‘To me, Paddington is very real,’ says Michael Bond. ‘In actual fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he walked into this room right now.’
We’re sitting in the study of Bond’s house in Maida Vale, just across the Westway from the station that lent its name to his most famous creation.
‘He still makes me laugh,’ adds the author, before relating one of Paddington’s recent scrapes with a chuckle – as if it were something he’d witnessed, not written.
Do you talk to Paddington, Michael? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘I’m very fond of him.’
And well he might be: after all, the little bear from darkest Peru has been the most constant companion of Bond’s life. And though he’s now 91, there’s no suggestion of his new book, Paddington’s Finest Hour, being Paddington’s final hour.
‘I don’t feel 91,’ says Bond. ‘I work a seven-day week, always have done. We haven’t been on holiday for years. Every day is work, and I enjoy it.’ Weekend asks if Sue, his wife of 37 years, also enjoys it. ‘She’s very busy, too’ he insists.
Born in Newbury and raised in Reading, Bond was fascinated with stories from a young age. ‘I was fortunate to be brought up in a home where books were part of the furniture’, he says. ‘I never went to bed without a story.’
Not long after leaving school at 14, he got a job with the BBC in Reading. In February 1943, he was installing a radio transmitter at the top of the building when it was hit in a German bombing raid that killed 41 people. ‘We were very lucky,’ he recalls. ‘Although the building had collapsed under us, it was still possible to get down the back stairs. I remember the first person I saw was a girl, and both her legs had been blown off. When I got further down, a hand came up [out of the rubble] – an old hand, holding a pair of false teeth.’
He volunteered for the RAF but, after discovering he suffered from air sickness, ended up serving with the Army in North Africa. It was there, in Cairo in 1945, that he wrote his first short story, which was bought by the magazine London Opinion for seven shillings. After the war, he worked as a BBC cameraman on shows like Blue Peter, but harboured ambitions to be a full-time writer. Stuck for ideas one day, he found his muse in an unlikely location.
‘I went into Selfridge’s one Christmas Eve,’ he recalls. ‘It had started to snow and I went up into the toy department. I don’t know why, I didn’t have any children. It was empty, all the shoppers had gone home, and there was this small bear sitting on a shelf, all on his own, and I rather fell in love with him.’
He bought the bear as a present for his first wife, with whom he has two children, and also gave him the starring role in his latest story. ‘I’d always wanted to use the name Paddington,’ he says. ‘It sounds important, without being over-important.’
Paddington’s arrival from Peru, with a note reading ‘Please look after this bear’ attached to his coat, was inspired by Bond’s memory of evacuee children getting off the train at Reading during the war (‘I can still see them, carrying their little suitcases’). He thinks it’s important, particularly in the current climate, to stress that Paddington was refugee, while his good friend Mr Gruber was based on Bond’s then-literary agent, Harvey Unna, a German Jew who had fled to Britain before the war.
Paddington himself was modelled, in part at least, on his own father. ‘My father was a very polite man,’ he says. ‘He always wore a hat when he went out, in case he met a lady he knew. On holiday, he even went into the sea with his hat on.’
Paddington’s manners, he adds, are one of his finest qualities. ‘There’s so much rudeness in England these days. People don’t say please or thank you. At least Paddington still raises his hat.’
Published in 1958, A Bear Called Paddington changed its author’s life. ‘I got rather hooked on this bear,’ admits Bond, who dressed his new friend in variations on his own government surplus duffel coat and bush hat. The famous wellies came later, in 1970, when teacher Shirley Clarkson made a pair of Paddington stuffed toys for her children, Joanna and Jeremy. Yes, the world’s first owner of a Paddington toy was that Jeremy Clarkson – a man who, Weekend points out, has been known to be a bit rude himself. ‘Yes, he upsets people,’ says Bond, tactfully.
Clarkson’s father Edward packed in his job to sell Paddington toys full time. ‘He went round all of England, staying in towns and villages, deciding which shop windows he’d like to see Paddington in,’ recalls Bond.
It was the start of a worldwide merchandising bonanza that, today, sees the little bear’s image emblazoned across enough products to fill an entire shop at Paddington Station. ‘I remember, many years ago, going to one factory where they were turning out Paddington buckets, and thinking: “God, what have I done?”’ recalls Bond. ‘Somebody even came to see me wanting to do Paddington toilet roll. That was an easy one to say no to.’
Paddington’s cultural impact has extended to everything from Royal Mail stamps to a Google logo, while a Paddington toy was the first thing handed from the British to the French when the Channel Tunnel was connected in 1994. Then there was the success of the well-loved, Michael Horden-narrated 1970s BBC TV series, and the hit 2014 film – not to mention the 35 million books sold in more than 30 languages. Meanwhile, the term ‘hard stare’ – coined for Paddington’s famously steely glare – has become firmly embedded in the national lexicon.
Bond, whose other works include the Olga da Polga and Monsieur Pamplemousse books, and classic animated TV series The Herbs, was awarded the CBE in 2015. Last year, he was invited to write a piece for the Queen’s 90th birthday, which was read by fellow nonagenarian Sir David Attenborough at a national thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral. (His initial draft was rejected by her Majesty, he reveals, because she didn’t want it mentioning either her name or her age.)
Though film company Studiocanal now owns the Paddington trademark, Bond has retained the publishing rights. He’s frank about the fact that, when he’s gone, he doesn’t want anyone else continuing the bear’s adventures in print (‘nobody catches the right note’) but doesn’t think there’s much he can do to stop it.
One final question, then, before we take our leave: Who, in Bond’s opinion, is the most iconic British bear – Paddington, or Winnie the Pooh?
He fixes Weekend with his own hard stare. Then says, with a twinkle, ‘Winnie the what?’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 6, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend