Paddington Bear was an early pioneer of racial equality who offered a fresh perspective on British life, a university academic has said.
But while many families are looking forward to seeing the film, advert and window, a North East academic has proclaimed the small bear is not only a fictional character who is entertaining – he is also an illegal immigrant, and even an early pioneer of racial equality.
Professor Angela Smith is based in the School of Culture at the University of Sunderland.
In her research paper, Paddington Bear: A Case Study of Immigration and Otherness, Professor Smith has gone back to Paddington’s origins, Britain in 1958, a time of widespread racism, and growing multiculturalism, into which a small bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ arrives with a unique perspective on British life.
“Michael Bond’s Paddington books deal with immigration at a very subtle level,” said Professor Smith.
“Today those kinds of books are aimed at older children who, it is assumed, are better able to cope with the complex political and psychological issues.
“But that first book, A Bear Called Paddington, published in 1958, presents issues of anti-racism in a deceptively simple story.”
Professor Smith argues that the setting of Michael Bond’s books, and the background of his famous bear, are very carefully chosen.
His publishers rejected the author’s original idea to have Paddington come from Africa, so Bond subtly chose ‘Darkest’ Peru to keep that tie to the African continent.
It is well known that Paddington’s famous luggage label, reading: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” Is a reference to author Michael Bond’s experiences of seeing evacuees leaving London during the Second World War.
But this particular evacuee is coming into London during a critical time in the country’s history.
“London in the 1950s was becoming rapidly more multicultural that ever before. The first of many large groups of West Indians, called ‘Windrush’ immigrants, arrived in the late 1940s, and that cultural mix in London was not always a comfortable one.
“In the summer 1958, just months before the first Paddington book was published, some of the worst race riots in Britain ignited, particularly the Notting Hill Riots.
“It’s no coincidence that the first Paddington stories are specifically set in Notting Hill.”
Like many immigrants, Paddington arrives in Britain apparently without a name, or any other form of identity.
He admits he has stowed away on a boat, and Mr and Mrs Brown, who ‘rescue’ the small bear at Paddington station and give him his British name, are aware that he is an illegal immigrant.
“In A Bear Called Paddington he is treated in much the same ways as other immigrants, who would be given English-sounding names by immigration officers,” says Professor Smith.
“In later books we learn that his Peruvian name is actually ‘Pastuso’, which is quite easily pronouncable by English speakers.
“But, like other immigrants in the 1950s, Paddington arrives without a clearly defined identity or a recognisable past.”
Interestingly, this name is given to Paddington’s uncle in the first Paddington film, whilst Paddington’s own name is articulated merely as an animalistic roar.
Professor Smith points out that almost all of the humans in A Bear Called Paddington are not even vaguely curious about their guest’s past.
In fact, the only character in the book who is even slightly curious about Paddington’s former life in Darkest Peru is Mr Gruber, himself an immigrant, who, we later discover, fled from Hungary during the Second World War.
Paddington, Professor Smith argues, is a character who is a true pioneer in children’s literature, with views on racial equality and integration that were way ahead of their time.
“During the 1970s there was a backlash against inferred and overt racism in children’s books,” she says.
“Well-meaning librarians and teachers withdrew some Enid Blyton books, such as Noddy, from children’s libraries and classrooms, and classics such as PL Travers’s Mary Poppins were edited to remove racial stereotypes.
“But as far back as 1958, when the Browns first discover the small bear on Paddington railway station the impression of him being a stranger in a strange land never leaves those stories.
“Michael Bond’s Paddington stories subtly investigate racism, and present the case for tolerance and understanding towards immigrants in general.
“The small bear, more than any other character in literature, is quintessentially British, but actively questions the ‘common sense’ elements of British culture in the 1950s and beyond.
Those stories’ events are often comic, but their deeper meanings hinge on the ‘long, hard stare’ of that most human of bears.”
Professor Angela Smith’s paper, Paddington Bear: A Case Study of Immigration and Otherness was first published in Children's Literature in Education, one of the world's leading academic journals on the study of children's literature.