Michael Bond, the author of Paddington Bear, died this week age 91.
Paddington is one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature, and he is also one of the most famous refugees in the world – albeit a fictional one. What many people don’t know, however, is that he is Jewish.
In a Daily Telegraph interview in 2014, Bond explained that the small refugee from Darkest Peru was inspired by memories of Jewish children arriving at Reading station just before the outbreak of the Second World War:
"I remember their labels round their necks, and then I remember going to the cinema and seeing on the newsreel that Hitler had moved into some new country, and seeing footage of elderly people pushing prams with all their belongings in them. Refugees are the saddest sight, I still think that.”
Bond did not originally intend Paddington to come from Peru. In an interview on Desert Island Discs in 1976, he told Roy Plomley: "When I wrote the first book I wrote that he was from Darkest Africa, and my agent wrote back to me and said that he liked the book but PS there aren’t any bears in Africa".
Paddington is aware of his precarious refugee status. He has a suitcase containing all his important papers in a secret compartment. When he and Mr Brown first meet, he explains that he is a stowaway, having arrived in a lifeboat. Mr Brown is worried:
‘A stowaway?’ Mr Brown lowered his voice and looked anxiously over his shoulder. He almost expected to see a policeman standing behind him with a notebook and pencil, taking everything down.’
The Browns welcome Paddington into their home in spite of their misgivings, and despite the fact that their settled and comfortable upper-middle-class existence is considerably disrupted by this small ursine visitor, who inadvertently spreads chaos wherever he goes.
Paddington’s refugee story echoes that of so many real-life ones, in that his success and safety relies on the kindness of the people in his new country.
Paddington’s great friend Mr Gruber, who is a Notting Hill antique dealer, was also inspired by a real life Jewish person.
Bond said in the Telegraph: "He was based on my first agent [Harvey Unna], a lovely man, a German Jew, who was in line to be the youngest judge in Germany when he was warned his name was on a list. So he got out and came to England with just a suitcase and £25 to his name." Bond was disappointed when Jim Broadbent was cast to play Mr Gruber in the 2014 film adaptation of Paddington because in his mind the character was definitely not English.
Bond was a strong proponent of ‘doing the right thing’ although he says that Paddington was better at it than he was. "I think in many ways he’s what I would like to be in life," he said on Desert Island Discs. "He has a strong sense of right and wrong which I may have, but whereas he does the right thing, I don’t always do that."
The extremely warm tributes following his death suggest that he he was more like Paddington than he thought. Stephen Fry tweeted: "So sorry to hear that Michael Bond has departed. He was as kindly, dignified, charming and lovable as the immortal Paddington Bear he gave us."