in the “you know,” we’re agreeing to go along anyway. That’s why it’s the important part of Kerr’s sentence, of her story book, of reading. You know—yes, I’ll agree to know, for now, in community with you who also knows. It might be a negative knowledge, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got. We’ll work with it. We’ll persist.

. . . that was my final Glue Factory roving report. Thanks to the Gluers, and to you, the Clam community of readers, for going along with the stories I’ve suggested, for agreeing to be “you know-ers.”

MM fleeing plant

Melissa McCarthy