It was a chilly London day. Barbara Ker Wilson was about to go out for lunch, when yet another manuscript arrived on her desk. The book didn’t look promising, because it had already been rejected by other publishers before arriving at William Collins, where Ker Wilson was in charge of children’s books. But she gamely picked it up and began reading. By the time Ker Wilson finished, it was long past lunchtime. “I rang up the agent and said we would certainly publish it,” she says, even before she told her boss, Sir William Collins, about it. “I just knew it was a wonderful story for children.”
Since it was published in 1958, A Bear Called Paddington – and its sequels – have sold more than 35 million copies world-wide. They’ve been turned into comic books, television series, and films, the latest of which is a big-screen affair, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Bonneville. It even features a walk-on role by the author, Michael Bond, who, like Ker Wilson, is now in his 80s.
Paddington has also spawned plays, a cookery book and television adaptations, along with many tea towels. More than a beloved children’s character, he’s a cultural institution.
A Bear Called Paddington is the story of a young bear found at Paddington Station in London by the Brown family:
It seemed a very unusual kind of bear. It was brown in colour, a rather dirty brown, and it was wearing a most odd-looking hat, with a wide brim, just as Mr Brown had said. From beneath the brim two large, round eyes stared back at her.
Seeing that something was expected of it the bear stood up and politely raised its hat, revealing two black ears. “Good afternoon,” it said, in a small, clear voice.
The bear – hailing from ‘darkest Peru’ – has a tag around his neck: Please take care of this bear. The Browns take him home, name him Paddington after where he was found – and the adventures begin.
Bond could not have found a better editor for his manuscript. Ker Wilson began her career at the Children’s Books division of Oxford University Press in London in 1949, and then worked for Sir Stanley Unwin (known as ‘Stunwin’), who owned both Allen & Unwin and The Bodley Head; her editing credits include The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. A few years later she was at William Collins, whose backlist of books included Mary Poppins.
It’s astonishing, now, to think there was a time when an editor had the authority to pick up a manuscript and simply buy it, without testing the book on a focus group, or running it by the marketing department. “There were none of these silly meetings that happen today and waste everybody’s time,” says Ker Wilson. “I just knew it was something we had to publish.”
Children’s illustrator Peggy Fortnum was commissioned to bring Paddington to life. Working in black and white – the illustrations were later coloured by others, including her niece – Fortnum’s drawings created Paddington’s unmistakable look. Today, signed pen and ink Paddington illustrations by Fortnum are collectibles that sell for hundreds of pounds. “She was very dedicated to her art,” remembers Ker Wilson, who says Fortnum’s illustrations played a key role in the ultimate success of Paddington.
Next came the launch, at Fortnum & Mason’s department store in Piccadilly. “Michael was very pleased, but there weren’t a lot of people there,” says Ker Wilson. “It was a small launch. Billy Collins came and we sold a few copies. The interesting thing about Paddington is that it completely sold by word of mouth, and that was how it became known.” She says it had to be reprinted “early on.” It was becoming known as a good bedtime story and both parents and children loved it. “It became clear it was going to be one of our leading children’s books.”
At the time, 32-year-old Michael Bond was a BBC cameraman. In his autobiography, Bears & Forebears, Bond says he was fortunate to be in television when he was, because he worked on a wide variety of television genres, and was able to write scripts and adaptations.
Educated at Presentation College in Reading, Bond was so unhappy at school that he left at 14; he once, told the Guardian that his parents had chosen the school “for the simple reason my mother liked the colour of the blazers. She didn’t make many mistakes in life but that was one of them”. Bond worked in a solicitor’s office for a year, and then as an engineer’s assistant for the BBC.
He was still in Reading in 1943, when a building he was working in was hit by an air raid. Although he survived, 41 people were killed and many more left injured. Soon afterwards, he joined the Royal Air Force, but apparently had to leave because of airsickness, and joined the British Army instead.
His writing began when he was stationed in Cairo during World War II, at age 19. After being paid seven guineas for a short story, he decided the writing life was for him. Today, he has more than 70 books to his credit – but A Bear Called Paddington was his first:
The opening paragraph was simply an early-morning doodle brought on by the certain knowledge that if I didn’t put something down on the blank sheet of paper in my typewriter nobody else would.
However, it caught my fancy, so I wrote a second paragraph, then a third, until by the end of the day I had completed a whole story… Ten working days later, having completed seven more stories, I realized I had a book on my hands.
Postscript, A Bear Called Paddington
The inspiration was a toy bear sitting on the mantelpiece, which Bond had impulsively bought it as a Christmas present for his wife the year before and called Paddington, because he liked the name of Paddington Station. Today, many people believe the station was named after the bear, rather than the other way round.
