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Goodbye Mog: why Judith Kerr killed the nation's favourite cat

Judith Kerr's creation, Mog
Judith Kerr's creation, Mog Credit:  harper collins

In 2002, the children's author Judith Kerr was signing books for her readers at Harrods when a little girl approached to tell her how much she loved Kerr's fictional cat Mog. "I suddenly thought, 'Oh dear what am I doing to her?'" recalled Kerr months later. What the author knew, and the little girl did not, was that - after 16 books and over three million copies sold - Mog was about to die. 

The Mog books, detailing the adventures of an ordinary house cat, were inspired on the pet that lived with Kerr, her screenwriter husband Thomas Nigel Kneale and their children Matthew and Tracy. “When Tom and I moved into our house, we acquired a rather eccentric cat called Mog," she once said. "She almost never meowed, but made wonderfully expressive faces instead.”

Mog's adventures were all drawn from Kerr's home life, and so it would prove with Goodbye Mog. "I just wanted to do something about dying," said Kerr of the 17th and final Mog book. "I'm 79 and one would be an idiot not to think about it at my age. And I just suddenly thought I must do something that nobody ever mentions too much. We've had eight cats and they're all buried in the garden now."

So many of us must have felt pangs of sadness hearing that Judith Kerr had died at the age of 95. This remarkable woman was an inspiring author and illustrator who created an array of children’s books that will be treasured as long as books are read.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which was published in October 1968, is one of the most beloved picture book stories of the past century. The story – about a young girl and her mother whose afternoon tea is interrupted by a giant feline – is a beguiling tale for readers of all ages. As former children’s Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen put it: “This surreal story never resolves who the tiger is, and it remains a perfect question for anyone aged from one to 101 to ponder.”

Judith Kerr with the original Mog

But the Mog books remain my favourites. The intimate, witty stories started with Mog the Forgetful Cat in 1970, when the fictional Thomas family pet won a medal for surprising a burglar. Goodbye Mog, published in October 2002, contains once of the most wrenching opening paragraphs ever written: “Mog was tired. She was dead tired. Her head was dead tired. Her paws were dead tired. Even her tail was dead tired. Mog thought, ‘I want to sleep for ever.’ And so she did.”

I read it with all my children when they were young and was struck by its intensely moving, funny treatment of bereavement. Reading it is like a literary rite of passage, a book that teaches young children about the difficult topic of death. This delicate story leaves a mark on anyone who has suffered loss.

Kerr was often asked why she stopped writing about Mog. "Well, I put a stop to it, as it were,” she told The Telegraph in 2011. “With Goodbye Mog I wanted to write about pets dying. Our garden is full of pet graves. I can't remember where they all are. There were cats, Guinea pigs, stick insects and lots of gold fish – lots of suicidal gold fish who used to leap out of their bowls on to the carpet."

Happier times: a scene from Mog's Christmas Credit: Kerr-Kneale Productions Ltd

Mog wasn’t perfect, of course. Literature's favourite cat sulked, was forgetful, caused trouble and sometimes suffered from jealousy. In 2011, I was fortunate to spend some time with Kerr at a Telegraph-sponsored festival of children’s literature in London called ‘WordUp! As well as chatting about music – we talked about her love of the 1940s singing duo Flanagan and Allen – I asked her about killing off Mog.

With characteristic humour, she joked about “how boring and time-consuming” it had been to draw all those stripes over and over again, explaining that Mog's fur was a multitude of carefully inked horizontal lines. “Sometimes I think I should have made her grey,” added Kerr, who had studied at London’s Central School of Art and Design.

At that 2011 festival, in an event chaired by author Penelope Lively, Kerr talked about her remarkable life. She described how her family had been forced to flee Hitler's Nazis in fear of their lives, first to Paris and then to England. Kerr’s Jewish father Alfred, one of Germany’s leading drama critics and screenwriters, was a vocal critic of the Nazis his criticism of the regime had put his life in grave danger. She wrote about these traumatic times in her book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a book she admitted that she had not been able to write until her parents had died.

Kerr was asked by a young fan how she had come up with the idea for The Tiger Who Came To Tea. She said that she had been sitting at home with her two-year daughter and making up a story because they were bored of waiting for someone to call round. "We just thought tigers were amazing, beautiful creatures – we didn't really consider the possibility that they would bite you.”

The final page of Goodbye Mog

Kerr was loved within the publishing industry. She was modest, glamourous and charming. She said that part of her daily routine was a lunchtime Martini Rosso on ice and an evening whisky. Back in 2011, she completed a book called My Henry, which was dedicated to her husband – the author of the Quatermass science-fiction series – who had died six years before. “We had an incredibly happy marriage for more than 50 years,” she said.

It is a sad, oddly heartening tale about an old lady who goes off on fantasy adventures with her dead husband. She firmly believed that you don't lose people in death. “I feel very strongly that people stay with you even after they are dead,” Kerr said. In My Henry, the couple do magnificent things – they ride a dinosaur, they hunt lions, they even have a jungle feast high in the trees with monkeys and parrots. "I like the idea of old ladies doing extraordinary things and having a good time,” said Kerr. “If you're in heaven, why not ride on a dinosaur?"

Kerr said when she reached her late 70s, she began thinking about the children and grandchildren she would eventually leave behind. “I just wanted to say: Remember. Remember me. But do get on with your lives.”

The last page of Goodbye Mog shows the feline looking down on her family as they bury her in the garden. "I was lovely," she says. Very true. As we get on with our lives, we'll always remember her.