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London, books and bears: an interview with Michael Bond

Ben Ray talks to the creator of Paddington Bear, Michael Bond, about his life, experiences and creations.

“The first time I nearly died was on a Wednesday.” Michael Bond, a smiling and well-dressed 90 year old, leaned forward as he talked. “It was during the war and I was in Reading, getting my pay, and we heard low flying aircraft approaching. Someone went to the window and shouted, ‘Christ! It’s a Dornier!’ It dropped a string of bombs that fell almost horizontally.” Bond slowly learnt back in his seat, eyes fixed on the middle distance as if he were somewhere else. “I think I died five times as the five bombs dropped.”

Michael Bond is not your ordinary ‘national treasure’. World famous creator of Paddington Bear, Bond has written series of books for both children and adults, and gives off the air of a man who has lived through many adventures. His front room in London, still only a short walk from Paddington station where it all began, feels warm and homely, lovingly filled with books, magazines and photos – though there are clear signs of Bond’s many creations and achievements. “Yes, he’s one of the original Paddingtons used in the first TV shows”, he smiles, pointing to a recognisable bear in red fedora and blue dufflecoat on a bookshelf behind him. “We had to have a few of them, because the filmmakers kept wearing them out, and he needed to look fresh for the camera.” Bond graciously fails to mention the framed CBE signed by the Queen leaning nonchalantly against the sideboard, or the gold disk in recognition of the 2014 blockbuster film Paddington propped up next to it. He doesn’t seem the sort of person who is overly concerned about accolades – it’s all about the writing, and the characters. “In fact, I’ve just started on a new Paddington book.” He smiles, gesturing to his laptop. “But I have to type it up – if I handwrote it, after about a paragraph no one could read it.”

As with all great creations, Michael Bond found Paddington almost by accident. “I didn’t mean to write him at all”, he tells me, “I wrote my first published story in the army in Egypt in the war. It sold for seven guineas to the London Opinion magazine – I had a job cashing the cheque, it was a lot of money in those days.” Once demobbed and back in England, Bond continued writing stories and pieces about car and motorcycle testing for magazines. “Paddington happened because of the BBC. They rang and asked if I had ideas for a story – I was living in Notting Hill Gate in a one room flat at the time, sitting there with no idea what to do next.” Bond looked around the room for ideas, and spotted a small toy bear which he’d bought for his wife. “I’d called it Paddington because I liked the name and we lived near it.”  Bond wrote down the first line, the BBC were happy with the idea – and the worldwide phenomenon of Paddington Bear was born. “I would have thrown the story away, but it caught my fancy. At the time I had a government surplus duffle coat and bush hat, so I dressed Paddington in them. I found myself talking to him, he simply came alive in my mind.”

Having grown up with Paddington all of my life on the empty, idyllic borders of Wales, I discovered the faraway world of London through Paddington’s various adventures – and when I finally got the visit the capital as a teenager, the friendly and fastidiously polite bear from Darkest Peru was always in my thoughts. When asked if he likes the fact that Paddington and London are now tied inextricably together, Bond nods. Having just published a new book of Paddington adventures and ‘Paddington’s Guide to London’, where visitors can explore the city’s attractions in the company of their favourite bear, Paddington is now deeply embedded in the city – even arriving at Paddington station that morning, I’d seen stickers, statues and posters. Once you think about him, you start seeing him everywhere. “It’s almost hopeless writing a guide to London”, Bond chuckles, “as London’s changing all the time. Even as this new book comes out I should be working on the next one! But I like the changes, and Paddington is at home in London really –he’s part of general life now, people expect to see him around the city.” And the iconic bear has now spread from London, going truly global: “I like the way a ‘Paddington hard stare’ is an accepted phrase. I read in the paper the other day someone had given the Pope a ‘Paddington hard stare’ – it made me rather happy.”

Despite his latest Paddington adventure ‘Paddington’s London Treasury’ being written specifically for children, Bond is pleased that the first books were not specifically for any age group. “Originally the BBC simply asked for a story, and children weren’t mentioned. See, I like to hear that Paddington’s written for everyone. That’s important, as when you’re writing for children you have to be careful as they don’t like being written down to, which I understand.” When asked how children respond to the recent books written specifically for their age range, Michael smiles. “I get a lot of fan letters from whole classes of children writing to me, and you can’t write back to them all. If a child has taken the trouble to write to you, the least you can do is to write back. Though they all write because they love Paddington – I think they’re rather envious of him.” Paddington’s humour – one of the few books that has ever made me laugh out loud – is important to the makeup of the stories. “It’s meant to be humorous. You can say a lot with stories, and if you can make children laugh with them it sticks in their mind more than a serous story would ever do.”

When asked whether Paddington could only have been created in 1958 and whether similar fresh ideas could gain purchase today, Michael’s smile shrank slightly. “The world has changed – not necessarily for the better,” he says. “It’s overcrowded, and harder to get opportunities.” There are certainly certain aspects of Paddington that are distinct to the time it was written in, though this only makes him more endearing. “Paddington’s from Darkest Peru because no one really travelled to South America back then: it seemed ‘a long way away’. In those days, most people only went to the Isle of Wight, I thought no one would get to Peru! Now the world has shrunk, and everywhere has the same shops, people can get anywhere.” Even Michael’s agent for the first book was a ‘bit of a Paddington’: “he was a Jew living in 1940s Germany, and was alerted just in time that he was on a hit list. He left with all his belongings in one suitcase. So yes, a lot of influences went into Paddington – the label round his neck is from my memory of refugees during the war.” When asked if there’s lots of himself in his creation, Michael shakes his head: “there’s more of my father than me in Paddington. He was always wearing a hat – even on the seaside, in case he met someone he knew.”

“I had a nice fan letter from America soon after my first book- they said they were so used to Paddington being a bear, it had become a funny name for a station. That really made me smile.” And this sums up Michael Bond – in the hour I spend in his study chatting about his life and writing, I got to know a wonderfully fascinating, kind, and open person with many stories to tell and who really loved his bear from Darkest Peru, who had become a friend to so many worldwide. In his own words, “Paddington keeps me young!” Those who say never to meet your heroes have clearly never read Paddington Bear and spoken to the man behind him –perhaps they deserve one of his trademark ‘hard stares’.

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