In a short piece penned for children’s author Cathy Cassidy’s Dreamcatcher blog in January to mark Michael Bond’s 91st birthday, I talked about my friend Paddy, who came into my life 40 years ago last Christmas. Something of a consolation prize at the time, he quickly became the bear I treasured most and all these years on he’s still with me, 240 miles north of his Surrey birthplace, having moved to Lancashire in 1994. He’s now largely consigned to a bedroom alcove, but is still very much loved. And a few days ago I raised a glass to his creator, who died after a short illness in his beloved London.
Consolation prize? I should explain. Most summers from around 1973 Mum and Dad took us to St Ives, Cornwall, my special place, where for as long as I recall while holidaying there, a Paddington Bear sat in a shop window on The Terrace, along our walk into town from the railway station, probably one of the endorsed replicas by Gabrielle Designs, a firm run by Jeremy Clarkson’s Mum. Each summer I looked longingly in, but always understood he was out of our price range.
Dad was a postman and Mum did every job under the sun – mostly cleaning – to help pay rent on our council house outside Guildford, so we were just grateful that they somehow managed to put away enough each year to pay for that annual West Country visit. Besides, the price-tag for the bear with the distinctive toggle-loop duffle coat, rubber wellies, felt hat and luggage label seemed to increase each year.
I’m not sure when I first clapped eyes on that official Paddington, but I was familiar with Michael Bond’s stories about this loveable Peruvian stowaway brown bear long before the BBC children’s TV cartoon, The Adventures of Paddington, was first aired in 1975. I didn’t own many books at the time (most were borrowed from the library) but he was up there with A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for me, and I’d caught up with them all before I turned 10 in late 1977. What’s more, I still have my copies, some more dog-eared than others.
I don’t remember being disappointed that I never got to own a ‘proper’ Paddington. I got the best possible alternative. I’ve no idea how Mum sought out the bear that became known as Paddy, and it’s too late to ask her now, but he arrived on Christmas Day ‘76, sporting hand-made red felt coat with buttons, black felt boots and hat. These days he sports a jumper Mum originally knitted for one of her nine grandchildren, the clothes he arrived in long since gone. After all, he travelled thousands of miles to reach Darkest Surrey. And Paddy turned out to be the perfect Christmas present.
But what of his inspiration? Thomas Michael Bond was born in Newbury, Berkshire, on January 13th, 1926, five days before A.A. Milne’s 44th birthday and nine months before Winnie-the-Pooh first saw the light of day. Michael would go on to sell more than 35 million books around the world in his lifetime, with the Paddington series published in more than 40 languages, this much-loved author becoming a CBE two years ago.
That first book, A Bear Called Paddington, was published in October 1958, with Michael 32 then, his breakthrough coming two and three-quarter years after Pooh’s creator died. And nearly six decades later he remained proud of his creation in a way Alan Milne – who felt his own loveable character overshadowed his other work – never truly was.
Like my Mum, Michael was brought up in Reading, Berkshire, where early visits to the main railway station – where my Grandad Thomas worked in the signals department and Mum was later in the telegraph office – to see the Cornish Riviera Express steam through en route from Paddington to Penzance (and even direct to St Ives) inspired a lifelong love of trains. His family home was on Winser Drive (Windsor Gardens in the books was an amalgam of that address and a later base in Arundel Gardens, W11, not far from the rail terminus he named his bear after), barely a mile from my Mum’s Cranbury Road roots.
While my Mum passed her 11-plus but had a difficult time at Kendrick School, singled out for her working-class roots among more monied pupils, Michael – also from a C of E background, but seven years her senior – had a hard time at the strict, fee-paying Catholic boys’ Presentation College, insisting his mother only chose that school because she liked the purple blazers. It wasn’t a happy time, Michael remembering with disgust the masters who disciplined their young charges with rubber straps, not least one particularly vicious member of staff, and often endured long cycle rides home to avoid the boys from the local state school, lying in wait.
