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15 September 2022

The cult of Paddington Bear

How the children’s character became the ultimate symbol of British national identity – and an unlikely companion of the Queen.

By Hannah Rose Woods

You’ve probably seen it by now. The drawing of the Queen, holding the hand of Paddington Bear as they walk away from us into the great beyond. A single corgi follows along, trailing bunting. Marmalade sandwiches lie abandoned in the foreground. On social media, people in their thousands have shared the image, to which a caption has been added: “I’ve done my duties Paddington, please take me to my husband.” The Queen exits, accompanied by a bear.

It wasn’t originally an image of mourning. The sketch was drawn by the artist Eleanor Tomlinson in June to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee after she watched the short film of Paddington having tea with Her Majesty, but it has taken on a new meaning in the wake of the Queen’s death. Paddington, by some mysterious consent in the collective unconscious, has become not party guest, departing with his host when the festivities have ended, but friendly psychopomp: a modern reimagining of Charon who accompanies Britons to the afterlife. What we are witnessing is the making of British mythology in real time.

Along with prints of Tomlinson’s sketch, mourners have left Paddington Bear toys and marmalade sandwiches with wrappings bearing the legend “for later” outside palace gates, as if as grave goods, in such quantities that staff have classed them as an environmental threat. More than a million people have liked a tweet from the verified Paddington Bear account that reads: “Thank you Ma’am, for everything.”

What unites these two figures? Monarchy, we tell ourselves, offers us certainty, continuity. Over the Queen’s 70-year reign people came to associate her reassuring sense of stability through change less with the idea of monarchy than with Elizabeth II herself. Now, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty, we look for it embodied in a higher power. And the figure we have chosen is Paddington Bear.

Paddington first appeared in print in 1958 – five years after the Queen’s coronation – in Michael Bond’s short story collection A Bear Called Paddington. Bond had been inspired to come up with the character, a bear from “darkest Peru” found at Paddington railway station with a note reading “Please Look After This Bear” tied around his neck, after watching footage of wartime evacuees arriving at railway stations. Thanks to further popular stories, picture books, films and TV shows, he has remained a beloved figure to every subsequent generation of British children. This polite, softly-spoken, sandwich-loving bear became an emblem of 20th-century Britishness. (A Paddington teddy was the first item passed from British to French construction workers when the two sides of the Channel Tunnel met in 1994.) Now Paddington, it seems, comforts us in grief, reassuring us that all the values we attributed to the Queen – politeness, humility, common decency, a glint of mischief beneath the sense of public duty – survive her still.

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If this Paddingtonification of Britain’s commemorative culture seems instinctive to us, even inevitable, it also requires explanation. It is, of course, bizarre that a beloved fictional bear has become a representative of British monarchy. Paddington and the Queen have occupied the same visual field only once, in that sketch that runs just short of two and a half minutes (it was surely a stroke of genius from the Royal Family’s press team to invite comparisons between the two figures in this warm and fuzzy image of the Queen in her later years). And yet this was enough to permanently unite them in the collective British imaginations.

Partly it is because the Queen and Paddington have long been separate representatives of almost identical values and ideals of Britishness. At their most hopeful, they are two symbols of how we would like best to imagine Britain throughout the post-war decades: deferential to tradition, but welcoming of cosmopolitanism; earnest, even solemn when required, but always with a sense of humour; a country that wears its patriotism lightly, because it is at ease with its identity.

The near-universal adoration of the two major films based on Bond’s books – Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017) ­– bookending as they did the EU referendum, can be read as a kind of collective protest at the divisions of Brexit Britain. In contrast to the aggressive nastiness of the Leave.EU campaign the films offered a vision of British society in which self-consciously old-fashioned good manners would ultimately win the day, providing a master image of a nation that welcomed its immigrants, and where injustice could be overcome with kindness, marmalade and a well-aimed hard stare. Since the 2000s a popular graffiti image has depicted Paddington with his duffel coat and suitcase, his expression almost heartbreakingly benign, under the words “migration is not a crime”.

But the symbolism of Paddington has undergone a subtle shift in recent weeks. In the contexts of Brexit and the Home Office’s “hostile environment”, this spirit of gentleness and tradition was a spirit of resistance. Now, as monarchist deity, Paddington is acting as establishment figurehead. And Paddington has always had an ambivalent relationship with the British establishment.

He is, by his own admission, an illegal immigrant. In Bond’s stories “the authorities” are a frightening bureaucracy whose presence constantly threatens disaster. No children’s character can have had more run-ins and near-misses with police officers, judges, security guards, managers, prison wardens and immigration officials. If they catch him – and we know this without having to be told – they will not understand Paddington’s goodness. They will punish him for his trouble-making, the accidental mishaps that come from not always understanding how Britishness works, in all its complexities, its hard-to-grasp table manners. We know whose side we are on here.

As an image of what we would like Britain to be, the cult of Paddington sits uneasily with the parallel spirit of authoritarianism that is also characterising Britain’s relationship to its monarchy. Mere feet from the toy bears and sandwiches, protesters are being led away, arrested and sometimes charged for shouting republican slogans or carrying signs reading “Not my King”. Increasingly they are holding up blank banners and pieces of paper, because any disagreement or disruption is being cast as dangerous and possibly criminal. A section of the British public appears to be cheering this on. Many people, too, monarchists among them, are decrying this authoritarianism as utterly un-British.

Paddington has become an ever more malleable figure, a cosy comfort we can adopt to mean all things to all people, a symbol entrusted with all our most important emotions. But important emotions can easily tip over into sentimentality, and one of the worst stories we can tell about British culture is that beneath its sentimentalism lurks something nastier. Oscar Wilde, who understood the power of children’s stories, once said that a sentimentalist is someone who wants the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. Is this what Paddington Bear, in his later and more royalist years, has become – an easy shortcut to sentiment, a quaint symbol of patriotism? I’m not sure we’re looking after this bear.

[See also: How the Queen changed Britain]

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