2007 - 2022

Please Look After This Bear

What might we see in Paddington Bear having tea with the Queen? Any 96-year-old who can act a part that gives such pleasure to so many has something to be said for their humanity, and humour, which can often be the same thing. But what of the episode’s background messaging?

In Michael Bond’s 1958 children’s story, A Bear Called Paddington, social class is positioned right from the second paragraph. Why are Mr and Mrs Brown at Paddington railway station? To pick up their daughter Judy from boarding school.

It’s there that they spot Paddington Bear, sitting on a battered old suitcase in the Lost Property Office. There’s a luggage label round his neck. Artists show it as the brown manilla type, with a reinforced eye through which the string loops. Paddington explains that he’s a stowaway. He’s come from “darkest Peru” with just a pot of marmalade to eat.

“Yes,” he continues, with a sad expression coming into his eyes. “I emigrated, you know.”

He used to live with his Aunt Lucy, she had to go into a home for retired bears but taught him English for the purpose. An aunt. There is no mention of parental agency. The luggage label simply said: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

It’s said that Bond associated Paddington with refugee children, hanging around railway stations in the Second World War with luggage labels round their necks. But Judy Brown’s return from boarding school invites another resonance: those images of departing boarders with their similarly labelled battered leather suitcases. In a recent Glasgow conference, my friend the pioneering psychotherapist of such matters, Nick Duffell, spoke of it as “privileged abandonment”. And that’s where child psychology connects how the state constructs itself, and how elite entitlement so wantonly, and sadly, plays games with power.

“The boarding schools,” he writes in The Making of Them (p. 113), “were the production centres for gentlemen destined and designed … to bring British values of civilisation and justice to the world … gentleman-leaders to run her empire … a responsibility which no Englishman would have seriously doubted. It was rather, a sacred duty…. They were to be nominally Christian, unquestionably loyal to Queen and country, well-educated, but not so bright that they might question the rights and wrongs of the tasks they were set. It was the job of the schools to produce such chaps – and they set about it with vigour.”

Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark loved the rigours of Gordonstoun in north-east Scotland. He sent Prince Charles too. One can imagine the thinking. A friend who boarded there with him told me, “He was such a sensitive and kind man.” With respect for due decorum, he told me little else, except the prince himself described Gordonstoun as “Colditz in kilts”, and harrowing tales circulate about the bullying he endured. No wonder he later chose to spend his holidays planting potatoes with the crofters in the Hebrides.

Paddington, then, can be read as Judy Brown’s alter-ego; indeed, the alter-ego of large segments of the British upper classes. The child caught, psychologically, between the homeliness of Paddington Station and darkest Peru, beyond the furthest lonely reaches of the Empire. And marmalade, once an exotic fruit with sugar from a trade that dare not say its name. And tea, from India, or “that comes all the way from China”.

At which point: let me pinch myself. Do I overstate the case? And yet, the grandest street in Stornoway where I went as a day child to the state school, is still Matheson Road of Jardine-Matheson fame. And in the Castle Grounds we’d play as kids around the marble monument to Lady Matheson, embellished as it is with opium poppy leaves in tribute to the trade and Chinese wars from which her husband became “richer than Croesus”. I made a video of it last summer. It’s there and real, for any who might doubt.

But I want to come back to that suitcase or “trunk”, and the label. Speaking from his own boarding experience Duffell continues (p. 143): “We may imagine the trunk as a kind of portable schoolboy coffin, the tuck box as his secret symbol of love. For the depth of feeling – elation at the end of term, and misery at the end of the holidays – are too much for a child’s body to contain. Feelings get stored in the tuck box at the back of the heart – unlocking them is more painful than putting them away.”

Or as another friend put it, “Your parents send you to these schools, they say, because they love you. But the whole experience is one of not being loved.” And I thought about the video this past Platinum Jubilee weekend of the Queen having tea with Paddington Bear.

“Perhaps you would like a marmalade sandwich? I always keep one, for emergencies,” says the bear to the monarch.

“So do I,” she replies, reaching to her handbag for the white-sliced bread. “I keep mine in here.”

“For later.”

For later! And then, Prince’s Charles. “Mummy”! As the Sunday Express headline had it: “Thank you for being there for us, Mummy.”

I thought of Sigmund Freud, his essay on Symbolism in the Dream. “Parents appear in the dream as king and queen, or other persons highly respected.” I thought of how a pageant is a kind of waking dream for those who like that kind of thing. And how, according to a survey by the Children’s Society two years ago, British teenagers are the most unhappy in Europe, their driven and often poverty-racked lives lacking both meaning and a sense of purpose.

Between Paddington and Mummy, here we glimpse the soft underbelly of a British state still trapped in feudal psychodynamics. Even its sovereign self-positions as hyper-vigilant, keeping her marmalade sandwich in her tuck box, like Paddington the refugee, “for emergencies”, “for later”.

