Look at any picture of London these days, and it appears a small army has invaded—an army of bears, that is. Over 50 celebrity-designed life-size statues of the beloved children’s character Paddington Bear have been placed at strategically chosen locations around the city, including, of course, at Paddington Station, to coincide with the feature film debut of everybody’s favorite, accident-prone, duffle coat loving Peruvian.
The film is, by all accounts, a delight—an instant children’s classic that adults will love as well. Unfortunately, like so much of the best of Britain these days (your Downton Abbeys, your Sherlocks), we in the States will have to wait until January for it. But we can enjoy the flurry of British press surrounding the film, particularly the interviews with Paddington’s 88-year-old creator, Michael Bond, in which he reveals his inspiration for the kindly bear: the Jewish evacuee children he remembered seeing in the train stations of London during the Kindertransport of the late 1930s. “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on,” a recent article in The Guardian quotes Bond as saying, “and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
Paddington is not the only sympathetic refugee in his cozy North London haven: The books also suggest that Mr. Gruber, the kindly Portobello Road antique dealer with whom Paddington has his elevenses, fled Nazi-occupied Europe, as did his inspiration, Bond’s agent, Harvey Unna. In the stories, Mr. Gruber and Paddington often serve as a foil for the Brown family’s xenophobic neighbor, Mr. Curry, whose intolerance and foul temper make him the only truly unsympathetic character in the books.
That was hardly an accident. The Britain of the late 50s and early 60s, when the first Paddington books were published, was experiencing an influx of immigrants from the outer reaches of the former empire, particularly the West Indies. These new—and, it should be said, non-white—immigrants were often treated with hostility and even violence as they struggled to adapt to their new, unfamiliar surroundings. Paddington is also an immigrant—one prone to tangling himself up in laundry cord at Harrods and leaving marmalade-y paw prints on the wallpaper—but in his acts of friendship, his ability to rally his family around him, and his willingness to stand up for what he believes in he helps more than he hinders. For a bear, Paddington is uniquely concerned with injustice, particularly as it concerns the enemies of his foster siblings, Jonathan and Judy. At a time when racism and xenophobia seem once again to be on the rise in Europe, perhaps it’s a message we all need to hear. As Paddington himself says: “In London nobody is the same, which means everyone fits in.” Not bad for a little Jewish bear.