It’s the evening of Tuesday 27th. I’m preparing supper, tuned into Radio 4 as usual when the newsreader tells me that Michael Bond had died. Being the author and creator of my childhood favourite book character, Paddington Bear, my earnest carrot chopping stopped. How sad, I thought.
But then hearing he was a hearty 91 when he died, my emotion soon lifted – this was a man who’d lived a long and full life and had passed on something very precious to a whole generation. I hadn’t realised quite how precious until I heard the radio programme explain where his inspiration had come for that most polite, yet downright chaotic, bear.
Apparently Bond had come into contact with, or observed from a distance, hundreds if not thousands of refugees and displaced people. German Jews fleeing wartime Germany, child evacuees from the cities to the countryside (he lived in Reading, then considered countryside) and then Caribbean immigrants in 1950s West London where he wrote the first books. Bond was a compassionate man, moved deeply by the plight of anyone having to flee their home.
And so we find in the story of Paddington, a bear who is in fact an illegal immigrant, a stowaway on a boat from ‘darkest Peru’ (code for a strange foreign land). Plucky and innocent he asks for help on an abandoned railway station. Interestingly, it is the women and children who respond with hospitality, and later the German immigrant, Mr Gruber. Mr Brown, the risk-averse man of the house, is far from sure. But despite the chaos, mess and upheaval that Paddington brings to their comfortable upper-middle class lives, he becomes firmly one of the family, despite outsiders’ disapproval.
I’ve always adored Paddington, even more so when the brilliantly directed, scripted and acted film came out a few years ago (Julie Walter’s Mrs Brown is genius). But I hadn’t noticed quite how moral a story it was, how much of a Christian message there is in there, and particularly how relevant it is to our modern society.
As someone who attempts to write creatively, and recently to write stories for my 11 year old son, I have huge admiration for authors who can write comedy yet with a message. What a genius (and gentleman) Bond was for conveying such a deep moral message without a hint of sermonising or judgement!
Further, not only does Paddington have a message about accepting the outsider, extending compassion to the homeless or refugee, it also challenges current parenting wisdom. The wisdom that says ‘play it safe, avoid risk or they might get hurt.’ Paddington throws all caution to the wind and shows us that disasters can be overcome. But also that we need to embrace risk if we’re to become fully alive, fully human.
The Christian faith says the same thing: we’re called to be risk takers if we’re to be effective in living by faith.
Who knew that a small brown furry bear with the manners of an English gent would be equated with Jesus?! Ok, so that might be stretching it a bit, but Jesus’ message about needing to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God rings very true here.
So, next time you read Paddington to your kids or watch the film, keep your eyes open for those messages that are subtly tucked away – rather like Paddington’s marmalade sandwiches tucked under his hat.
Click here to read the post I wrote for LICC last week: it is thanks to their commission that I dug a little deeper into this remarkable bear….