Recently on the ‘sharing is caring’ site, a challenge to readers to list the ten books that have made a lasting impression on them has been busily doing the timeline rounds. As I have many bookish friends, not only was I tagged into this chain, but I also had the chance to peek into many virtual bookshelves. Anything book related immediately grabs my attention so I was intrigued to find out what titles popped up. I thought that I would knock my own list off very quickly, but strangely enough, it took me two or three days of procrastinating to commit myself to a choice of titles. I think I made the mistake of thinking about it too much. I wasn’t happy with the list as I missed so many books off the final selection but it seemed to be against the spirit of the thing to go back and edit. How do you pick over many years worth of reading? It was not supposed to be a list of favourite books (which would have been well nigh impossible) but something with more depth and meaning than that. On the other hand, it was only a Facebook survey and not a literary examination so I was unsure how much I should agonise over the exercise.
In the end, my list ranged right from the early years up to adulthood, and leaned heavily towards fiction. The exception to this was my inclusion of Anne Frank’s Diary, which stood out amongst anything that I read in my teenage years and inspired follow-up reading beginning with her Tales from the House Behind. Representing my earliest years was Michael Bond’s stories about Paddington Bear’s adventures. I have to make it clear at this point that my list incorporated much fudging of data. For instance, which Paddington storybook would I include? Paddington Bear is an ineradicable part of my life so I included all of his adventures under the catchall heading Paddington Bear Stories. After all, how can you decide between his first encounter with the Brown family (fresh from stowing away on a boat from Peru), antique hunting with Mr Gruber (misunderstanding about bidding at auction) or shopping for a new winter coat in a smart London department store (an accident with an expanding clothesline)?
For any non-Paddington readers out there, the inclusion of the small bear from Darkest Peru on such a list may seem a little strange, even rather flippant. After all, he is only a children’s character from a series of funny stories. This indeed is true; though let us not underrate the lasting appeal of humorous books. They keep us going when all else fails. When the going gets tough, the tough get going by reading whatever will give them a laugh and get them through the bad times. If I’m feeling blue, I don’t reach for a bodice ripper, but aim for comic capers of some sort (Wodehouse, perhaps). I blame this tendency to humorous literature upon my early encounters with a small bear sporting very sticky whiskers and a disreputable hat. Even now, there are passages of Paddington’s adventures that I can’t read aloud without dissolving into giggles.
Here I lay out my case for including the inestimable Paddington Bear stories in the list of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Some of you may already be familiar with the small marmalade loving bear that made his home at thirty-two Windsor Gardens after being discovered in Paddington Station wearing a label saying ‘Please Look after This Bear’. If you are, then I hope you agree with my observations, and if you have never read a Paddington book in your life, then I hope that I might inspire you to do so (recommended age range is from eight to eighty). Therefore, these are my musings on why my reading of Paddington has made a lasting impression and consequently why I had to introduce my daughter to him even before she could read.
The Paddington factor is not just about the humour (though nothing cheers me up quite so much as Paddington Bear’s spectacularly messy attempt to cook dumplings when Mr and Mrs Brown are ill). As a small bear, he punches well above his weight in the canon of children’s literary characters. He has oodles of personality, excellent manners and a boundless optimism that things will turn out all right in the end. Paddington may be small in stature but he is never afraid to stand up for what he knows to be right. Woe betides anyone who makes the mistake of underestimating him. Justice ought to be Paddington’s middle name because the merest sniff of anything otherwise will see him taking matters into his own paws. Complications may (and often do) ensue because of his interventions but Paddington will always triumph over pomposity, dishonesty and petty bureaucracy. Paddington will always get his man (strangely enough his adversaries are usually male; what did Michael Bond mean by that I wonder?)
Paddington has an anomalous role in the Brown household. He slots into the family between the two children Jonathan and Judy; and both Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird the housekeeper mother him quite firmly. There was always much talk of cleaning whiskers and washing behind those furry ears. Mr Brown gives Paddington weekly pocket money in the same way as he does his children. Yet Paddington was never sure of his age (the Browns decide to begin again at one, marking the occasion with a cake) and he only attended school on one unfortunate occasion. While Jonathon and Judy are away at boarding school, Paddington independently pursues a range of activities (though he frequently tumbles into various scrapes) and tries out new hobbies. He befriends the market traders in the Portobello Road when he shops for Mrs Bird and has morning cocoa with Mr Gruber, a local antique dealer who greatly values Paddington’s company and conversation. Therefore, he frequently inhabits an adult’s world, albeit one where bears are apparently accepted as a relatively normal (if a rather sticky) phenomenon.
