I was sitting at my classroom computer when I saw the news alert: Michael Bond, author of the Paddington books, had died. I was immediately struck by sadness at the loss of one of my lifelong heroes and very favourite writers. Even more, I was struck by the loss of a hero with whom I'd once made a connection - something I'll never forget. Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about Paddington for an Oxford alumni website. One of Michael Bond's daughters read it, and showed it to her father; miraculously, she got in touch through Twitter and asked for my address. Her father didn't use social media or email, but had liked the piece and wanted to write to me. The beautifully handwritten letter from Michael Bond, thanking me for writing about his favourite bear and saying that he felt I had really 'got' what Paddington stood for, is among my prized possessions. Thinking of Michael Bond and in praise of the wonderful character he created, I sought the piece out to remember him.
Paddington Bear is wearing my Oxford mortar-board. It suits him, I think: he wears it at a slightly rakish angle, on top of his own, distinctive hat, and along with his rather battered duffle coat and the amateurish scarf I knitted for him when I was seven.
Paddington - the most universally adored asylum seeker of all time, to which not even the most right wing press could object. Though when you think about it: a small bear arrives in London, dressed only in a curious Peruvian hat (a bare bear, so to speak) and a label requesting 'Please look after this Bear - thank you', carrying a small suitcase labelled 'Wanted on Voyage'. He wasn't just from Peru. He was from Darkest Peru... a place, I told my parents, when I was six, that I would be visiting when I grew up.
I was going to find Aunt Lucy in the Home For Retired Bears (Lima), and have strong and serious words with her about abandoning her nephew to a harsh and cruel world. Paddington's adventures and many narrow escapes were the stuff of my childhood dreams, and on the handful of occasions when I was in London as a child, I always insisted on being taken to at least one railway station, just in case I might happen upon an orphaned, South American bear who might become a surrogate brother.
It was inevitable that my parents were going to have to intervene. All these trips to railway stations were slowly driving them insane, and my hero-worship of Paddington was not growing any less. Throughout my primary two year I was constantly getting into trouble with my Mum, who, having put me to bed and turned off the light, would often find me, hours later, sitting curled up on the floor beside my window, the curtains edged open, reading 'just another chapter' of my hero's adventures, by the pooled light of the streetlight, the room grown cold and dark around me.
Her threats to contact the council about having the streetlight moved went unheeded and my after-hours reading continued (though I lay awake worrying about that streetlight when the books were confiscated and my mum had been really cross)... but nonetheless, when my seventh birthday arrived, so did the best present ever. Paddington. With a hat, a duffle coat and a perfect little pair of wellington boots. Paddington became my childhood best friend. He was my backstage supporter at ballet and music competitions, and when it came to First Communion day, when everybody else got their photo taken with their prayer book and their rosary, I got mine taken with Paddington - a rather bewildered glint in his marmalade-orange eyes.
Paddington didn't come to Oxford with me. But when I got married and finally found what felt like a permanent home, he moved into my study, my mortar-board perched on his head. Looking at him now, it seems as if Paddington, with my mortar-board on his head, is some sort of symbolic fusion of my life. A childhood full of books and vivid daydreams. A lifelong love of reading, studying, learning. An unwillingness to leave behind the endless wonder of being a child. A repeated disappointment that things, and sometimes people, are not as you had hoped - the relearned lessons that sometimes you do, like Paddington, have to make your own way in a strange and indifferent world, abandoned and a world away from home.
If the mortar-board is the iconic sign for learning, and if Paddington Bear is the determined little asylum seeker, cast adrift from his family but winning the hearts of almost everyone he meets, then maybe the juxtaposition of the two isn't a bad metaphor to live by. Remember what you've learned. Keep learning, and keep your love of learning. Stand squarely on your own solidly-shod feet, even if you do very occasionally fall over backwards when surprised. Like Paddington, with his marmalade sandwiches and his best friend, Mr Gruber, know what you love and stay close to those you can trust. Let triumph come from misadventure and draw wisdom from tragedy. Retain, no matter how old and tired you grow, that love of life and learning which makes you eager for just one more chapter, as the darkness looms around you. Even if the streetlights are taken away, even if you're cast adrift through sadness or the stress of modern life, even if you feel you're far from home, and the place you're in is of the darkest kind.
And if Michael Bond taught his readers this, through the adventures of one little bear from Darkest Peru, who's raising his hat and his mortar board in tribute, then maybe he really was a hero for us all.
Photo credit: Caragh Little