Paddington Bear: Britain’s Favourite Immigrant

An article by Ruth McGivern, illustrated by Dominic Twigg.

“I like long weekends because if Saturday or Sunday weren’t as good as they could have been, then I have Monday to make up for it.”

Taken from an illustration by Dominic Twigg.

A delightful sentiment that sounds like it has just escaped from the wholesome, musing mind of Winnie the Pooh. Instead, it came from the Twitter account of another fictitious but well-loved character: Paddington Bear. I am one of the guilty 149k followers that keep up-to-date with Paddington’s daily activities. This includes but is not limited to; cake eating, duffle coat hunting and various well wishes. Although, given that Twitter requires you to be at least 13 years of age to join, I am confident that I am accompanied by many other grown adults, all of whom just can’t resist the utter joy of seeing a Paddington tweet wedged between dooming politics and news alerts.

A familiar presence within popular culture, Paddington’s celebrity-like status cannot be denied. He has become synonymous with the British institution while his Peruvian origins enable him to provide a clear migratory narrative for children. Despite this, the language that surrounds Paddington is rarely centralised around his existence as an illegal immigrant. Instead he is described as a ‘stowaway’ - a word heavily steeped in excitement, adventure and mystery.

Paddington arrives in London with a handwritten tag around his collar displaying a heartfelt plea: ‘Please look after this bear, thank you’. His vulnerability is glaringly obvious here which is catalytic to the Brown family exercising their compassion. Their act of hospitable kindness is what propels the small bear into a new world of experience and accomplishments. Of course, Paddington is just one of the thousands of immigrants who entered London with a shared purpose of prosperity.

Taken from an illustration by Dominic Twigg.

When Paddington’s first series of adventures were welcomed by the British public in 1958, it was only ten years after the docking of the SS Empire Windrush. The years that followed saw approximately half a million people uproot to settle in the UK from the Caribbean, so those who settled here were coined ‘The Windrush Generation’. Paddington and The Windrush Generation share a significant common thread. London is the mutual utopia where the streets were said to be paved with gold; rumoured to produce endless employment possibilities. History has made us aware, however, that the ‘Motherland’ failed to provide the long anticipated warm welcome and instead many faced racial hostility.

Although Paddington himself is fictional, the space that he inhabits is not. Bond wrote Paddington against a politically powerful backdrop where migration was at the centre of the nation’s cognizance. Less than two months before Paddington’s publication, London was violently governed by the events of the Notting Hill Riots. For eight days the riots ravaged the suburb with racially motivated attacks, yet, it is in this exact area where Bond chooses to situate Paddington and settles him comfortably into middle-class life in ‘Windsor Gardens’.

Bond also suggests that, much like the emigrants of the Windrush Generation, Paddington’s physical appearance functions as an obstacle in his quest for acceptance. He is asked to pay more in a taxi due to his animal form, denied service in a shop, and makes an enemy of Mr Curry, a known hater of bears. While it is clear that those who reject Paddington are seen as antagonists to the story, it is remarkable how a socially inept, anthropomorphic bear has since become a symbol of British identity.

Taken from an illustration by Dominic Twigg.

In the stories, Paddington sheds the native weight of his name and moulds his identity through the British eye. His determination to assimilate into British life by disposing of his Peruvian birth name allows him to appear as a culturally blank canvas. In a symbolic inauguration, Paddington is named after the London train station in which he was discovered. Rejecting all elements of his foreign culture he eventually becomes the peak of idolised Britishness, equipped with an RP accent and appropriate dress.

Paddington’s lack of cultural offering is emphasised in Paul King’s adaptations Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017). These films uproot Paddington from his original era transporting him to a contemporary London setting. Yet, the Calypsonian soundtrack is a sentimental acknowledgment of Paddington’s original, correlating time frame with West Indian migration. The cityscape of London can be seen glistening to the sounds of Lord Kitchener’s ‘London Is The Place For Me’ as Paddington sees the city for the first time. Performed in the film by D-Lime and Tobago, the song itself was written on board the Empire Windrush by Kitchener and joyfully conveys the London fantasy. King commented on his choice of music stating: ‘This is the music made in the place where these books were written, by the people who arrived on these shores’ (BBC 2014).

During his 62-year career, there is no addition to the book or film series titled ‘Paddington receives his citizenship’, meaning that to this day, he remains effectively illegal. This contrasts with his Windrush neighbours who were promised legal status when they journeyed to England. In the same timeline as Paddington’s continuing success, the Windrush Generation and their children have been subject to wrongful deportations and left in identity limbo, unable to work or claim benefits while suffering delays in their proof of citizenship.

Illustration by Dominic Twigg.

Paddington’s migrant identity has since been forgotten though he has comforted and entertained each generation, even infiltrating some of the most British of spaces, such as our currency and postage stamps. An illegal immigrant on a postage stamp? I can hear the shrieks following the headline now. But the magic of Paddington lies not in his charm but in his charmingly radical actions as he unknowingly challenges the politics of migration. He has a positive impact on everyone he encounters forcing them to reflect on their questionable morals and avid fear of the outsider. The modern adaptations unmistakably serve a pro-immigrant and clear anti-Brexit narrative, but it begs the question: do we love Paddington because of his differences or his willingness to reject them? Is it possible to buy the toys and like the tweets with one hand while pushing away a migrant boat with the other?

For the bear that preaches kindness and renounces intolerance, it is important that we never forget his origins and its relevance. Especially while we participate in the current conversation surrounding immigration.

Embrace Paddington’s migrant identity, and if you want your day brightened, follow him on Twitter.


Words: Ruth McGivern

Images: Dominic Twigg / @sirtwiggillos

Editor: Amber Patterson

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