It says something that it took me four books to reach the first archetypal Paddington book in this reread. Whether that’s about me, or the mostly random process of picking which Paddington book to read, I don’t know.
But in any case, here we are, with Paddington Takes the Test (1979): finally, a classic Paddington book containing seven unrelated short stories about the little accident prone bear from Darkest Peru. How does it hold up against the Paddington books that were, if not exactly novels, at least leaning towards that direction?
Only one of these stories, the first, has anything to do with the title. It’s one of the most meandering tales in the collection, starting, as it does, with Paddington’s well intentioned but failed attempt to win a new car for Mr. Brown which—as things do—leads to Paddington taking a driver’s test despite having absolutely no idea how to drive and being just a touch too short to reach the clutch, which does make shifting gears just a touch tricky. This also gives Michael Bond the opportunity to complain about the ambiguity of roadside warning signs (Paddington thinks the sign for “Roadworks Ahead” looks exactly like someone opening an umbrella, and I must say the bear has a point), and leaves readers in a bit of suspense when—for two dreadful pages—it looks as if the entire incident might land Paddington into quite a bit of trouble indeed.
The overall lesson from this: never let a bear drive your car.
But there’s a surprising, smaller lesson from this: for once, the happy resolution is not because Paddington’s massive screw-ups have led to an unexpected and beneficial direction, but because an adult has decided to, shall we say, adjust things. Paddington isn’t in real trouble—he pretty much never is—but he also doesn’t quite enjoy the triumphs of early stories, a pattern that for the most part holds true in the rest of the stories, with two exceptions.
The rest of the book features Paddington’s usual adventures: a trip to one of England’s Stately Homes, with a very good explanation for just why Elizabeth the First chose to spend only a single night at that particular estate; Paddington’s attempt at a modeling career; a trip to a pantomime; and not one, but three run-ins with Mr. Curry—the third of which comes dangerously close to causing actual harm to the parsimonious neighbor. I suppose I should feel sorry for the elderly man, but given that Mr. Curry’s only redeeming moment in the entire book occurs in a separate story, when he’s shamed into—gasp—sharing his winnings with Paddington, I’m very afraid that I ended up laughing. I know this makes me a Very Bad Person, but look, Mr. Curry is mean to bears. To well-meaning bears. And he almost ruins Mr. Brown’s birthday present. So pity isn’t my major emotion here.
The stories are, as I noted, very loosely linked, when linked at all—with perhaps a sentence mentioning the previous story, if that. About the only consistent theme—and I’m stretching here—is, once again, money. It’s not exactly the overwhelming concern that it was in previous books, but it does show up in four different stories, and Paddington, as always, is eager to earn a little extra cash—if, in this case, for slightly different reasons. Here, he isn’t trying to earn an income, but to solve immediate needs.
For one, the family is eager to replace Mr. Brown’s car—although, to be fair, this stems more from Mr Brown’s unwillingness to replace the ancient, temperamental vehicle than from any real financial concerns on the Browns’ side. As always, the Browns seem comfortably off, if not extremely wealthy; later in the book they are able to purchase a sauna for their back garden and hire two men to install it, for instance, and they continue to employ Mrs Bird—although, again to be fair, Paddington eats a lot of marmalade sandwiches, and it is possible—probable, now that I think about it—that making enough marmalade sandwiches for him is an at least two person job.
But Paddington has other needs beyond marmalade sandwiches. That home for retired bears in Lima, Peru, always seems to be in dire need of cash no matter how many charitable donations it gets, and of course, Paddington also has to buy things in London, including a birthday gift for Mr. Brown. Which is a bit of a problem: as the book later notes, the costs of buns keep going up, and he hasn’t received an increase in pocket money since his arrival at the Browns. That may not seem like much until you remember that Paddington arrived in London in 1958, and it is now—according to the copyright date in this book—1979, which is a very long time to go without a raise, even leaving aside the massive inflation of the 1970s.
Since I don’t want to leave any of you worried about the bear, I will go ahead and spoil this: yes, he gets an increase in pocket money. But that marks another change: in previous books, Paddington’s various adventures had allowed him to earn or win—always by accident—fairly substantial sums of money, some of which he invests, some of which he spends, and some of which ends up heading towards those poor bears in Peru. Here, his “win” is to become still more of a dependent.
This and a few other tidbits here and there represent what’s almost a setback in the bear’s development. In previous books, as I noted, Paddington tended to straddle the line between child and adult, never completely part of one world or the other, but—as the books continued—leaning slightly more towards adult.
Here, Paddington most definitely regresses to child mode—and not just because of his complete failure to earn an adult driver’s license or because the book establishes that his income is completely dependent on Mr Brown. His initial employment in this book, for instance, comes through the Boy Scouts as part of a charity program. Volunteers are paid fifty cents per chore and earn a sticker for every chore performed to satisfaction. It’s great—for the charity—but it’s been set up for kids, not adults, in contrast to previous Paddington outings (painting, the Tour de France) where the bear competed with adults. His “adult” job in this book involves not creativity or physical labor, trying to stand completely still as an artist’s model. He can’t do it, and flees—and in another change, gets nothing from that job, another suggestion that he is not part of the adult world here. His help comes from Mr Gruber.
It’s one of many times that Mr Gruber comes to his rescue during this book. Mr Gruber had done so before this, of course, and the antique dealer had always been a source of excellent advice. But somehow, the relationship feels somewhat changed here—more of a grandfather to a child than two immigrants to London sharing conversations about travel and antiques over cocoa and biscuits.
And the book regresses in other senses as well. There is a touch—maybe more than a touch—of repetition in this book. For instance, a certain incident with Paddington’s Wellington boots and that elegant dish called Beef Wellington is strongly reminiscent of an earlier escape involving baked elastic, except this time with a lot more discussion of Elizabeth I. The expedition to the pantomime bears quite a bit of resemblance to Paddington’s earlier trip to the theatre and to a certain incident involving a cruise ship entertainer. And in a more subtle sign of fatigue, Mr Curry appears three times in this book, significant since Michael Bond later admitted that he used Mr Curry whenever he felt stuck for a Paddington story—Mr Curry can always manage to get something to go wrong for Paddington.
It perhaps explains why Michael Bond was soon to take a very lengthy break from Paddington, apart from occasional picture books, to focus on his other creations.
Still, even a lesser, regressive Paddington book is, as Paddington would say, very good value indeed. Especially when read with a proper cup of hot cocoa.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.