PADDINGTON is one of the most enduring characters in children’s literature - his amiable misadventures have kept youngsters, and their parents, chortling happily for generations.

But the marmalade-loving bear is not just entertaining - as an illegal immigrant he’s actually an early pioneer of racial equality.

At least that’s the view of Professor Angela Smith, an academic at the University of Sunderland’s School of Culture, who has carefully studied the character’s background.

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The Northern Echo:

Paddington Bear and his creator Michael Bond

With the latest Paddington movie hitting the big-screen this week, she argues that the original stories subtly investigate racism, and present the case for tolerance and understanding towards immigrants in general.

“Michael Bond’s Paddington books deal with immigration at a very subtle level,” she says. “Today those kinds of books are aimed at older children who, it is assumed, are better able to cope with the complex political and psychological issues.

“But that first book, A Bear Called Paddington, published in 1958, presents issues of anti-racism in a deceptively simple story.”

Her research paper goes back to his origins, Britain in 1958, a time of widespread racism and growing multiculturalism, into which a small stowaway bear arrives with a unique perspective on British life.

Apparently Bond’s publishers rejected the author’s original idea to have Paddington come from Africa, so he chose “Darkest Peru” to keep that tie to the African continent.

“London in the 1950s was becoming rapidly more multicultural than ever before,” says Prof Smith. “The first of many large groups of West Indians, called ‘Windrush’ immigrants, arrived in the late 1940s, and that cultural mix in London was not always a comfortable one.

“In the summer 1958, just months before the first Paddington book was published, some of the worst race riots in Britain ignited, particularly the Notting Hill Riots.

“It’s no coincidence that the first Paddington stories are specifically set in Notting Hill.”

Paddington arrives in Britain without any form of identity. He admits he has stowed away on a boat, and Mr and Mrs Brown, who find him at Paddington station and take him in, are aware he is an illegal immigrant.

In later books we learn that his Peruvian name is actually “Pastuso” however Prof Smith, argues that “like other immigrants in the 1950s, Paddington arrives without a clearly defined identity or a recognisable past.”

She points out that almost all of the humans in A Bear Called Paddington are not even vaguely curious about their guest’s past, calling him a true pioneer in children’s literature, with views on racial equality and integration that were way ahead of their time

“During the 1970s there was a backlash against inferred and overt racism in children’s books,” she says.

“Well-meaning librarians and teachers withdrew some Enid Blyton books, such as Noddy, from children’s libraries and classrooms, and classics such as PL Travers’s Mary Poppins were edited to remove racial stereotypes.

“But as far back as 1958, when the Browns first discover the small bear at Paddington station the impression of him being a stranger in a strange land never leaves those stories.”

Prof Smith adds: “The small bear, more than any other character in literature, is quintessentially British, but actively questions the ‘common sense’ elements of British culture in the 1950s and beyond.

“Those stories’ events are often comic, but their deeper meanings hinge on the ‘long, hard stare’ of that most human of bears.”

  • Prof Smith’s paper, Paddington Bear: A Case Study of Immigration and Otherness, was first published in Children’s Literature in Education, one of the world’s leading academic journals on the study of children’s literature.