Paddington returns

Observations on deepest, darkest Peru

New versions of popular children's books generally introduce a token ethnic character or two to reflect the diversity of Britain today. Postman Pat's round gained Ajay and Nisha Bains, an Asian couple who run the railway station; the new Famous Five books, about the offspring of the original characters, feature George's Anglo-Indian daughter, Jyoti. But Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond, who has just published his first new story for more than 30 years, had immigrants in his tales from the start. Not only is the duffel-coat-wearing protagonist a stowaway from "Darkest Peru", but one of his closest friends is also an incomer: Mr Gruber, the antiques dealer who shares elevenses with the bear every morning, is Hungarian.

The issue never came up, though, until the publication of the latest volume, Paddington: Here and Now. In it, our hero is innocently pruning the roses one afternoon when a sinister stranger approaches him, and starts asking tricky questions about whether he is "a refugee from some foreign clime". As ever, the hapless bear "tries so hard to get things right", but ends up being interviewed by the police about his missing travel documents.

It's certainly a more thoughtful representation of immigrant life than you'll find in almost any children's story. But what do Peruvians think about the fact that their representative in the UK - the only one of their countrymen considered worthy of a monument here - is a hapless refugee who ignores Peru's feted national cuisine in favour of marmalade sandwiches and cocoa? Are they upset by the description "Darkest Peru" - particularly as Bond, who coined the phrase, has never visited the country? More than 35 million Paddington books have been sold globally in the 50 years since they first appeared, but the bear is not so famous in Latin America. Has Paddington caused offence at home?

Apparently not. The Peruvian embassy was insistent: "Paddington Bear is very important to British people, so the name Peru has a positive association for them from childhood. And I think 'Darkest Peru' is a great phrase. It has come to represent exoticism, so it's very cool." Peruvians represent less than 0.1 per cent of immigrants in the UK, but Paddington's refugee status is no cause for concern. "People have been moving around for centuries," says the embassy spokesman.

In fact, the Peruvian attitude towards Lima's most famous bear is so warm that when HarperCollins, which publishes the Paddington stories, held a reception at the embassy recently, officials helped him out with his immigration woes. "In the book, there is a problem with Paddington's papers, so the Peruvian ambassador gave Michael Bond a passport for him," explains the spokesman. "He will not have those difficulties again."

A happy ending for all of Paddington's UK fans then, although the spokesman was careful to point out: "It's not a real passport. He is a fictional bear."

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.