Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Finding Paddington

Whenever I visit London, the very first thing I do is stop to say hello to an old friend.  

We take the train from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station, and then I find the statue of Paddington Bear.  I sit with him for a moment while I collect my thoughts, and watch parents bring small children by to pat his nose and take pictures with him.

Statue of Paddington Bear, Paddington Station,
London, England, Europe, The World

I hope you're already familiar with Paddington, the beloved small brown bear from Darkest Peru, portrayed in a series of books by author Michael Bond.  (I won't call them "children's books" because the best children's books are really for grownups too.)  If not, I think you'll enjoy them.

I first met Paddington and his gentle adventures as a child, when my mom read the stories to us aloud.  Mom, a child of the radio drama age, really knew how to read aloud: she took her time, did all the voices, and showed us the pictures as they appeared in the text.  

Mr. Gruber and Paddington share cocoa for their elevenses,
in More About Paddington.  Illustration by Peggy Fortnum.

Bond, a cameraman at the BBC, was inspired to write the first story, A Bear Called Paddington, after he bought a small plush bear left alone on a shelf at Selfridge's department store as a last-minute Christmas present for his wife. His story became the first Paddington book, published in 1958.

The website has archived an interview with Michael Bond, who said:

"The great advantage of having a bear as a central character is that he can combine the innocence of a child with the sophistication of an adult...

"He gets involved in everyday situations. He has a strong sense of right and wrong and doesn't take kindly to the red tape bureaucracy of the sillier rules and regulations with which we humans surround ourselves. As a bear he gets away with things. Paddington is humanised, but he couldn't possibly be 'human'. It just wouldn't work."
The website also notes:
The Paddington books have sold more than thirty-five million copies worldwide and have been translated into over forty languages, including Latin.
In 1997 Michael Bond was awarded an OBE for services to children’s literature. He is still writing and lives in London, not far from Paddington Station where it all began.

Even though the books are loved by millions of children and people who used to be children around the world, many more first met Paddington as a plush toy. reports:

The very first Paddington bear soft toy was designed in the UK by a lady called Shirley Clarkson. She made it as a Christmas present for her children, Joanna and Jeremy Clarkson (who was to go on to become a world famous motoring journalist). So many people admired Shirley’s Paddington that she started to make some more until her company, Gabrielle Designs and was granted an official licence to sell them in the UK in 1972....

[Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson and Paddington Bear.  Now there's an odd couple, personality-wise.]

...Meanwhile, Paddington’s popularity was beginning to grow outside the UK and in 1975 the US company Eden Toys acquired the licence to make and sell Paddington bears throughout the rest of the world.

There have been dozens of other licensed Paddington items since then.  Every so often I find a plush Paddington Bear at an estate sale, in gently-loved condition. Here's a plush version of Paddington created by Eden Toys:

At another estate sale, I found a boxed set of paperback Paddington books.

Paddington's  appearance has morphed several times over the years, but to my mind the way he originally looked is still the best.  The illustrations by Peggy Fortnum perfectly complement the gentle nature of the original stories.  Here's another example from More About Paddington:

You can see what a very small bear Paddington was:

In this chapter, Paddington has never before experienced Christmas in England, and the Brown family members are concerned that he might try to play Father Christmas by coming down their chimney.

As you may have heard, Paddington has been made into a major motion picture for this holiday season, starring some of Britain's greatest actors (Hugh Bonneville, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, for starters) as the humans in the story.  

I think the best way to first experience Paddington is to read the book, or even better, have someone read it to you.  The chapters in the books lend themselves nicely to reading each story a bit at a time.

You don't know someone who would read aloud to you? Here's a link to a nice long audio sample of the inimitable Stephen Fry reading a passage from A Bear Called Paddington:


Here's a link to the movie section of the official Paddington website:

Paddington has starred in several different versions of his story in the UK.  You can watch some of Paddington's adventures on YouTube.  Stop-motion:

And animated:

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