A Financially Minded Bear: Paddington at Work

At first glance, the title Paddington at Work (1966) might seem just a little misleading, and not just because it’s rather difficult to imagine the accident prone bear from Darkest Peru managing to settle down to full time work.  No, the real issue is that as the book starts, Paddington is a passenger on a cruise ship, which is more or less the antithesis of work, something the bear continues to do for the first couple of chapters.

And it’s a good thing the bear has a chance for a bit of a rest—even if it’s the sort of rest interrupted by possible hallucinations, encounters with ship entertainers, and cries of “Bear Overboard!” Because for the rest of the book, Paddington is going to be focused on a new concern: money, making the title feel rather appropriate after all.

As in Paddington Abroad, the seven short stories in Paddington at Work follow a loosely connected narrative. Paddington manages to earn a rather large sum—one hundred pounds and twenty pence—thanks to an improbable series of events involving marmalade sandwiches, glue, a Beau Brummel costume and hypnotism—in other words, the sort of events that only seem to happen to Paddington. Naturally, the practical minded bear intends to put the money safely in the bank—after buying some presents for the Browns, of course. Unfortunately, he just happens to be stopped by a man who claims to be selling shares for the Portobello Oil Company. If you’ve never heard of this company….well, there’s a reason. This, naturally, results in further hijinks—and an ominous visit from Scotland Yard detectives who very much want to talk to the bear.

That escapade eventually leads to Paddington’s decision that he needs to find employment—though not before a small escapade with nasty next door Mr. Curry.  (This particular chapter, carefully built up so that young readers can figure out the truth before Paddington does, for once allows both characters to come out on top—which I must admit is not really the outcome I want for Mr Curry. So I grumbled.)  The job he finds—at a local barbershop—does not, alas, go all that well; the main lesson we can all take from this is never let a bear cut your hair, especially if—but no, that would be spoilery. That appears to be enough employment for one book, although he almost—almost—becomes a ballet dancer in the last chapter.

But the deep concern over earning money is something a bit different for Paddington. As a practical minded bear, Paddington, of course, had always been interested in money. He had even earned bits and pieces of money here and there—generally by accident—and occasionally taken on odd jobs by mistake, earning some additional bits of money. And, as far back as the first book, the generous Browns had not only taken him into their home, but offered him the same weekly pocket money that their human children received.

But his primary interest had always been in what various things cost: as Mrs Bird noted, as far back as book one, Paddington had always had a nose for a bargain, and nearly every Paddington book contains at least one scene where Paddington—or, perhaps, Michael Bond through Paddington—had loudly complained about the high costs of things.

To an extent, a similar drive sparks his interest in finding a job—Paddington remains upset about the Portobello Oil Company deal, which, despite leading to praise from Scotland Year (not known for lavishing praise on bears), also cost him a couple of actual pennies (in the sense of lost interest.) For a penny pinching bear, this is quite an issue, and as Bond notes, Paddington very much wants to make up for this loss.

But something else is going on here: an attempt to shift Paddington ever so slightly into more of an adult role.

In some respects, Paddington, from the beginning, does occupy an adult role: he travels alone, is often politely called Mr Brown, and is assumed to be capable of his running his own affairs—an amusing assumption in itself, given Paddington’s invariable tendency to get into trouble.  He’s even given control of certain family and financial situations: he does the household shopping for Mrs Bird, for instance, especially after she discovers his gift for bargaining, and he’s put in charge of the itinerary for the trip. His best friend is the elderly Mr Gruber, who treats him with the greatest respect. Outside his family, he is generally treated as an adult—even as characters and the text modify this with the term “young bear.” In several stories, he even takes on an adult role without question—as when various minor characters mistake him for a very furry surgeon.

But in other respects, Paddington is most distinctly not an adult. Initially, this is in part thanks to his ignorance about London—he knows nothing about escalators, for instance, or shop windows.  His tendency to take words completely literally, or misunderstand adult conversation, also places him in more of a child role. He also, it must be confessed, is not usually the sort of bear that you would want to give major responsibilities to.  In this book, it becomes clear that he knows about as much about the Stock Exchange as Jonathan and Judy—that is, not very much.  Although against this, Paddington does display an impressive adult knowledge of antiques, a knowledge he is shocked that American tourists don’t share.  And, of course, he never does really learn to spell, though to be fair, Paddington is hardly the only speaker of English who has difficulties spelling the language, old or young. (I have to plead guilty here.)

But this status is made clear in other ways. For instance, in the Brown household, adults Mr Brown, Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird are always addressed by last names, with proper titles; Judy, Jonathan and Paddington are called by first names.  Paddington, as noted, gets pocket money, like the other children, and Mrs Brown buys clothes for him. Although he does the household shopping, the Browns never suggest that he take on a full time job or contribute to the household income, apparently just assuming that they will take care of him financially until—until whenever.   (This never seems to be a problem for the distinctly middle class Browns, who are well off enough to afford occasional holidays and luxuries.)  And of course, he was first found on a train station wearing a label—like a refugee child.

Then again, he never has to go to school.

Part of this uneasy dichotomy is, of course, because Paddington is a bear, and thus not easily placed into an adult or child role. And part of this is to allow Bond to shift Paddington between the adult and child perspectives without difficulty—or indulge in his need to gently satirize various adult institutions through the perspective of an outsider bear.  And in this book, Bond uses Paddington’s desire for a job to make some pointed jabs at employers—as well as, of course, have some fun with the idea of a bear trying to work at a barbershop.

The book has another minor theme: good help is hard to find.  Mr Gruber, the barber and Mr Curry all have problems finding qualified labor—one reason two of them turn to a bear. To be fair, the text strongly hints that, in the case of the barber and Mr Curry, the issue is that they are too cheap to provide proper wages, and in the case of Mr Gruber, the issue is that his shop isn’t bringing in enough money to allow him to hire a qualified assistant—while at the same time busy enough to need a qualified assistant, an age old problem with small businesses.

Gideon Smith amazon buy linkIt’s also, as with all the Paddington books, a lot of fun. And while the outcome may never be in doubt, it’s always amusing to see how Paddington gets there.

 


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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