(Peter Trimming, August 2015)
When he arrived alone in London in 1958, the label attached to Paddington Bear’s coat politely requested that he be looked after. Well, he certainly has been. The bear from Peru has secured a very comfortable place on the book shelves of children’s literature. The recent death of his creator Michael Bond at the age of 91 inspired warm tributes and gratitude from fans across the world.
A unique figure among the well-known animal and child characters of other books, he combines the curiosity of Enid Blyton’s more mischievous youngsters with the vivacity and inadvertent wisdom of Rudyard Kipling’s Baloo.
Like Paddington, his creator Michael Bond was a polymath. A BBC cameraman, script-writer and radio buff, Bond quite liked being a writer, and inquisitiveness was a characteristic he passed on to Paddington. Troubles befall the bear which are inadvertently caused by his own stubborn curiosity and determination to try new things.
Despite his simply lovable exterior, Paddington is complex. He wants to be useful and “grown up”, yet desperately desires a quintessential British childhood. He is both a foster bear who effortlessly plays the part of the new child in the nuclear family, and an immigrant. In both roles he is a wide-eyed tourist in post-war London and a guest who has to prove himself worthy of his hosts. His stories engage with questions of social integration as well as offering witty commentary on domestic life.
The child “played” by the animal (in order to avoid the expectation that he will grow up and leave the comfortable Brown family) is also the social outsider. It is this dual identity that makes Paddington distinctive.
His stories have plenty of features which set them apart from other books about talking animals. One key element is that the books are set in the big city of London, rather than the lush rural locations of Wind in the Willows or The Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, or the imaginary landscape of Alice in Wonderland.
Paddington is part of the modern human world. His bear characteristics are reduced to a restricted (if inappropriate) diet, the annoyance of having fur (especially when close to cream buns) and a lack of respect for neighbourly boundaries.
His experiences present us with a sharply drawn slice of 20th-century middle-class life. The Browns take Paddington to a department store, to restaurants, and on holiday. Unlike another classic of this period, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the exotic animal character becomes part of the family – and part of English society.
The books might even be said to communicate anxieties about that society’s loss of imperial prestige. Bond originally described the bear as being from “darkest Africa” and changed the location to Peru only when his editor pointed out that bears are extinct in Africa.
This adjustment for the sake of accuracy (in a book about a bear who eats Marmalade sandwiches and wears clothes) makes more sense when seen as both an implicit recognition of colonial anxiety and a reference to the post-war commitment of helping refugees and those displaced from their homes. In the late 1950s many African nations (including Kenya and Uganda) were fighting for independence from European rule, while Commonwealth citizens were unhappy with the lack of recognition given to their wartime efforts on behalf of Britain.
Britain’s loss of influence through the Suez Crisis in 1956 meant the dissolution of most colonies in the early 1960s seemed inevitable. I am not suggesting that Bond had geopolitics in mind when writing these stories. But had Paddington been from Africa, a place with deep historical links to the UK through colonialism, his baggage might have been heavier and posed a greater risk to the comfort of Bond’s readers.
A very wise bear
The books are, after all, keen to show the benefits of humanitarian commitment. Bond was inspired to give Paddington his label and suitcase by images of child evacuees leaving London to escape the Blitz. The character of Mr Gruber is a Hungarian immigrant whose alliance with Paddington suggests the author’s enthusiasm for a cosmopolitan Britain in which difference is valued.
After travelling all the way from Peru in a lifeboat, Paddington is clearly in need of assistance, yet he is neither displaced from his home by violence or persecution, nor in possession of a valid visa. According to current immigration laws, he would be sent back to Peru. Perhaps I am reading too much into this favourite children’s book. But Michael Bond’s subtlety as a writer allows us to do exactly this without denying the appeal of (and nostalgia for) the easily mended mishaps of childhood.
For Paddington, things work out even when his situation appears precarious. His adventures bring him into contact with all kinds of social, technological and political changes, including the interest in spying and undercover detective work that came with the Cold War and appears in Paddington Turns Detective in which he investigates the disappearance of a prize marrow.
Yet Paddington doesn’t worry about the future – he trusts in the safety of the present. He’s settled into his new home – far from his arbitrary origins in Peru, but being well looked after and with much to offer his new generations of young fans.