Michael Bond, creator of Paddington, the duffle-coated bear, died last week at 91. Children love Paddington for his perpetual messiness—his marmalade sandwiches make him “the stickiest bear imaginable”—and for his propensity for getting into scrapes, flooding the bathroom, and getting lost at department stores. But Paddington, for more than half a century, has also been an able ambassador. The polite, hopeful bear has introduced adults and kids to the bewildering, frustrating, exhilarating life of a complex global city. Paddington's life touches on all aspects of urbanism, from housing to transit to policing to tourism to civic culture.
In Bond’s 1958 book of short stories, A Bear Called Paddington, the small brown bear has arrived in London from darkest Peru, sent by his Aunt Lucy for a better life. The Brown family finds him sitting on a railway platform at Paddington Station platform, a fittingly grand Victorian hall through which to enter a world city. They take him to their home nearby, where he settles in indefinitely.
Paddington, not to be indelicate, is an affluent little bear in his new home, a house with multiple floors within walking distance of the Portobello Road. Mr. Brown, the family patriarch, works in banking; the Browns have a housekeeper and a car, and their two children, Judy and Jonathan, go to boarding school. Mrs. Brown doesn’t work (whether inside the home or out). Even in the postwar era, only a fairly wealthy family could afford such things. Still, the idea that a banker earning a good income could have a nice house in central London big enough for a family wasn’t insane.
Today, only the superrich—the .001 percent, not the 1 percent—can aspire to such a goal, and many of London’s poshest residential neighborhoods are underpopulated: wealthy Russians, Middle Easterners, and Chinese have bought houses for investment and political security, not as homes. Mr. Brown has a good job, but it is just that: a rather untaxing 9-to-5 job. He is not the head of a global investment firm, a tech-company founder, or a mining oligarch. And Paddington has real neighbors, not empty houses, next door.
Paddington uses his good fortune to explore his new city, and his first adventure, fittingly, is in London's transit system: you can’t master London unless you master the Tube. It does not go well: Paddington doesn’t know what do with his 80-pence ticket, gets separated from his family, bumps into a fat man running in the opposite direction, and pushes the emergency stop button on the escalator. Before you know it, an “inspector” has collared him, writing him three different summonses and threatening to jail him. But there is a loophole: the rules apply to persons, as Judy, having reappeared, points out, and Paddington is a bear. No worries. Paddington will strive to do better in the future. British law and order, albeit in a crowded environment where “everything seemed very confused,” is painlessly reasserted
Paddington’s confusion, in this instance, is that of a newcomer. But Paddington remains perpetually perplexed—reflecting the experience of anyone who lives somewhere for a long time and becomes “lost” as the city changes around one. In a 2012 story, Paddington attempts to board the bus, only to be informed by the driver that he needs an Oyster. He goes to the fish market and duly buys himself two oysters (for a round trip), re-boards the bus, and smashes one into the electronic reader. “A moment later, all was chaos,” Bond writes, and Paddington is stuck with his other warm shellfish as he learns that an Oyster is a transit card. Once you’ve figured out one system, it changes.
Paddington is equally confused by money, the lubricant of urban life. Before depositing a five-pound note at Floyds Bank, he writes the serial number down. When he later withdraws a note with a different serial number, he accuses the bank of losing his original money. He calls the fire department before receiving an explanation, from the bank manager, that gives him at least enough confidence in fractional-reserve banking to leave his money there. On another occasion, Paddington is scammed by a fraudulent stock salesman. “He dresses just like someone who works in the City,” says his friend, Mr. Gruber. “He’ll begin to give the market a bad name.” Paddington goes to the stock exchange to try to fix the situation, and, after the usual adventure, all is well. It turns out that writing the serial numbers down on his money helped catch the crook.
Paddington contributes to the civic culture in his neighborhood. He tries, over the decades, to get along with his ornery neighbor. He catches a burglar. He does his shopping on the Portobello Road, where Mr. Gruber, also an immigrant, runs an antique store. Over the decades, the road is overrun by tourists; a policeman in a 2008 story, after attempting to talk to him in two different foreign languages, half-complains to him that “we get a lot of overseas visitors at this time of year.” (Some of those tourists are, of course, the fictional Paddington’s doing, though the real Paddington in the books can’t realize that.)
Despite the changes over the eras, though, one theme is clear: things work. You just have to figure them out—and keep up with figuring them out. But once you do, you can have confidence in the system, which is fair, if bureaucratic. The people in officialdom can be obstinate and inflexible, but they are, in the end, on your side. The bank is not stealing your money. Your neighbors, whether business or residential, have a stake in your community, and are there to help you.
In 2001, Bond wrote of the bronze statue of Paddington in Paddington Station. “People use the plinth to sit on while they eat their sandwiches … and it’s nice to think they will probably still be doing it long after I have gone,” he noted. Let’s hope, too, that London can reassert the ideals of the city in which Paddington lived.
Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images