If there is a personification of how far the Overton window – i.e. politics that the public consider acceptable – has veered to the right over the past seven decades of British culture, it is Paddington Bear. Since arriving at that station in the ’50s, the cuddly bear moved not just from Peru to West London but from a beloved anthropomorphic emblem of immigration and social mobility to a figure enmeshed enough in The Establishment to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and then escort her to the underworld. How did it happen?
1958: PADDINGTON IS BORN
His creator, Michael Bond, is inspired by the arrival of Jewish children as refugees during WWII. He is from “Darkest Peru” and is not a bear to be frightened of. He is alone and scared. Everyone is kind to him because they are British. He seemingly renounces his Peruvian identity and swiftly moves into the Notting Hill mansion of a banker. It’s the kind of get that economic migrants can only dream of during a rental crisis.
1976: PADDINGTON’S TV DEBUT
A quiet couple of literary decades for Paddington, building his platform before diversifying into new income streams. He appears as a stop-motion bear, still adorable but, sadly, in making the move to TV, now undoubtedly more populist. A slippery slope.
1994: PADDINGTON APPEARS ON STAMPS
Paddington’s move into branded content began back in the ’70s (his own chocolate bar), but now he rivals Elizabeth II with a likeness on a first-class stamp. The same year, under Tory PM John Major, British Coal is privatised after 48 years of public ownership. There is no suggestion that Paddington is involved.
2009: PADDINGTON REACHES NUMBER ONE
He heads to the top of the charts as a guest bear on The Official BBC Children in Need Medley, a Christmas hit featuring Peter Kay and Peppa Pig which parodies The Beatles. This is the most British sentence I will ever write.
2014: PADDINGTON THE FILM STAR
Paddington is famous but not world famous. This changes with his first film, which is stuffed with British cinema’s National Treasures (Bonneville, Broadbent, Walters, Whishaw). In it, his tale becomes either a “gentle parable” about the dangers of xenophobia, or a thinly veiled allegory about cultural assimilation. Either way, everyone is bang up for it as the film makes gazillions.
The UK votes to leave the EU, Paddington’s silence is deafening.
2017: PADDINGTON SAYS FUCK LOW BUDGET FOOD
Brazenly flaunting his political affiliations, Paddington appears in M&S’s Christmas advert (Tory) where he tries to apprehend Santa in a citizen’s arrest after mistaking him for a criminal (Tory!).
2017: PADDINGTON 2
In the sequel Paddington has assimilated – the audience are invited to believe the bear is the problematic ideal of the Good Immigrant – but nonetheless remains oppressed by the system. Framed for a crime he did not commit by Hugh Grant, he must rely on the power of collective action to exonerate him. The ending does heavy lifting for the power of rehabilitation, as Paddington’s prison mates are pardoned. Obviously abolish prisons, but nonetheless, cute movie.
2018: PADDINGTON’S FINAL BOOK
Paddington at St Paul’s is published, the last work before the death of Michael Bond. It comes out on the one-year anniversary of Bond’s death and the 60th anniversary of the first book. Poignant. Freed from the wholesome shackles of his well-meaning creator, Paddington begins to assume his final form: the establishment figure.
During the UK’s national lockdowns, Paddington’s image goes deranged. Desperately searching for a totem for national identity, the public are frantic. Vera Lynn? Street parties? A very old man walks around his garden to raise money for a health service being systematically decimated by the government we keep re-electing – will that do? Yeah, that’s perfect. In fact, let’s make him famous for it. Let’s put his medals on Paddington. What does any of this mean? Dunno, Britain somehow.
2021: BECOMES BRITISH ENOUGH FOR THE BRITISH LIBRARY
The British Library hosts an exhibition dedicated to this South American symbol of Britishness. Paddington: The Story of a Bear will teach children about the politically and psychologically precarious position of immigrants. On the internet, some people ask: maybe we should teach kids about the Empire’s horrors without Paddington? And then some other people are like, fuck off snowflakes.
2022: PADDINGTON (MAYBE) KILLS THE QUEEN
The sweet bear cements himself as a symbol of The Establishment. At the Platinum Jubilee he appears in a sketch at Buckingham Palace with the Queen eating marmalade sandwiches and tapping out We Will Rock You on teacups. Ominously, this will be one of Her last public appearances before she dies and the country loses its mind, queuing for 25 hours to see her coffin. A meme shows Paddington holding the Queen’s hand as he leads her to… whichever place she is going to. A speech bubble reads: “Take me to my husband, Paddington.” He becomes a symbol of national mourning as a soft toy mountain at the palace gates threatens to swamp Britain’s entire landfill capacity. Nobody has the balls to point out that this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, because the bear is not even dead, and so the implication is that he occupies some liminal space between the living and the dead, ferrying the recently deceased to the underworld before returning to our realm. Anyway, very British not to understand death.
2022: CAMILLA TAKES OVER AS PADDINGTON AMBASSADOR
With her mother-in-law barely cold in the crypt, Queen Consort Camilla – still in black! – is pictured surrounded by hundreds of soft toy bears. The image is uncanny and bizarre, like a funeral at Neverland Ranch. As everyone knows, Diana should be Queen, so Paddington’s implicit acceptance of Charles and Camilla is clearly the work of the Deep State. He is the Usurper Ursine, playing a 60-year long game! Fait accompli. The bear is dead, long live the bear.