Noted British critic Amanda Craig, reviewer of children’s literature for The New Statesmen, says a central character based on a teddy bear is part of the appeal. “For a young child between the ages of 4 and 7 just starting to read, it’s the most delightful idea. A real teddy bear who comes from this exotic place and gets adopted by a family,” she says.
Paddington is a beguiling bear, with his shapeless hat, his duffel coat – bought for him by Mrs Brown – and his suitcase stocked with marmalade sandwiches. Better still, the image of him created by Peggy Fortnum proved the perfect foundation for marketing. Shirley Clarkson, who ran a design company in Doncaster, made Paddington Bear toys for her children – one of whom, Jeremy, grew up to be the host of Top Gear – and the toy propelled Clarkson’s company, Gabrielle Designs, to multi-million pound success. Clarkson introduced the wellington boots, to enable the toy to stand upright. Bond added the wellington boots into a later book.
It’s difficult to estimate the worth of Paddington Bear merchandise today, but it encompasses clothing, toys, and collectables. Yet many characters from children’s books could have become a marketing juggernaut. But they didn’t. Paddington Bear did.
The post-war imagination
Ker Wilson notes that children’s literature in the 20th century – from Winnie the Pooh onwards – is full of bears, probably because the teddy bear toy had given the animal an association with childhood. But what made Paddington stand out?
“It was such fun to find a new voice – that was what I always looked for. All the other bear books had become rather old hat,” says Ker Wilson. “ It’s hard to describe this, but they were a bit snobbish.” She says the post-war world was changing rapidly in the 1950s and “those previous bear stories seemed to assume that they would be bought for middle-class children by middle-class parents.”
Paddington often pokes fun at elements of middle class life and middlebrow culture; when he touches up a painting with abstract explosions of colour, it wins an art prize; when he goes to the theatre to watch a famous actor, he ends up working as the prompt. But throughout, he maintains a very strong sense of right and wrong and gives ‘hard stares’ to anyone behaving badly.
Amanda Craig says Paddington has all the elements of a perfect story, because it’s about “family life and getting things wrong and them turning out right. It’s also very funny. Other books of the time, like My Naughty Little Sister or The Borrowers, don’t quite have that magic combination of ingredients,” she says. “My Naughty Little Sister is just a bit too domestic and The Borrowers a bit too wild.”
But Paddington has an even deeper layer, which resonates as profoundly today as it did in the 1950s. He’s a refugee looking for a better life, like his Hungarian friend Mr Gruber:
To me, one of the saddest sights of any conflict is that of refugees, trudging along some dusty road, leaving everything they have known and loved behind them as they head into the unknown.
It was the memory of seeing newsreels shows trainloads of evacuees leaving London during the war, each child with a label round its neck and all its important possessions in a tiny suitcase, that prompted me to do the same for Paddington. Please look after this bear was a message the Browns could hardly resist, and the addition of Thank you said even more.
Michael Bond, Bears and Forebears
Craig thinks that Bond was part of a generation of writers who were “sort of processing the Second World War,” adding that the book most comparable to Paddington is Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The 101 Dalmations, which was inspired by the Kindertransport – the rescue mission to save children from the Nazis.
Britain was also experiencing a wave of post-war migration that was to change its character forever; Paddington embodies the kindness of strangers, coupled with the migrant’s urge to fit in. Fifty years later, the question of migration and refugees has become a fraught one in Britain, which Bond tackled in his 2008 book Paddington Here and Now, which sees Paddington questioned over his residency status. While everything turns out well, Bond said it was important for authors – and, presumably, readers – to understand that life isn’t easy for someone who has left their country and can’t go back.
In January, Pico Iyer wrote an essay for the New York Times on what Paddington Bear had meant to him as a child growing up in England. Iyer, of Indian ancestry and born a year before Paddington, was also “small and brown and foreign”. Paddington Bear became so important to him that after he left school is he saved the money to visit Peru (only to discover that “Homes for Retired Bears were a little thin on the ground”). Doubtless he wasn’t the only child to draw courage from the Peruvian refugee.
Craig makes another point: Authors like Michael Bond and Dodie Smith were writing during a baby boom. “It was very easy to make money out of children’s books,” she points out. “In the 1950s, there was this great post-war baby bulge and you had a lot more books for children. Reading a book was one of the ways parents could spend time with their children.”
Given that Britain is experiencing a mini baby boom right now, it’s conceivable that there will be another golden age for children’s literature in the next decade. But whatever new books come along in that future time, there will always be Paddington, a bear with a very special quality.
“It is something I recognized when I first read it,” says Ker Wilson. “It’s got heart.”
Magpies Paddington 10-12-2 originally published in Magpies magazine, Australia’s journal of children’s literature for teachers and librarians. Barbara Ker Wilson saw the article before publication and made some changes – which means I’m lucky enough to have been edited by the editor who edited C.S. Lewis and Michael Bond!