This son of a post office manager subsequently gave up on the education system, starting work at 14, joining a solicitor’s practice as a mail-boy in the early days of the war. He soon switched employers, becoming an engineer’s assistant at the BBC in nearby Caversham, ‘switching the radio transmitters on in the morning and off at night’, as he told the Telegraph’s Anna Tyzack in 2012, an earlier interest in building amplifiers and radio sets helping him get the job.
Of that period, a harrowing Wednesday afternoon in February 1943 cast a dark shadow, Michael working in an office at the top of a building in central Reading when it collapsed under him after a direct hit from a Dornier 217, during a raid that killed 41 people and injured many more. The bomber was one of two following the GWR line west from London, one wreaking havoc on Newbury and the other dropping four 1,000lb bombs on Reading, many of the victims trapped below Michael’s office. He told BBC Berkshire, “The bombs blew everything away from beneath you. People on the bottom floor in a restaurant just disappeared into the basement.”
My Mum often talk about the same raid, and that afternoon went with her step-mum and sister by bus to see Bambi at a cinema on Friar Street, getting as far as nearby St Mary’s Butts before an air raid warning was quickly followed by the attack, the passengers forced to lay where they were, Mum recalling a man holding her glasses in case they smashed. After the blasts and eventual all-clear, badly shaken up, they walked home, to be met at the end of their road by my relieved Grandad, who that evening cycled into town to help the rescue operation.
A short spell in the RAF followed for Michael, acute air sickness leading to a switch to the Army’s Middlesex Regiment, staying on until 1947, the year he sold his first short story while stationed in Cairo. The London Opinion magazine paid seven guineas for that, but he later said he ‘could have papered the walls of our one-room flat near Holland Park with rejection slips’ before his literary breakthrough. On demob, he joined the BBC monitoring service, which translated radio programmes from around the world, switching to the children’s television department in 1956, rising through the ranks to cameraman on the first series of Blue Peter.
Writing for Radio Times in 2014, Michael recalled, “There are some avenues in life that feel as though they are meant, and there are others that are simply a matter of chance. Occasionally, very occasionally, there is a happy combination of the two. For example, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my coming across a small bear when I took shelter in Selfridges’ toy department one snowy Christmas Eve was just such a million-to-one chance. Had there been two bears, I might have given them a passing glance, but I could hardly ignore one bear all by itself, with Christmas coming on. He looked so forlorn that I bought him as a stocking-filler for my wife, and called him Paddington after our nearest railway terminus because it has a masculine ring to it; important but not overbearing, with nice, safe, West Country overtones.”
He continues, “My writing had to be squeezed into days when I was off-duty. One such day found me sitting with a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter and not an idea in my head, only too well aware that the ball was in my court. Nobody else was going to put any words down for me. Glancing round in search of inspiration my gaze came to rest on Paddington, who gave me a hard stare from the mantelpiece, and the muse struck, along with what was destined to become the equivalent of a literary catchphrase. Suppose a real live bear ended up at Paddington station? Where might it have sprung from, and why? If it had any sense it would find a quiet spot near the Lost Property Office and hope for the best.
“I knew exactly how my own parents would react if they saw it, particularly if it had a label round its neck, like a refugee in the last war. There are few things sadder in life than a refugee. My mother wouldn’t have hesitated to give it a home, while my father, who was a civil servant to his fingertips, would have been less enthusiastic in case he was doing something against the law.”
His daughter, Karen Jankel, born the year the first book was published, says that Selfridges visit was on December 24th, 1956, with the writing happening just after Christmas and completed within 10 days. It was never intended as anything other than a writing exercise, but such was his first wife’s enthusiasm for the tale that Michael was inspired to try to get the book published.
It seems apt that it’s my sister Jackie’s name in the front of my copy of A Bear Called Paddington, as she was born the same year as Karen – now managing director of Paddington & Company – and the book’s initial publication. My version is a mere seventh ‘young Puffin’ reprint, from 1969, while my copy of 1959 follow-up More About Paddington is from 1967, the year I was born, long after Aunty Lucy’s move to the Home for Retired Bears in Lima.