I mentioned that Paddington goes shopping on behalf of Mrs Bird. His bargain hunting amongst the market traders becomes legendary, although they bear him no grudge for it. Paddington knows good value when he sees it. As fans will know, Paddington is a great marmalade lover and particularly appreciates getting plenty of chunks for his money. At one point, Mrs Bird exclaims, “That bear gets more for his shilling than anyone I know”. She goes on to say, “I don’t know how he gets away with it, really I don’t. It must be the mean streak in him”. To which Paddington indignantly responds that he is not mean, just careful. Mr Brown, the breadwinner of the family admiringly declares, “I must say I’ve never known a bear with such an eye for a bargain as Paddington”. Maybe Paddington has a few lessons to teach those of us who would pay a small fortune for the latest desirable consumer product. If Paddington wouldn’t think it was good value for money, then don’t shell out your hard-earned money for it. I still find myself thinking of Paddington’s attitude to value when I am debating over a more than usually expensive purchase.
One of the running themes in the stories is the meanness of Mr Curry the next-door neighbour who is not above commandeering Paddington’s services as an unpaid golf caddy or inviting himself to Paddington’s birthday tea. However, poetic justice was served at one party when Mr Curry sat on an egg during Paddington’s magic party trick:
Mr Curry grew purple in the face. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life”, he said. “Never!” He turned at the door and waved an accusing finger at the company. “It’s the last time I shall ever come to one of your birthday parties!”
The man is not only parsimonious; he is also mean of spirit and has a bullying nature. His loud cries hailing Paddington over the garden fence mean that the good-natured bear is in for a trying few hours. If he can possibly inveigle Paddington into doing a DIY job or some shopping for nothing then Mr Curry will do so. Funnily enough, the spirited small bear often bests Mr Curry’s miserly efforts. No matter how big a scrape results from one of Mr Curry’s tight-fisted schemes Paddington always lands on his feet, as Mrs Bird would say. His conscientious attempts to do his best even though the neighbour is rude, mean, bossy and frequently unpleasant obviously attracts good karma. Without moralising, Michael Bond ensures that the undeserving always gets their just desserts and Paddington comes out on top.
Paddington’s most endearing trait is his acute sense of justice; anything that smacks of unfairness will see him hot in pursuit of the miscreant. Sometimes in his innocence however, he got hold of the wrong end of the stick. In Paddington’s first theatre trip, he took the play a little too seriously and gallantly took action:
‘Paddington was a surprising bear in many ways and he had a strong sense of right and wrong. As the curtain came down he placed his opera glasses firmly on the ledge and climbed off his seat.
“Are you enjoying in it, Paddington?” asked Mr Brown.
“It’s very interesting, “said Paddington. He had a determined note to his voice and Mrs Brown looked at him sharply. She was beginning to recognise that tone and it worried her.
“Where are you going, dear?” she asked, as he made for the door of the box.
“Oh, just out for a walk, “said Paddington, vaguely.’
At the interval, he went round to see the star, Sir Sealy Bloom in his dressing room to remonstrate with his conduct in casting off his daughter into the night. After the renowned thespian got over his shock at being upbraided by an irate bear, he was most flattered that his performance had been so convincing. Paddington came out on top yet again, as his intervention gained him some new friends and a chance to help behind the scenes.
I cannot leave the subject of Paddington Bear without mentioning his formidable secret weapon for dealing with obstructive officials of any stripe. Paddington could command a very distinctive and disconcerting stare when he chose. Ticket inspectors, bank managers and supercilious shop assistants crumbled before it:
He stared hard at the man, who looked away uneasily. Paddington had a very persistent stare when he cared to use it. It was a very powerful stare. One which his Aunt Lucy had taught him and which he kept for special occasions… Paddington followed the assistant, keeping about two feet behind him, and staring very hard. The back of the man’s neck seemed to go a dull red and he fingered his collar nervously.
I have been known to try out a few Paddington stares on irritating people, even to the extent of using it on phone calls with so-called customer agents who can’t even see me. I am convinced that if I project the stare enough, they will feel it and wilt accordingly. The giving of a ‘Paddington stare’ or even in some cases a formidable ‘Aunt Lucy stare’ has become part of our family folklore (or perhaps I should say family armoury as it is indeed a useful weapon). If one of my sisters mentions giving an unhelpful assistant an ‘Aunt Lucy’ then we all know exactly what was meant by that phrase.
And it’s all thanks to a childhood spent reading about a small bear from Darkest Peru….