The BBC has a short article on the background to Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It quotes another children’s author, who suggests that some of the imagery stems from Kerr’s experience as a little girl whose family fled from the Nazis (tigers, like Nazis, are dangerous). This seems to me improbable – the tiger is hungry, but genial, and little Sophie embraces him. But what I’ve always liked about the book when reading it to my children is the ordinary world into which the tiger irrupts. You can tell a lot about the political economy of 1950s or 1960s middle class life in a London flat from reading it. It’s a world where the milkman still comes around every day, and the grocer has a delivery boy. But it’s also a world where a moderately hungry tiger can quickly consume all the food in the flat (the pictures suggest that the cupboard shelves are rather bare) – the grocery’s delivery boy can carry everything that he needs to in the basket mounted on the front of his bicycle, because there isn’t much to carry. Perhaps most strange from the perspective of a modern American child, there’s a limited supply of water – the tiger has drunk so much from the tap that Sophie cannot have a bath.
This isn’t nearly as strange to me, or Irish people of my generation, as I suspect it is to most middle class Americans. I grew up in a professional family, but many of the things that Americans take for granted (and, as best as I can tell from TV, novels etc, took for granted back then too) would have seemed like the most sybaritic of luxuries. Britain was somewhat better off, obviously, but not by much. David Lodge’s comic novel, Changing Places plays up some of the differences between the material standards of living in the US and Britain for comic effect, but he really doesn’t have to exaggerate much (when I was a child, we lived for a year in a flat in Darlington – much of what he describes is familiar). The life I have today would have been unimaginable to me as a child, or even a teenager. Which is all a roundabout way of getting towards saying that ordinary life in the US today, for people who are middle class or higher is a life of extraordinary material abundance, even from the perspective of other Western nations in recent memory. If you’re one of the people enjoying this life, you likely have a great deal to be grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving.