I wrote recently about how, as a child growing up far from London both geographically and culturally, a capital of my imagination was formed substantially by stories and images of the Blitz. But there were many other sources: Dixon of Dock Green; comedy cockneys; watching boxing on the telly from York Hall, Bethnal Green; and Paddington Bear.
I went to see the movie Paddington 2 the other day and, like just about every critic, really enjoyed it. And, of course, it got me thinking all over again about who Paddington is and was, the values he represents and the version of London he has personified and inhabited since the first story about him was published in 1958 (the year of my birth).
His creator, Michael Bond, died in June, aged 91. In a lovely obituary, Veronica Horwell described how Bond created the shabby bear out of his wartime memories of evacuee children arriving in Britain, though the very first paragraphs of the very first Paddington book suggest that his post-war arrival in a large London railway station is somewhat unofficial.
“I’m not really supposed to be here at all,” he confides to one of his household of benefactors, Mr Brown, when they first meet. “I’m a stowaway!” He adds: “I emigrated, you know”. And as Horwell also writes, Paddington later became “interpreted as a sympathetic allegory of Commonwealth immigrants of the 1950s”.
It occurs to me now that the London of Paddington was one of the earliest depictions I encountered of the international, multicultural London that I would move to as a young adult. As I child reader I was probably oblivious to much of this because of Paddington’s very proper English civility, armoured with the considerable moral authority of his adopted Aunt Lucy (the film depicts the baby Paddington being rescued by her from a river in his native land, Peru). But, of course, Paddington was cosmopolitan and hung out in Portobello Road with his antique dealer friend Mr Gruber, who features prominently in the new film.
I think I may have concluded relatively early that Mr Gruber was Jewish, perhaps from “hearing” him in the BBC’s adaption of the Paddington stories. One account says the character was inspired by Hungarian refugees Bond had worked with at the BBC’s foreign news monitoring station in Caversham Park, though the Jewish Chronicle has recalled that in 2014 Bond told the Telegraph that Mr Gruber was “based on my first agent [Harvey Unna], a lovely man, a German Jew” who fled Germany and arrived in England with just a suitcase and a few pounds. Whichever, I now think of Mr Gruber as one of the first portrayals of Jewishness to come my way that wasn’t from a Bible story or embedded in a Sticksville playground insult.
The Paddington 2 movie is still showing in London cinemas, so if you haven’t already been, don’t miss it. In a nifty bridging of eras we see Paddington both making a call from a old-fashioned coin box telephone kiosk and cleaning the glass walls of the Shard. There’s also a scene shot in and around the old Spiller’s flour mill – now the Millennium Mills – by the Royal Victoria Dock, itself a sort of straddling of old and contemporary Londons. And why not? Paddington is, after all, a timeless London legend.