I also have a 1968 reprint of Paddington at Large, youngest sister Tracy’s name in the front, followed by ‘Class 4, Shalford School’, a full home address and ‘Telephone number is have not got one. Ha ha.’ Comedy ain’t what it used to be. More to the point, on the title page she added, ‘Great book’, further proof that it wasn’t all just about James Bond in our house in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
There’s one more Young Puffin edition in my collection, a 1970 reprint of Paddington at Work. All of those carry drawings by Peggy Fortnum, who remained Michael’s illustrator during the Armada Lions reprint years which make up the bulk of my collection, dating between 1972 and 1978. I bought most with birthday or holiday money, and never truly grew out of the series, my Paddington on Stage ‘plays for children’ 1976 edition used for home productions of the stories (no doubt with Paddy in the lead role), just as it would be around 30 years later by my daughters.
By 1965 Michael had given up the day-job behind the camera to concentrate on full-time writing, and us of a certain age fondly recall TV animation The Herbs, the first FilmFair success he created and wrote, working alongside animator Ivor Wood. Using innovative 3D stop-motion model animation, the first show was transmitted in February 1968 in the BBC’s Watch With Mother slot, its regulars including Parsley the Lion, Dill the Dog, Sage the Owl, Sir Basil, Lady Rosemary, Constable Knapweed and Bayleaf the Gardener soon national treasures. And from 1975 onwards The Adventures of Paddington became an after-school staple for this impressionable lad. In fact, to this day Michael Hordern’s voice and Herbert Chappell’s theme tune conjure up home comforts on cold evenings, watching our black and white set (colour TV in the UK may be celebrating its 50th birthday, but my days in front of the box were strictly monochrome).
Michael adapted 56 stories for that series, again directed by Ivor Wood (also associated with The Magic Roundabout and another of my favourites, The Wombles) for FilmFair, bringing Paddington to an even wider and somewhat younger audience. And this was stop-motion fare of the highest order, its largely black and white 2D backdrops not hampering its appeal. They were ahead of their time, producing quality television in a golden era.
We all move on, and soon I felt I had little in common with private school boarders Jonathan and Judy Brown. Mine was hardly a 32, Windsor Gardens type middle class upbringing. In that respect, Pooh Bear stayed with me longer, and while Christopher Robin also went off to private school at the end of those stories, it always seemed more about making the most of your youth before grown-up adventures inevitably took over. But although I began to value more the complexities of the relationships, understanding a deeper humour in the Hundred Acre Wood while relating more to the ‘great outdoor’ aspects of Milne’s work, his woodland setting comparable to my own semi-rural existence in the Tillingbourne Valley, that in no way denigrates Michael’s stories and the underlining human values in his books.
For one thing, Mr and Mrs Brown are loosely based on his own parents, and so many friends of Michael mention the author’s own Paddington attributes. Michael told Anna Tyzack about his father, “He was a polite man who always tipped his hat and never wore a bathing costume in the sea; he’d just roll his trousers up. But if he came against something he thought was wrong he did stick his feet in, just like Paddington.” And as Karen Jankel put it, “There was nothing slapstick about Paddington, the books are much subtler than that. Paddington is quite a serious-minded bear but he has an innocence which children share and so they can relate to him.”
While I was getting to be the wrong age to fully appreciate the qualities that first hooked me and could most relate to with Paddington – not least that polite, understated manner and accident-prone nature – I always loved his cosy relationship with Mr Gruber, feeling at home when he was dropping in for elevenses on Portobello Road, talking all manner of subjects with a gentleman who had great stories of his own – in the same way I loved my 1970s’ conversations with my Grandad Wyatt and the old boy next door, Jack Grant.
