A recent post on the benefits of reading to children to stimulate in them a lifelong love of the art triggered a memory.
I wasn’t an early reader, but under the encouragement of the Archaeologist (mostly so he could be left alone) by about six or seven I began to appreciate reading. What I didn’t realise, until I looked back, was how important that was to be to my future direction. When I do 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 my love of reading an especially reading of the adventures 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 but often doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions) 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 to study law 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 and I still looked a prat dancing)…
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 turn there back on the enriching nature of migration.
And why is Paddington so important to me?
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. 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.