Today, February 13, is the birthday of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear and author of his adventures, spanning the years 1958-2017. Bond died this past June at the age of 91, having experienced the relative privilege of long and consistent acclaim throughout his life. He first worked with illustrator Peggy Fortnum (1919-2016) and later with other artists, most recently R.W. Alley. The most obvious part of Paddington’s appeal is as a toy animal who embodies the most endearing, and occasionally frustrating, traits of a child. Previously a resident of Peru, before his guardian, Aunt Lucy had to move to the Home for Retired Bears, Paddington braved a dangerous journey to London as a stowaway. He is fortunately adopted by the compassionate Brown family, who succeed in acculturating him to life in Britain, but never quite completely enough to remove the element of surprise and a little embarrassment from their daily lives.
Three years ago, I read a moving piece by author Pico Iyer in The New York Times Book Review, in which he reminisced about being himself a young Indian immigrant to London, and how he identified with Paddington’s confusion. He even wrote Bond a fan latter, and received a kind response. Over the years, Paddington, like Iyer, became more acclimated to his surroundings, but there were always the moments when his naïve enthusiasm made him stand out. Paddington’s combination of insecurity, and yet conviction that the way he saw things was correct, makes his character accessible to children.
In his debut, A Bear Called Paddington, he is thrilled to be taken to the theater (theatre); he even prepares for the event by reading picture books, including one with “a big cut-out model of a stage which sprang up every time he opened the pages.” When he arrives at the theater, he is unprepared for the high price of the souvenir program, as well as for the ritual of being seated:
“He’d already sent a postcard to his Aunt Lucy with a carefully drawn copy of a plan of the theatre, which he’d found in one of Mr. Gruber’s books, and a small cross in one corner marked ‘MY SEET.’”
The Brown family is troubled by what seems to be Paddington’s excess friendliness towards fellow theatergoers, as well as by his carelessness with the marmalade sandwiches he always brings with him. “’Crikey!” said Jonathan. “It’s fallen on someone’s head!… It’s that man with the bald head. He looks jolly cross.’” (These Anglicisms became somewhat less frequent as the series became more successful and more popular in the U.S. It’s popularity even led to television shows and to a major film and a current sequel!)
In the last chapter of, sadly, Bond’s last book, published after his death, Paddington revisits the theater, this time to see a Variety Show reminiscent of classic British music hall entertainment. Since these shows declined in the twentieth century, it makes an appropriate farewell to Bond’s career. The ever-curious Paddington asks what a contortionist is and seems baffled by the explanation:
“Paddington considered the matter for a moment or two. Sometimes the things human beings did for pleasure seemed very strange to his way of thinking. ‘It seems a long way to come just to see someone turn himself into a corkscrew,’ he said.”
Ultimately, Paddington defeats a hypnotist intent on putting the bear into a suggestive state; Bond describes this theatrical surprise in biblical terms:
“For those who saw the parallel with David and Goliath it had undoubtedly been Paddington’s Finest Hour, and soon a small queue began to form so they were the last to leave the theatre.
‘It’s been a lovely birthday,’ he said, as they eventually drove out of the car park and the sound of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ faded into the distance. ‘Bears’ stares last for a long time, but they don’t last forever.’”
It may not be Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, and it may not even be Paddington’s finest literary moment, but it is certainly a fitting good-bye to Paddington’s creator. No need to remind us to please look after this bear.