“A bear? On Paddington station?” Mrs Brown looked at her husband in amazement. “Don’t be silly, Henry. There can’t be!”
In general, I am inclined to agree with Mrs Brown: There can’t be a bear on Paddington Station. Then again, as I know all too well from personal experience, alas, Paddington Station can be a bewildering and terrifying place. Which means, I suppose, that if you are going to find a bear on a train station anywhere in the world, it might well be this one. Perhaps especially if the bear in question is—gasp—a stowaway from Darkest Peru, carefully tagged with “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
Certainly, someone has to look after this bear, however polite he is, and equally certainly, those someones are going to be the first family that happen to encounter him, the Browns. And given the bewildering nature of Paddington Station, and the bear’s own apparent belief that most people are inherently good, it’s perhaps not surprising that the bear immediately takes up the first available invitation he gets to leave the place, and happily agrees to drop his incomprehensible name and instead become known as A Bear Called Paddington.
Author Michael Bond later noted that Paddington was vaguely based on a toy bear that he had purchased for his wife who had, in his words, become “part of the family.” Somewhat later, Bond realized that “if I didn’t put something down on the blank sheet of paper in my typewriter nobody else would,” and, using the toy for inspiration, wrote a story, and then another. The stories came quickly: Bond claimed he had a finished book of seven stories within ten working days.
The speed probably stemmed at least partly from the fact that nearly everything in the book came directly from Bond’s life. Well, maybe not the talking bear part—although Bond always claimed that Paddington was real to him, so, maybe. But the rest, certainly: Paddington lives more or less in the same place that Bond did, shops at the same stores that Bond did, and goes to the same theatres, banks and beaches that Bond did. Mr and Mrs Brown, who adopt him, are loosely based on Bond’s parents.
Bond also later commented that Paddington is somewhat based on his father, or specifically his father’s habit of always politely removing his hat, one of Paddington’s defining characteristics. This, along with Bond’s confession that Mr. Brown—arguably the most inept of the adults surrounding Paddington, if also the first adult to see Paddington in the train station and realize that Paddington is a bear—gives me a certain image of Michael Bond’s father, but moving on.
The point is, this means that the only fantastical element of the Paddington books is that they feature a talking bear.
And that’s it. Everything else is rooted in reality. Paddington deals with real elevators, real bathtubs, real people, and real money (his outrage about West End theatre prices does not feel at all dated). And best of all, everyone he encounters just accepts the fact that they are interacting with a talking bear.
Oh, various minor characters are certainly startled to see a bear, or discover that Paddington is a bear. But they are never surprised to see that the bear in question can talk, let alone shop, eat, take elevators (not all that successfully), take baths (ditto), paint (a surprising success), and so on. Which is not to say that Paddington finds universal acceptance: quite a few people he encounters do not like bears, and do not hesitate to make this dislike clear. And more than once a character questions the idea of allowing Paddington to do something with the phrase, “A bear?” (Said doubts usually turn out to be justified.)
But the existence of a talking bear? Never. And so I never questioned it either.
(Where exactly these people learned to dislike bears, given that even in the Paddington books, London does not exactly seem filled with talking bears, is a good question. Maybe they are dealing with lingering resentment over Britain’s other famous talking bear—coming up in a later reread.)
Take the opening sequence. Mr Brown, waiting at Paddington Station with his wife to pick up their kids from school, sees a bear with a funny kind of hat. The only thing about this that Mr and Mrs Brown question? The bear. Not that the bear is perfectly polite, comes from Peru, speaks fluent English, somehow survived a trip on a lifeboat clear across the Atlantic with only a single jar of marmalade, and ended up in a London train station having somehow entirely missed the seaside on the way.
It takes only a few minutes for Mrs Brown to decide that of course they must take the bear home—after all, they can’t just leave a bear at a train station—and to call him Paddington after the station, which sounds quite distinguished, for a bear. The bear approves. It takes only a few more minutes for poor Mr Brown to suffer his first bout of extreme Paddington-related embarrassment, as Paddington devours a sticky bun in a rather messy fashion. But since their children think that having a bear in the household sounds important, and since Mrs Bird, their housekeeper, likes the idea of having a bear in the house, Paddington is allowed to stay. Especially since Mr Brown never does find out the full story of Paddington’s first bath in the Brown household.
Of course, they haven’t quite counted on Paddington’s propensity for getting into trouble.
This is the setup for what would more or less be the remainder of the series: Paddington, with the best possible intentions, tries to do something, it goes epically, epically, wrong, and yet, somehow or other, Paddington ends up on top—very on top. In this first book, some of this “on top” only means “avoiding arrest,” but even here, the pattern is clear: Paddington’s disaster in a shop window earns him a huge jar of marmalade; a painting incident turns into a painting prize (and a joke at the expense of modern painters); a confrontation with an actor ends up earning Paddington a pair of opera glasses.
It’s played, of course, for humor, and portions of this book are laugh out loud funny for both children and grownups, especially the bits where Bond pokes fun at artist and theatre acquaintances. But there’s also quite a bit of wish fulfillment going on here: the idea that our huge mistakes can turn into our greatest triumphs, a trick Paddington pulls off again and again, is a very soothing one—even if somehow, it seems to work better for bears than for humans.
Other highlights of this first book: the introduction of the almost otherworldly knowledge of Mrs Bird (exactly how did she know that bears from Peru like marmalade?); Paddington’s great friend, the elderly, wise and scrupulously polite Mr Gruber, who always keeps cocoa and buns on hand for needy bears; mean neighbor Mr Curry (not quite as awful—yet—in this book, but still the sort of person who would—gasp—lie to a bear! If it helps any, the other characters are as shocked and upset about this as you are.) If you need to be cheered up, and have a higher tolerance for bears than Mr Curry does, it’s well worth a read.
Note: Given that the Paddington books tend to be more short story collections than novels, and given that Michael Bond wrote an awful lot of them—26, if Wikipedia is accurate—rather than attempting to get through all 26 Paddington books, I’ll only be reading random books, to see how—and if—Paddington has changed through the years.
So far, I must say that Paddington has a very timeless feel, since nearly everything that Paddington does in 1958 is more or less the same thing Paddington could do in 2014. Oh, certainly, no one in the book uses the internet or has a cell phone, and there’s a striking use of cash instead of credit cars, and the West End prices Paddington rants about seem (sadly enough) unbelievably cheap in comparison to today. But otherwise, the only real sense that this is a 1950s book comes from a throwaway line from Mrs Bird when the housekeeper announces that she’ll be listening to the wireless, rather than, say, watching television or surfing the net. We’ll see how things change in the future—and also possibly take a look at Paddington, Mr Gruber, and immigration.
Mari Ness is not ashamed to admit that she owns not one, but two, Paddington Bears, and yes, she and her cats are looking after them.