Paddington Bear is standing next to me. I can’t see him, but his creator, Michael Bond, assures me that he is there. “To me, he’s very real and he’s standing beside you,” the 91-year-old author says in a matter-of-fact way, gesturing to an empty space about three feet off the floor in the middle of his study. “I see him as normal size, really,” he adds, smiling.
At their canalside house in Little Venice, west London, Bond’s wife, Sue, confirms that – as Lady Diana famously quipped – there are three of them in this marriage.
“No, he’s quite real for me, too. Just as well!” she says. A retired literary agent, she has become, since her marriage to Bond, quite proficient at making marmalade – Paddington’s favourite food – for their breakfast toast. Marmalade sandwiches, I am told, are just for bears.
Paddington, a refugee from “Darkest Peru”, made his debut in 1958 in A Bear Called Paddington. He may now be just a year off collecting his bus pass but he is still keeping up to date. His second film outing is due for release in November, and a 15th novel, Paddington’s Finest Hour, has just been published.
Bond is perhaps a little more fazed by modern life than his creation, though he doesn’t grumble. He arrives at his desk by 9am, seven days a week – Christmas Day included – and taps out a new story on his MacBook Pro. He breaks for elevenses (hot cross buns from Waitrose, with some of the currants picked out by Sue, “because they have an awful lot”). Then he finishes work in time to watch Flog It! at 4.30pm on BBC1.
An only child, Bond grew up in Reading, leaving his Catholic boys’ school in 1940 at the age of 14 because of bullying. He got a job with the BBC, switching the town’s transmitter on and off to prevent German planes using it as a navigational beacon. After that, he served in the RAF and the army, writing his first short story while stationed in Cairo in 1947. He then worked with the BBC monitoring service at Caversham Park, translating radio programmes for British intelligence, eventually moving over to TV as a cameraman. Bond filmed everyone from Yehudi Menuhin to Rudolf Nureyev, as well as the first editions of The Sky at Night and Blue Peter, before devoting himself to writing full-time in 1965, after the Paddington books had become popular.
The Paddington story really began on Christmas Eve in 1956, when Bond was looking for a stocking filler for his first wife, Brenda. It was snowing, and so he wandered into Selfridge’s and found an empty toy department. “On a shelf, there was this one bear, and I felt sorry for him,” he says. “I think, with dolls, they’re always just sitting there wondering what they’re going to wear next. But, with a bear, you immediately feel you could talk to them. At least, I do.”
This original bear is now part of what must be Britain’s most magical custody arrangement. “It’s with my first wife,” Bond says; they divorced in 1981. “We share.”
Aspects of Paddington’s character – his politeness, impractical nature and his headgear – come from Bond’s father, Norman, who was a civil servant. “He never went out without a hat. If he went in the sea, he’d wear his hat so he would have something to raise if he met somebody he knew. He’d be mortified if he couldn’t.”
Times have changed. “I think there’s a lot of rudeness in this country,” Bond says. “When I was brought up, if we saw two elderly people walking along, we’d move aside to let them pass. And I used to think, ‘When I’m old, people will do it for me.’ But they bloody well don’t,” he chuckles.
Besides being an international commodity – more than 25 million people own a Paddington toy – the bear has reach beyond children’s literature. He is Britain’s best-loved asylum-seeker.
Bond insists that it is a coincidence that there was a wave of race riots, most famously in Notting Hill (home to Paddington’s new family, the Browns), in the year his first book came out. The echoes of the Second World War, though, are not accidental.
Bond was inspired in part by watching cinema newsreels showing the “terribly sad” scenes of “people pushing a pram with all their belongings down a country road”. The evacuees he saw at Reading Station, with tags around their necks (the Bond family took in two), inspired the label on Paddington’s duffel coat that read: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
Is he surprised to see another refugee crisis, all these years later? “I suppose, if I thought about it, yes. I think it’s with us always, really.” He says his heart “sinks slightly” at the thought of Donald Trump.
Although Bond is hesitant to give his bear political convictions, there have been several instances in recent times of children wearing Paddington masks at pro-refugee demonstrations. “Well, why not, I suppose? One likes to think of one’s country that child refugees are well treated,” he says. “I think they’re probably not as well treated as they might be.”
Paddington Bear has become a symbol of British tolerance and integration, the refugee who became more English than the English. A Paddington toy was chosen by the British Channel Tunnel excavators as the first item to be passed through to their French counterparts when the barrier between the two digs was breached.
For Michael Bond, Paddington serves as a kind of moral compass. His wife says that if he is in a sticky situation, her husband often imagines how his furry friend would react. “I don’t so much,” she says, “but I accept his views! Paddington sees things very straight and very simply. If you think about how he would react, it’s probably the right way.”
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue