Paddington returns to his station as children's favourite
Saturday 24 May 2008
Fifty years have passed since a furry fellow from darkest Peru turned up at Paddington station with a battered suitcase and a label around his neck saying, "Please Look After This Bear. Thank you." The kindly Mr and Mrs Brown, of 32 Windsor Gardens, did indeed look after the bear, whom they named after the premises on which he was found.
Now aged 82, alert and active, Paddington's creator, Michael Bond, has just supplied the same publishers with the first full- length Paddington novel for nearly 30 years, Paddington Here and Now. It will be in the shops from a week on Monday.
Paddington has the same red hat and blue duffel coat he wore 50 years ago. The Browns are as amiably bourgeois as ever. Mrs Bird is still housekeeping, and though you might think the children, Judy and Jonathan, should be drawing pensions, they are still at school.
And Paddington still eats marmalade sandwiches.
This is vital because of last year's furore, when Paddington appeared in a television advertisement for Marmite. Paddington was wondering whether he should try something different from his usual marmalade sandwich. Paddington tried Marmite, and thought it "rather good", but when he offered a morsel to a hungry pigeon, it squawked with disgust and flew off causing a multiple accident. The catchline was "you either love it or hate it".
Michael Bond hated the ad.
"I burst a lot of blood vessels, because it was done without my permission," he growled. "I had an agency who looked after that side of Paddington. Normally they were left to their own devices and by the time I got to hear of it they had done some filming.
"I was able to change the film in one way. Paddington doesn't say 'I'm changing to Marmite'.
"The galling thing is, I still get letters from children to say, 'Why did Paddington change over to Marmite?' I was invited to the Peruvian embassy to meet the ambassador. Halfway through lunch the ambassador's wife said, 'I hear Paddington has Marmite these days instead of marmalade'.
"The thing about any character who has longevity is that they are unchanging in their behaviour. Popeye hasn't changed from eating spinach, and Paddington will always eat marmalade."
Now living in Maida Vale in a house stuffed with books, a short walk from the station, Bond had his first story published in a magazine called London Opinion in 1947, when he was working as a BBC technician. It earned him seven guineas (£7.35) – not bad for someone who had started work at 14 on 10 shillings (50p) a week. It would have all been so different if Mr Bond, living in a cramped flat near Paddington station with a portable typewriter and blank paper, had not felt the need to write something. Taking a hard look at Paddington, the teddy bear on the mantelpiece, inspiration suddenly hit him.
"I didn't intend to write a whole book, and I didn't intend to write for children – which is a good thing because I would probably have written down to them," he said. "I hadn't read Winnie the Pooh, which is also a good thing, because I might have made him a toy bear instead of a real bear."
After several refusals, his agent Harvey Unna – the prototype for Mr Gruber in the Paddington stories – sent Mr Bond a letter dated 10 February 1958, with the news that Collins had bought the manuscript for a king's ransom – £75.
Paddington's longevity is extraordinary considering how clearly the original is set in post-war London. That battered suitcase is based on the luggage Bond saw in the hands of refugees. And there is Mrs Bird, the housekeeper. How can the Browns afford her and what is her background?
"When they perform Paddington aloud, they get stuck on Mrs Bird and give her a cockney or Scottish accent," Mr Bond said. "In those days housekeepers weren't an anachronism and not from a different part of society. They were usually a relation or someone close who had lost her husband or fiancé in the war.
"The only person who got Mrs Bird right was Stephen Fry, who has made a wonderful recording of the new book. He is rather a bear-like person himself."
Some details have changed. Paddington once subsisted on 6d pocket money, but no longer. The London Eye appears in one of the latest illustrations.
Mr Bond's father taught him to stand aside if someone older was coming along the pavement the other way, but in modern London the young brush past the author. "And they don't even make eye contact," he said wistfully.
But Paddington will remain forever in the quiet, polite, tradition-bound world that was austerity Britain. That is his charm.
When £75 was life-changing...
*For Michael Bond, the news that changed his life came in the form of a letter typed on an old portable typewriter. When Mr Bond phoned his publishers, it was a matter of dialling O for an operator, and asking to be put through manually to HYD 5977. But the sum of money being offered showed that the publishers were serious: in 1958, there were people living off little more than £75 a year. The letter has been a precious memento in the Bond household for 50 years.
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