The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is quite interesting. Also known as the “frequency illusion,” it basically means that when you start looking for something you weren’t previously looking for, you begin to see it everywhere. It usually refers to words – you hear an obscure word, and then it’s in all the books and articles you read, but in my case, it started happening with bears. More specifically, bears in children’s books.
Because you know, the very first stories we read are about bears, if you’re really looking for them: Goldilocks had her three bears, a Grimm’s fairy tale called Snow White And Rose Red (not that Snow White, an unrelated one), had two beautiful sisters who helped out a bear who turned out to be a prince in disguise.
Then there are bears all over children’s literature: Enid Blyton, whom every Indian kid cuts their teeth on, had several teddy bears in her books (naughty Amelia Jane, the doll, was often reprimanded by the wise, stern Teddy, leader of the toys). Then, of course, there’s Winnie the Pooh, who lived with his friends in the forest and Teddy Robinson, who had tea parties. Even an old Soviet book I have called The Adventures of Dennis, had one very touching story about a toy bear the little boy has outgrown.
Real bears are far less frequent. There’s Mary Plane (from the bear pits in Berlin), Ursula, the little girl who turns into a bear by saying the words “I’m a bear” and eating a special sandwich, and of course, the reason I’m writing this piece: Paddington.
What can I say about Paddington that has not already been said? His creator Michael Bond died recently, and oddly – another example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I suppose – I was reading an old Paddington book the week before he died. Paddington was from Darkest Peru, a stowaway on a ship, who wound up on Paddington station (hence his name) with a little label around his neck saying “Please look after this bear.”
I’m tempted to turn that into a metaphor for the author and his new book, sending out this creation about a bear into the world with a message to cherish it. And people did. Both Lima and London have little statues of Paddington, there are movies and stuffed toys, a special stamp, a Google Doodle, a Marmite ad, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon, he was taken into people’s hearts and looked after well. (This New Yorker piece on refugees and Paddington goes into some more detail about the fictional bears I’ve mentioned above.)
Why was Paddington so beloved? It seems impossible to think of a time when he wasn’t as much of a fixture in kid lit as Winnie the Pooh, except the two bears could not be more different. For one, Paddington was a real bear, a live one, who happened to speak English. When the Browns, the family that takes him in and names him, exclaim about this face, he solemnly tells them his aunt had taught him the language. The same aunt who had to go into a home for Retired Bears, hence sending Paddington off into the world.
It is this combination of almost grave good manners (he always raises his hat to people he meets) and naivete that lend to his charm. Paddington could be the child reading the book: always getting into trouble with every good intention, and set apart slightly from everyone else by virtue of being a bear. The bookish child sees themselves in Paddington, a little different, a little unusual, but also sees how Paddington is cherished by his new family, how every event he arrives at is a little special.
The Browns too, take to Paddington like he is another member of their family. Mr Brown takes some convincing, but the rest of the family, including the housekeeper, Mrs Bird, adapt so easily to him being in the house, that not only is he taken in, but also treated like he is royalty. In fact, he even has two birthdays “like the Queen” because that is, Mrs Bird says, what bears get.
This is to distinguish him from all the books about children getting very special pets – I had a whole series of books like this, the kids get a pet, it grows too big for the house and has to be let go. Paddington eats masses of marmalade sandwiches, causes considerable damage to the house and its surroundings, and yet, the fact of him is never challenged.
The bear who saved the day
Bond, a BBC cameraman, had picked up a toy bear at a shop during Christmas, because it looked all alone and sad, left behind on the racks. Searching about for inspiration for a story, he wrote a quick book about a refugee bear, which was rejected by several publishers before finally finding a home at Collins. Later, he went on to write 13 sequels, and according to this obituary in The Guardian, began to make serious money off Paddington only after the TV show in the 1970s. (The same obituary has a dark side, Bond felt the pressure of success and turned to whiskey and sleeping pills, even contemplating suicide, until Paddington himself pulled him out of it. “I wouldn’t want to let him down,” Bond said in an interview.)
Why are bears so popular though? I’m a cat lady myself – in fact, we even named one of our cats after one of Bond’s lesser-known characters, a cheeky guinea pig called Olga da Polga – but even I can see that cats, as creatures, would not make for very lovable kids characters. If Paddington had been a cat, he would have sauntered up to the Browns himself, and insinuated himself into their home, no questions at all. (The most cat-like character in English children’s literature is Mary Poppins. She may be a human, but her behaviour is all cat.)
Similarly, a dog wouldn’t work: too needy and domestic, nor a tiger: too dangerous and wild. Bears have arms and legs, which makes it easier for them to eat like humans (think of Pooh with his “hunny”), and are already a part of a childhood, with teddy bears never going out of fashion. You may have several dolls, but it is your bears you cuddle and sleep with at night.
In the end, it’s bears that are that mix of domestic and foreign, comforting and in need of comfort, able to be anthropomorphic in a way no other animal can be. Paddington will probably be immortal, living on forever with his duffle coat and his Very Hard Stare, eating marmalade sandwiches and getting into scrapes. And what could be more comforting than that?