I don’t struggle for posts, not usually and mostly I know from a way out what I’ll write about. But today my plans were thrown when the news came through that Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear had died. Regular readers will know of my love for that little Peruvian Ursus. But, at the risk of trying your patience, dear readers, I have to repeat this post as I have a lot for which to thank Mr Bond and his clever creation. My life would have taken a very different course, of that I am certain but for Paddington, and Mr Bond.
If I look back up the bannister of my life there have been very few splinters to discombobulate me during my smooth progress to the present day. And that is in large part because of a little Peruvian, marmalade guzzling, antique shop frequenting bear called Paddington. He is, after all, nearly as old as me, having first appeared in 1958. But it isn’t the similarity of our personalities (he’s loyal and a klutz who means well) nor our mutual longevity that links us.
I have many things to be grateful for. My timeless and ineffably lovely wife the Textiliste tops every poll. But I wouldn’t have gone to university without Paddington and never met her over cheese and wine at our tutor’s introductory soiree (yep, I’m old enough to have gone to soirees). I did promise I’d never embarrass her here but since this is a special post and this photo from our time at uni is fab, I break my rule just this once.
I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer at primary school. Possibly being in the Archaeologist’s shadow played to my detriment. You might think that is false modesty but here are two school reports to put the truth onto to that statement.
In 1968 the Education reforms of Butler in 1944 had morphed into a two tier system. The original conceit was to treat academic prowess and technical prowess in identical ways, devoting as much time and resource to each and to provide quality education for both sorts of pupil. However, while the grammar schools were succeeding in providing a quality academic secondary education previously only available to the rich or those lucky enough to win scholarships, the technical colleges were underfunded and thought of as frankly second class. If you didn’t get to a grammar school and ended up at the nearest Secondary Modern, (these were the schools where those who failed at the 11 plus were sent), you were hothoused to failure. Or that was the received wisdom. To fail to win a place at grammar school meant my educational fate, certainly in the eyes of my parents and probably in truth given I needed a lot of help back then, was sealed.
I scraped in (as to how that is coming). I ended up at Purley Grammar school in Surrey for a year and a half before my family moved to Hampshire where I continued at the local grammar school (there known as High Schools) in Brockenhurst. I had a fantastic education and some great teachers. Mr Boun in History stands out but Messrs Gifford (Latin), Bain (French), Hucker (Physics), Sims (Chemistry), Doubleday (English), Pearce (Maths) and Meredith (form teacher) as well as Miss Post (also French), Miss Davies (English) all worked their magic. Between them they turned me from an also ran into a pretty decent learner with an increasing appetite for knowledge. I made it to Bristol university which I left three years later with a Law Degree of which I’m still quite proud…
My career in the law provided me with both intellectual stimulation and a comfortable existence, neither of which might have followed without that bear. My university friends knew of my love for and loyalty to the little chap, so much so that they clubbed together to raise the £25 – a veritable shed load of little green drinking tokens back in 1977 – to buy me a Paddington of my own for my 21st. Never was I given a better present. Moth eaten and dusty he still stands sentinel at the top of our stairs.
For those for whom Paddington Bear is still a mystery, you need to buy the book ‘a Bear called Paddington’ and live a while in 1950s Britain of imagined tolerance and innocence, toast and marmalade and old men called Gruber in whose shops a small bear and twin children can spend time absorbing wisdom and elevenses without any eyebrows being raised. Paddington was explorer, detective, loyal if befuddled friend and, given his experiences as an orphan, stowaway and illegal immigrant, a great example to those who do not realise that lonely immigrants are not just wastrels and spongers but can and do enrich us if treated with humanity.
And why is Paddington so important to me?
As noted, to be granted a grammar school place I needed to pass my 11 plus. I failed it. Not by much. I was ‘borderline’, an expression now reserved for mental illness which perhaps is apposite given the strain my exam failure put on my parents’ mental health. There were a few spare places to be allocated so those who’d missed crossing the line were interviewed to determine who would benefit from a grammar school future. Interviewed at 11? What were they thinking?
I must have known it was important because I have some memories of it. Partly it was because the interview took place in the headmaster’s study, a place you only went when you were in serious trouble. I remember sitting down and swinging my legs and being told to stop by someone. I have no memory of making any sort of impression until I was asked what books I liked to read. I said Paddington and the only lady on the panel cooed. She asked me which I liked best and I told her. Back then I had a good memory for stories and could have given her the plots of all the books had she asked. In my memory now – I could be making this up – I recall a smile passing between the panellists as I rattled off one of the stories. I was in. My love of that gorgeous little South American lump of fake fur and kapok saw me to a better future than might otherwise have been the case.
And for that, Paddington Brown, orphan and Peruvian expat, I will forever be eternally grateful.
Michael Bond 13 January 1926 – 27 June 2017 RIP