We can laugh, we can emphasise, we can pity or we can mock. I’ve felt all of these this past weekend. But if Britain or just Scotland is to free itself from infantile politics, if we are to earn our independence and “take back control”, we need to understand the deeper roots of suspended adolescence and its aching loss and even theft of inner self-determination.

As Nick Duffell says: to unlock what’s in the tuck box hurts more than putting it away. We are looking at what lies “at the back of the heart”. Tread gently with each other. Seek to understand the roots of difference, heal the wounds. “Please look after this bear”, it comes from out of “darkest Peru”. Keep Scotland kind.

Comments (18)

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  1. 220605 says:

    Michael Bond’s agent, Harvey Unna, who fled Germany as a Jewish refugee and arrived in Britain with only a suitcase to his name, also appears in A Bear Called Paddington. Paddington’s best friend and protector, Mr. Gruber, a refugee from Hungary, is as much Bond’s homage to Unna as a bear called ‘Paddington’ is to the trainloads of displaced children he saw coming down from London, shuffling toward an unknown future, wearing tags with addresses they couldn’t read.

    And Paddington has not only had ‘elevenses’ with the Queen. In 2009, he and Bond also kicked off a campaign to end the arrest and detention of hundreds of child asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions. In a call to action in response to reports that the U.K. Border Agency was arresting and holding up to 2,000 refugee children, Paddington told the press, “Whenever I hear about children from foreign countries being put into detention centres, I think how lucky I am to be living at 32 Windsor Gardens with such nice people as Mr and Mrs Brown… Mrs Bird [the Browns’ housekeeper] says, if she had her way, she would set the children free and lock up a few politicians in their place to see how they liked it!”

    Maybe the moral of Bond’s stories is that Paddington’s cushy number – resettled with a loving family in the posh multicultural community of London’s Windsor Gardens – is the sort of ‘happy ever after’ we should aspire to give all children; especially those who, like Paddington, turn up alone and vulnerable and looking for asylum.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      You know, 220605, I didn’t mention Priti Patel because so many have made the point that it was unnecessary, to the point of cliche. But what you’ve added there is important background info. Thank you. Together with the reading that BoJo was given in the Abbey, one might almost wonder if some subversive hand has been at play.

    2. florian albert says:

      ‘all children; especially those who, like Paddington, turn up alone and vulnerable and looking for asylum.’

      Children do not just ‘turn up’ in the UK or in Scotland, any more than a Peruvian talking bear turned up at a London railway station. They are brought or sent here by adults. These adults act from a variety of motives. Most probably want a better life for their children while others act from more mercenary motives. It is better to be honest abut this.

      1. 220607 says:

        I’m not too concerned by how and why they turn up, whether their brought or sent here by adults like Aunt Lucy, whether for mercenary or altruistic reasons and whether from choice or necessity, or not. All children are equally deserving of our protection and care, wherever they come from and however they come.

        1. florian albert says:

          ‘All children are equally deserving of our protection and care.’

          Unhappily, Scotland does not have a good record in this regard. When a large number of asylum seekers were sent to Scotland – they had no choice in the matter –
          they ended up in Glasgow, the city which already had the most serious social problems in the country.
          In Glasgow, they were sent to areas where there were large numbers of empty houses. These houses were empty because no Glaswegians wanted to live there.

          Further, Scotland’s record in dealing with children and young people in care – who might reasonably be termed internal asylum seekers – is lamentable.

          And that is before we get onto the subject of educational apartheid.

          1. 220608 says:

            Yes, as a society, our care and protection of vulnerable children is indeed lamentable. If anything, the systems by which we ‘process’ them only increase their vulnerability and victimisation. We need to devise systems that allow them greater agency and authority over their own bodies and protect that agency and authority from those who would enslave them morally and/or physically.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @florian albert, sounds like you have just contradicted yourself on Scottish standards of childcare:
            ‘Lamentable’, ‘educational apartheid’? You really want to make the claim that Catholic institutions have a better track record of child welfare than the Scottish government?

  2. meg macleod says:

    “Keep Scotland kind”..your last words resonate..lcould not watch any of the jubilee stuff
    With all that is going on beneath the surface it seems the rose coloured specs were everywhere ignoring reality…your article ends with a plea for kindness…that would be a great achievement and I hope it is written into a Scottish constitution one day

  3. James Robertson says:

    Great, thoughtful article, that keeps humanity at its heart while surveying the barren emotional desert inhabited by so many of the British ruling-class, past and present. Thanks.

  4. Squigglypen says:

    Can we send Betty tae darkest Peru in exchange….?

