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Paddington Bear wanders into 21st century

New book marks famous character's 50th anniversary

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Danica Kirka
Associated Press / June 14, 2008

LONDON - He was found at a railway station, a small immigrant from "darkest Peru" with floppy hat and a sign around his neck reading, "Please look after this bear. Thank you."

Paddington Bear's first adventure appeared in print 50 years ago, and author Michael Bond is celebrating the milestone with a new adventure for the beloved bear.

His book, "Paddington, Here and Now," features the bear named for a railway station in London encountering a distinctly 2008 world inhabited by tabloid journalists, tire-clamping traffic cops, and anti-burglar paint. Paddington still gets into trouble - he's just that kind of bear, as Bond would say - but never fails to display optimism, good manners, and an exceedingly healthy appetite for marmalade.

"It really started with a doodle," Bond recalls during an interview in his shady garden in the Maida Vale neighborhood of London. "I had a small bear that I bought for my first wife as a stocking filler. We called it Paddington because it was our leaving station when commuting in the morning."

Bond wrote the original quickly. In 10 days in his one-room flat near the famed Portobello Road market, Bond created "A Bear Called Paddington," a tale that resonated the world over. Soon, he was able to quit his day job at the British Broadcasting Corp. The Paddington books have sold more than 35 million copies and have been translated into 40 languages, including Latin ("Ursus Nomine Paddington").

"There's something about bears which sets them apart from the other toys," Bond says of Paddington's appeal. "I think dolls are always wondering what they're going to wear next. Bears have this quality that children in particular feel they can tell their secrets to and they won't pass them on."

Paddington is a bear with a past. He stows away on a ship after his Aunt Lucy moves into the home for retired bears in Lima.

Rumpled and tired, with little marmalade left in his suitcase, his story begins at Paddington railway station, where the quintessential English dad, Henry Brown, stumbles upon him while waiting to pick up his daughter, who is returning from school for the summer holidays. Brown fetches his wife, who melts at the sight of the bear with the sign hanging around his neck.

The image came from searing memories of refugees and evacuees who streamed through British train stations before and after World War II, seeking safer places. Many of those children had tags around their necks with their names and destinations. Bond recalled their vulnerability in his original book. "That was an important part of Paddington's persona."

The Browns take in Paddington, giving him a room in the family home at safe and idyllic 32 Windsor Gardens. Though he's a bear, and everyone knows he's a bear, he wanders around without anyone finding that the least bit strange.

Peru was chosen as his birthplace because Bond thought most people in 1958 Britain would find it very remote. Initially, Bond considered having Paddington come from Africa, but his agent told him there were no bears there.

"A Bear Called Paddington" was soon followed by more than a dozen other novels and picture books. A television program spread his reach even more. At Paddington station, a bronze statue was erected in his honor.

Visitors often sit near him with their lunches. Some, like Otto Sumner, 3, climb all over him and give him hugs.

"I like his suitcase," Otto said. "He likes to eat marmalade sandwiches."

Marmalade, not surprisingly, is a Bond favorite, too. His young fans used to send him jars, but Bond is invariably disappointed when he stops by the post office to pick up parcels full of shattered glass. He says sometimes he wished he'd picked "something more exotic, like truffles."

In his latest adventure, Paddington leaves his shopping cart on wheels outside a store for just a moment to run inside and buy bottled water. He comes outside to find that it has been whisked away by traffic officials. "We all know the feeling," the London's Times reported, summing up the sentiments of a car-clamp aggrieved nation. In one episode, he encounters a tabloid writer posing as an immigration inspector. The writer asks Paddington a series of questions, including one about his "views." Paddington's response: He can see the British Telecom Tower on a clear day.

Getting in the spirit of the anniversary - and not wishing a national treasure to be stranded - Peru's Embassy in London issued Paddington a larger than life passport so that the stowaway won't have to sneak around. But Bond says that wasn't really necessary: With the mirth of a child who knows something his parents don't, he says that Paddington already had that covered.

"He's got a secret compartment in his suitcase, you see," Bond whispers with a grin and a nod.

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