I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop in Penrith and only just managed to contain a whoop of excitement. I have been a fan of He Who Wears the Duffle Coat for as long as I remember – literally. I remember pretending to be him in my blue cord coat which according to my mother I grew out of when I was two. I had the audio cassette – more than one in fact – and even my own version of the bear himself. This year I have a frankly amazing advent calendar which has a Paddington related sticker behind each window. Still, I am not entirely sure that I have ever read the book all the way through so this was a read that was more than overdue.
As any fool knows, Paddington joined the Brown family when they visited the station of the same name – Mr and Mrs Brown were there to collect their daughter Judy who was home from school for the holidays. Paddington
was sitting on top of his suitcase,waiting for something to happen, and around his neck was a label written by his Aunt Lucy with the immortal words “Please Look After This Bear“. The rest, as they say, is history.
In terms of British attitudes towards immigrants, it might be fair to say that this story is atypical. The Brown family do mull over the pros and cons of bringing a bear to live with them, but it’s a cursory discussion at best – they all know that he belongs with them. He gets his own room and the very next day they take him out shopping to make sure that he’s fully kitted out (enter the duffle coat, as well as a raincoat for the summer).
So many of the set pieces have become true classics – Paddington’s first trip to the cafe where he has ‘an accident with a bun’ which leaves him covered in cream, the disgruntled taxi driver immediately afterwards (“Bears is sixpence extra. Sticky bears is ninepence”) and the return to 32 Windsor Gardens and the Bath Incident. However, the rest of the book felt like remarkably new material, with the Browns’ home remaining the departure point for the remainder of Paddingon’s adventures.
The big thing that struck me while reading this though was how much better it is than the equivalent children’s literature hitting the shelves these days. A Bear Called Paddington is advertised as ‘particularly suitable for children under eight’, and when I think about the books I usually see in the 5-8 section (rainbow fairies, the toilet of doom etc), it is all a bit underwhelming. Michael Bond never seems to be talking down to his readership, he uses a wide-ranging and interesting vocabulary and sends Paddington to the theatre, the Underground, the beach – children’s authors play it far more safe these days and I feel that the childhood reading experience is the poorer for it.
The big appeal of the books though is Paddington himself. He is lovely. This is a bear who lifts his hat in greeting, who gets excited over writing thank you notes (much to the Browns’ chagrin since he has a tendency to get ink everywhere when he does so), he takes such incredible pleasure from every possible activity. His job in the household is to go to the market where he makes sure that the family gets their full value out of their sixpence by checking all of the fruit very carefully. He likes to visit the antique shop dealer in Portobello and feels grand when he is called ‘Mr Brown’. Too many childhood heroes become disappointing as one gets older but Paddington’s star remains undimmed.
What I had forgotten though was how assertive he was about what he considered to be right and wrong. Paddington was always very keen to get value for money when it came to his weekly sixpences, he really did try to save the damsel in distress while watching the play and when the photographer at the seaside tried to con him, that bear was having none of it. Always polite, unfailingly well-mannered, Paddington is a wonderful role model and one I was delighted to encounter again. As the Browns note at the end of the book, it is lovely having a bear like him around.
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Published by HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks on January 1st 1970
Genres: British, Children's Fiction, Fiction, General, Traditional
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