This is not my story. This is Lizzie’s story.
The children’s section of the Waterstones bookshop in Oxford is located down-most-stairs. It is hiding in the basement, concealing treasures. Most of the books are recently-published texts by new authors, but there are also shelves and tables assigned to classics. Beatrix Potter has a section, as do A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Roald Dahl. The biggest and most obvious of displays is permanently dedicated to Harry Potter, the bestselling invention of J. K. Rowling. The Michael Bond books about Paddington Bear occupy one of the central aisles, but migrate to a table during high season — summer is the time when Oxford is crowded with tourists on the look-out for the most British souvenirs, and when parents are trying to occupy their suddenly school-free offspring.
Lizzie would often be stationed in the children’s section, as she was found entirely trustworthy by enquiring customers, which was naturally reflected in the sales figures. One day a little old lady came to the shop. She spent some time looking at different titles, while Lizzie was trying to unobtrusively hover around. (There is an art to successfully determining whether the customer needs help or if they are browsing. Manny from Black Books learned that the hard way.)
The little old lady seemed slightly confused, and so Lizzie decided to approach her. It turned out, the customer was looking for the Paddington books. ‘Oh, of course, we do have them,’ said Lizzie and pointed the lady to a nearby table.
As a dedicated bookseller, Lizzie wanted to help the best she could, and so she asked the visitor, ‘What age is the child?’ Waterstones have various editions of Paddington’s adventures, and so it was possible to suggest something for young as well as more advanced readers.
‘Oh no,’ replied the little old lady. ‘These are for me.’
Through bad luck the lady had never come across the stories about Paddington Bear as a child. She found them decades later, while reading to her granddaughter, and was positively delighted. She started her own collection of the books, discovering one brilliant title (A Bear in Hot Water, 1958) after another (The Case of the Doubtful Dummy, 1970). ‘After all, isn’t he so charming?’ pointed she out, explaining her circumstances.
This is Lizzie’s story, and when Lizzie tells it, she takes a pause here, looks at you with a slight smile and says, ‘And isn’t he just?’
Paddington Bear was created by Michael Bond in 1956, after he had purchased a small toy bear as a Christmas present for his wife Brenda. The toy had been left sitting on a shelf on its own, and Bond felt sorry for it. The bear got named Paddington, after the station near the couple’s home, and over the first days of 1957 Michael Bond wrote stories which provided Paddington’s background: he was a spectacled bear ‘from the darkest Peru’ sent to London by his Aunt Lucy.
I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young.
Michael Bond, as quoted in ‘The Bear & His Creator’
The first collection of Paddington’s adventures was published in 1958, with thirteen sequels and many more stories to follow. The books have been translated and adapted for television and film, selling millions of copies, encouraging politeness — as well as production of marmalade, bright duffel coats, and Wellington boots.
When the news broke that Michael Bond had passed away this Tuesday, at the age of 91, the loss resonated with generations of kids. Londoners have been bringing bouquets and jars of marmalade to the bronze statue of the bear erected at Paddington Station in 2000. There is a gentle melancholy about that place at the moment, a wistful combination of memories and stories that have grown real, becoming a part of a shared literary culture.
I grew up in Saint Petersburg, familiar with some British children’s books, but not others. I read about Peter Pan, and Alice, and Rat and Mole, and Winnie-the-Pooh, yet never about Paddington. I am not sure I knew of him — at least, not properly, not until I moved to Britain in 2012, and not until I celebrated Christmas with Sam’s family in 2015. We watched the feature film about Paddington on Christmas Day, and it was 95 minutes of magic, underlined by cups of tea and blankets. It was this magnificent snow-globe double experience: I saw a lost bear find his home in London, while I myself was surrounded by a welcoming adoptive family. From the screen I heard, ‘Mrs Brown says that in London everyone is different, and that means anyone can fit in.’
Upon his arrival to the country, Paddington was an illegal immigrant. This is something that Michael Bond was very aware of, producing Paddington Here and Now in 2007. In that book Paddington gets detained at a police station as an undocumented refugee, in a plotline that comes uncomfortably close to the sensationalist titles of current newspapers.
Originally based off the images of child evacuees leaving London during the Second World War, Paddington is not a crystallised emblem of one’s nostalgia. He is a living reminder that there are lost people (and bears) who need looking after. In post-Brexit Britain, Paddington stands for diversity and acceptance, with his excessive politeness being not a mark of manners or ‘proper’ education, but of kindness.
Michael Bond created a character whose wisdom and habits were unconventional, but made absolute sense once you got to know his history. As said in this very well-written obituary published by The Guardian, Paddington came to be ‘a benign signifier of welcomed migration’. In other words, his stories tell you how wonderful life can be once everyone is accepted for just who they are, where they are.
One day soon I shall wander into a bookshop and ask where they keep their Paddington stories. ‘Oh no,’ I shall reply when asked what age the child is. ‘These are for me.’
Current album: Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister, Planetarium
Current book: Mark Lawrence, The Red Sister
Current TV series: The Handmaid’s Tale, Series 1 (2017)