Paddington Bear

A charming and perceptive piece from Sunday’s NYT Book Review : “Please Look After This Bear” by Pico Iyer, about the Paddington Bear books, which Iyer sees as (among other things) social commentary. The beginning:

When Paddington Bear landed in London in 1958, it was still quite a provincial place. Safe, settled, a little gray — no sign of the Beatles or the swinging ’60s yet — it upheld the ceremonial proprieties immortalized in [the film] “Brief Encounter” and [the book] “84, Charing Cross Road.” Men wore ties to dinner, women skirts; the post-nuclear nightmares and beatnik explosions of America were barely visible on occasional television screens. Yes, the likes of the Trinidad-born novelist Samuel Selvon were beginning to give voice to other realities in works like “The Lonely Londoners,” but if a British family’s name was Brown, you could be fairly sure its skin was not.

(Iyer’s piece is not a celebration of a Paddington anniversary — unless 53 is some new round number I hadn’t heard about — but a warm appreciation of the books, possibly as a section of a book Iyer is working on.)

So Paddington stood out, quite dramatically, when he entered the Brown household with his battered suitcase and picture of his poncho-clad Aunt Lucy, back in “Darkest Peru.” And he stood out especially because his world, unlike that of Winnie-the-Pooh or Peter Rabbit, was principally the world of humans. And not just children, as in Snoopy’s universe, but full-blown, inscrutable adults: Paddington has to take on and win over flesh-and-blood taxi drivers and concierges. As he tries to master the confounding laws of middle-class English life, he could be playing out the title of a book produced by another brilliantly comical foreigner of the postwar years, George Mikes’s “How to Be an Alien,” which puts Britain in its place with a flurry of mischievous one-liners.

The Mikes book is wonderful, by the way. And Iyer lets you see how the Paddington books, like many great children’s books, might appeal to adults as well as children. A toy Paddington:

Iyer then moves into personal recollection:

I came into the world in Oxford, about 50 miles from Paddington’s Windsor Gardens, a year before he arrived, and I was probably the only person in the neighborhood who didn’t notice that I was small and brown and foreign, my parents having moved from Bombay a few years before. But instantly I knew I had a friend — even a role model — in the amiable, duffel-coated figure wandering Paddington Station wearing the sign, “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.” When, eight years later, my parents moved to California and I started flying back by myself to school in Britain, anyone spotting my dark, diminutive, rather grubby figure alone in Heathrow, cradling a large suitcase, might reasonably have assumed she was spotting the lost bear’s cousin.

The stories of the bear’s adventures bounce along with a Wodehousian lightness and consistency; Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, was a cameraman for the BBC, and he knew how to keep the action moving and not to tamper with a golden formula. Yet Bertie Wooster’s antagonists are generally meddlesome aunts, where Paddington’s are the British Isles themselves. And where Bertie can afford to do nothing, as to the manner born, Paddington has to work quite hard to understand why a snooty headwaiter at the Porchester might take it amiss when he starts drinking from a finger bowl.

The author of the more than twenty Paddington books, Michael Bond, born 1/13/26, is still alive, I am pleased to hear.

4 Responses to “Paddington Bear”

  1. Chris Ambidge Says:

    There is a new movie on Paddington arriving in London from Darkest Peru (and his adventures with the Brown family) being released very soon in NAmerica. That’s probably the prompt for Iyer’s article. Here’s the trailer for the Paddington movie:

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The movie’s now out in the U.S. and has gotten a mostly positive review from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker (January 19th), though he’s not entirely comfortable with Nicole Kidman — or anyone — as the villain of the piece: “villainy feels out of whack with the Paddington myth, which is remarkable for its lack of threat.”

  2. JJM Says:

    Whatever it might have been in 1958, London was hardly “provincial”.

    Market Harborough? Leeds? Lower Slaughter? Sure.

    But London? The capital? Come off it, there were eight million people in Greater London even then.

    And a lot was going on. Just because it wasn’t yet the age of Carnaby Street doesn’t mean the whole city was some sort of over-extended Little-Dibley-on-Pokey.

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