    1. James Mills says:

      Why ? What has Peru ever done to us ? ( apart from 1978 World Cup -LoL ! )

  5. Chris Ballance says:

    You’d enjoy the Paddington Bear film/s Alastair – Paddington, still a refugee, and a stranger in a strange land who’s customs he doesn’t understand, comes out tops by always looking for and trying to serve the good in other people – the life’s teaching that his Aunt Lucy has taught him.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Classic grooming. So, did the Queen win her at-our-own-expense socially-engineered non-binding vote of confidence in Scotland? Where ‘appearing in the street’ was avariciously counted as ‘aye’? Considering that some people with very little material stake in British Empire/UK still seem to strongly identify with the nation, why does the Royal Family need to own so much of it to be properly motivated in that direction? Perhaps as a counterweight to their offshore interests…

  7. Elizabeth+Lynch says:

    I long after I left school how desperately middle class the characters in my reading books were. Nobody in my council estate road had a car for daddy to arrive home in. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and again I read about people who were not of my class.
    Of course I didn’t recognize the class differentiation when I was 7 or 8. I was never resentful because I had a great childhood, great education and was never deprived in any way.

    I do now though when I see a liar and philanderer being allowed to carry on since it is 4 or 5 months since he broke the law and showed contempt for the rest of us. Dare I ask if the lower classes who broke the rules have had their records wiped clean and their fines refunded?

    1. Elizabeth Lynch says:

      May I apologize for my errors in my previous post? Correction: I never recognized the characters my reading book or the characters in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to be from a different class.
      I was never resentful but I was aware nobody in my council estate road had a car, or went to boarding schools.

    2. 220607 says:

      You see, I missed all that, Elizabeth. Books never really featured in the council estate that raised me. My father and maternal grandmother in particular distrusted books intensely; for both of them, it was more important to be ‘clever with your hands’ rather than ‘clever with your head’. I was well into my teens before I started to ‘waste my time’ reading, have never really achieved fluency as a result, and still feel guilty and ashamed about doing it (when I could be doing something more useful instead). The irony is that I pursued my PhD in the field of hermeneutics or ‘the theory of reading’; the whole process of interpreting meaning from or ‘understanding’ texts (and other human artefacts) fascinates me.

      The point is: I was never exposed to any of that ‘bourgeois’ stuff when I was a kid.

      1. Niemand says:

        I read it all – Bunter, Jennings, Just William, Famous Five etc. I was aware their world was not mine materially but I would not have enjoyed the books and read them all avidly if I hadn’t been able to identify with the characters on some level. I also never resented them. I read Wodehouse too which was even more removed. We don’t read stuff simply because we are like the people in it. Now I have a butler and manservant I can relate much more of course 😉

        On a different thread, Wul said he read this stuff as a kid too but later rejected it, making him feel sick now. I never went that way – yes I became aware of their class-ridden tropes and took a more jaundiced view as a result but never lost the fondness – kids being kids in stories is pretty universal if well-handled, plus the ‘not my world’ aspect was fantasy escapism kids also love – midnight feasts and fun in the boarding school dorm – yeah, gimme some ‘o that. But some of the stories also told of bullying and ostracisation and so had a moral element any school kid understood and could relate to. In my inner city, working class urban world, I longed for something different.

        As a result of all this I came to be quite frustrated with the class system but not in an especially partisan way but the entrenched positions of all classes. I hated the restriction – you behave like this, must be interesting in this and not that. Traditionally this is was what the middle classes ‘told’ the working class, but I also found my own class had similar attitude both to the middle classes but most importantly, inwardly. The Monty Python sketch where the young miner comes home and tells his Dad he is reading books (or something like that) and the Dad goes mad, is an exaggeration of what I experienced – not at home but amongst peers and generally. My parents were classically and unashamedly ‘upwardly mobile’ working class but that was also regarded as almost a bit traitorous. What a load of crap it all was, and still is – education, deeper knowledge and understanding as a class cipher.

        1. 220609 says:

          Yep, I hear ya! When I left the opencast back in the late 1970s to serve my time as a philosopher, I was frowned upon – ostracised, even – by my peers for betraying my working class roots/not knowing my place/getting above myself/thinking myself better than they were.

          There were certain ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ – a morality – that you were expected to observe in relation to things like books, women, poofs, Paips, Pakis, smart c*nts, cricket and rugby, swots, sundry artistic or theatrical types, churchgoers, and pen-pushers. In fact, heroic proletarianism was, as I remember it, all very hard-as-nails, spit-on-the-floor, ‘right-wing’ swagger, and little more than inverted snobbery. Reading was most definitely for girls and pansies; we looked and laughed (and sneered) at a’ that.

          Thank God young folk became more upwardly mobile after the ‘80s revolution that abolished the material basis of the heroic proletarian, escaped all that sh*te, and became much more ‘middle class’ in their attitudes and aspirations.

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