That relationship between the two immigrants is something that endeared both characters to many of us, and Michael told Anna Tyzack, “I based Mr Gruber on my literary agent, Harvey Unna, who fled Germany before the war. He used to tell me people never recognise themselves in books, and he was right; he never realised he was Mr Gruber.” He also told Michelle Pauli of The Guardian the first Paddington book was partly inspired by memories of the evacuee children he saw pass through Reading station from London, saying, “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
With that in mind, I was pleased David Heyman’s Paul King-directed 2014 film version of the stories, Paddington, picked up on that. It makes for great viewing, not just because of the stunning CGI effects (for a start, Paddington himself was somewhat life-like, and gorgeous). It seemed that the film-makers fully respected Michael’s vision, and definitely understanding the importance of the camaraderie between two firm friends. Samuel Gruber is wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, while the choice of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as Henry and Mary Brown was equally inspired, with the children, plus Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Peter Capaldi as Mr Curry – both just the right (believable) side of batty – also nicely cast.
Maybe we don’t tend to see so many people around London raising a hat or being quite as polite in the modern era, and there are elements of an idealistic Mary Poppins-type London in the film, but perhaps we should revert to the ‘Paddington Way’ of doing things, issuing hard stares to those who go against our far more refined new world order. A marmalade sandwich in a hat could defuse the most difficult of situations. I also love the fact that the film put its star at the heart of a buzzing city with a calypso soundtrack, in tribute to the Windrush generation arriving on Michael’s West London patch from the late ’50s onwards.
Actually, I’m due a visit to the capital, and it’s about time I had a proper look around the principal railway termini. Most of my commuting in the past involved Waterloo and Euston, but I’ve a yearning to finally see the John Betjeman sculpture at St Pancras and a certain bronze sculpture of a bear sat on a suitcase under the clock on platform one at Paddington, where the Brown family first found him with that ’please look after this bear’ label around his neck.
That’s not so far from Michael’s own patch, the author sticking around West London, seeing out his days in Little Venice. He’s also one of three popular subjects picked out in sculptures alongside a new pathway and cycle route between St Mary’s Terrace and Paddington Station, two-dimensional steel artworks depicting famous nurse Mary Seacole, computer pioneer Alan Turing and Michael himself – clutching his famous bear – part of the Portrait Bench series by transport charity Sustrans, the subjects voted for by residents.
When my daughters were a little younger, I not only introduced them to Paddington, but also Michael’s much-loved guinea pig Olga da Polga. Others may recall his adult culinary mysteries based around Monsieur Pamplemousse and faithful bloodhound Pommes Frites. But it will be for that Peruvian stowaway that the alternative Mr Bond will forever be associated, and he continued to write throughout the decades, his last title Paddington’s Finest Hour published as recently as April.
As Karen Jankel put it in The Guardian, “The whole world is lucky to have had him. Paddington is so real to all of us. He’s still a part of our family and we’re very lucky. For me, he was the most wonderful father you can imagine, so our loss is personal. But it’s wonderful that he’s left the legacy of his books and Paddington will live on forever. Because Paddington and his other characters were so real to him, he became alive to everybody else. You can tell just by reading his books what a lovely person he was. I never came across anybody who disliked my father. He was one of those people that people instinctively warmed to and he was as funny as a person and delightful as he was in his writing and as a father.”
Of course, the author made a cameo in the 2014 film, a lovely touch that will ensure this ‘kindly gentleman’ (as he was credited) remains with us in another form. As a result, this fan will always picture him raising a glass to his special creation, welcoming a foreign stranger to the big city. Yes, you’ll be missed, Michael, but thanks for the memories. I not only raise a glass but also a metaphorical hat to you.
With thanks to The Guardian, Radio Times and The Telegraph for the quotes from past interviews with Michael Bond and Karen Jankel replicated in this feature.
Along similar lines, for this website’s interview with award-winning illustrator and author Michael Foreman, from October 2016, head here. For a June 2015 150th anniversary appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, try this link. From March 2015, there are interviews with leading children’s authors Cathy Cassidy and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and from March 2014 there’s a personal appreciation of Seven Stories national centre for children’s books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.