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."