Paddington at St. Paul’s – Michael Bond and R.W. Alley, Harper, 2018
The late Michael Bond (1926-2017) began writing in 1958 about a small bear who arrives at Paddington Station, London, as a vulnerable refugee from Peru. Fortunately, he finds a home with the generous and tolerant Brown family, who help to acclimate him to his new environment, while responding kindly to all his childlike mishaps and well-intentioned mistakes. This book was published posthumously, with illustrations by R.W. Alley, who has been interpreting Bond’s character for more than twenty years. Readers are lucky to have this book, reassuring evidence that Paddington lives on.
The book is quite British, since the plot builds on Paddington’s visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral as an enthusiastic tourist, in a kind of “staycation” which is friend, Mr. Gruber, plans for him. Things appear to be going more smoothly than previously for Paddington. For one thing, the cab driver who transports him is far more welcoming than his counterpart in the first Paddington picture book, who had gruffly warned him that “Bears is extra,” and, after noticing the results of a pastry accident, “Sticky bears is twice as much.” The driver who takes Paddington and Mr. Gruber to the Cathedral offers helpful historical background about their destination. (Note that, unlike in the earlier book, passengers wear seatbelts.)
The religious identity of St. Paul’s is virtually absent from the book. Instead, Bond describes the inclusive nature of the activity taking place there: schoolchildren lie on their backs in a circle observing the magnificent ceiling, families enjoy a snack in the tearoom, and a vertical two-page spread captures a bear’s eye view of the cathedral’s ornate architecture. However, this is a Paddington adventure, so you can be assured there will be a glitch in the plans for an uneventful trip.
On the way to the shop to buy postcards for his Aunt Lucy, who presumably still lives in Lima’s Home for Retired Bears, Paddington accidentally merges into a crowd of choirboys preparing to practice. More confused than frightened, especially by the musical score, on which “someone must have spilled some ink because it’s covered all over in black spots,” in loco parentis Mr. Gruber helps to iron everything out.
Paddington’s resilience in this story is, as always, inspiring. After all, how many characters could progress so quickly from the wistful, “I’m not sure they were very impressed with my arpeggios,” to “It was such a splendid outing I don’t think I’m going to manage to fit it all onto one card.” Won’t Aunt Lucy be surprised!