There are some avenues in life that feel as though they are meant, and there are others that are simply a matter of chance. Occasionally, very occasionally, there is a happy combination of the two.
For example, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my coming across a small bear when I took shelter in Selfridges toy department one snowy Christmas Eve was just such a million- to-one chance.
Had there been two bears, I might have given them a passing glance, but I could hardly ignore one bear all by itself, with Christmas coming on. He looked so forlorn that I bought him as a stocking filler for my wife, and I called him Paddington after our nearest railway terminus because it has a masculine ring to it; important but not overbearing, with nice, safe, West Country overtones.
I think names are important. Sometimes they are all you have in the world.
The late actor/writer and noted arctophilist Peter Bull, would have approved. He gave bears a much higher rating than dolls, who “stay where they are put all day long wondering what they will wear next”. And true to that summing- up, Paddington soon became part of the family, joining in at meal times and going on trips with us whenever he could. Our world became his oyster.
At the time I was a television cameraman with the BBC, so my writing had to be squeezed into days when I was off-duty. One such day found me sitting with a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter and not an idea in my head, only too well aware that the ball was in my court. Nobody else was going to put any words down for me.
Glancing round in search of inspiration my gaze came to rest on Paddington, who gave me a hard stare from the mantelpiece, and the muse struck, along with what was destined to become the equivalent of a literary catchphrase. Suppose a real live bear ended up at Paddington station? Where might it have sprung from, and why? If it had any sense it would find a quiet spot near the Lost Property Office and hope for the best.
I knew exactly how my own parents would react if they saw it, particularly if it had a label round its neck, like a refugee in the last war. There are few things sadder in life than a refugee. My mother wouldn’t have hesitated to give it a home, while my father, who was a civil servant to his fingertips, would have been less enthusiastic in case he was doing something against the law.
My first short story, written while I was serving in the army in Egypt, had been published by London Opinion in 1947 and in the years that followed it’s fair to say that, although I was moderately successful, I could have papered the walls of our one-room flat near Holland Park with rejection slips. Looking back on those days I think it was largely because my outpourings were almost all plot led and often never really came to life.
The muse became a doodle as I jotted down: “Mr and Mrs Brown first met Paddington on a railway platform. In fact, that was how he came to have such an unusual name for a bear, for Paddington was the name of the station.”
This was going to be different. This was going to be character driven from the word “go”. A character, moreover, I had already grown to love. The thought that it might one day turn into a book never entered my mind. I was writing to please myself and it gave me a freedom that is hard to describe.
A great many things came together in a rush. He would be a refugee from a distant country, where bears were still extant. He would have a suitcase with a secret compartment to add a touch of mystery. I had never read Winnie the Pooh at that point, but I was aware that he loved honey, so I decided Paddington would be addicted to my own favourite breakfast food – marmalade.
He would follow my example in outdoor wear – a government surplus duffel coat and a bush hat – I felt he should follow my father’s example and use the latter whenever he had the opportunity. My father was a polite man and never went out without a hat in case he met someone he knew and had nothing to raise (even when he went in the sea on our summer holiday!).
By then Paddington had inherited more of his qualities than he had of mine, for although my father was mild mannered, he had no hesitation in standing up for himself if he felt he was in the right. He was also, it has to be said, rather inept when it came to using any kind of do-it-yourself tool, such as a hammer. Accident prone, you might say.
I said earlier that I had no intention of writing a book, but after ten free days from my day job there was no escaping the fact that I had one on my hands. By then other characters had come on board. Among them: Mrs Bird, the Browns’ treasure of a housekeeper; Mr Curry, their dreadful grasping neighbour; and Paddington’s best friend, an antique dealer on Portobello Road. My agent at the time, Harvey Unna, always maintained that people never recognised themselves if you used them as models. He certainly never realised he was the inspiration for Mr Gruber.
The first book was published in 1958 and like Topsy it grew and grew, slowly at first, but in a world that paradoxically was growing smaller, its horizon showed no bounds. As an American fan once said to me in a letter, “I’m so used to Paddington being the name of a bear, it now seems a funny name for a railway station.” I know just what he meant.
Paddington stars Hugh Bonneville, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman and Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington
Paddington is in cinemas from today (28th November)