Writer who saw Paddington Bear as his greatest achievement
Obituary: Michael Bond, born January 13th, 1926; died June 27th, 2017
Paddington Bear and his creator Michael Bond whose most recent story, ‘Paddington’s Finest Hour’, was published in April. Photograph: Edmond Terakopian/PA Wire
Paddington station, as described in the opening chapter of Michael Bond’s book A Bear Called Paddington, has the melancholy of a departed world. The Browns, waiting for their daughter to chug home from school for the holidays, find a creature from “darkest Peru” who has stowed away on a boat to Britain. He is sitting on a small suitcase near the lost property office, wearing a hat and a label around his neck: “Please take care of this bear. Thank you.” The Brown family adopt him.
Bond, who has died aged 91, was a BBC television cameraman who had nipped out to Oxford Street, London, late on Christmas Eve, 1956, for a stocking filler for his first wife, Brenda. Out of pity he bought a bear glove-puppet, rejected and alone on a shelf in Selfridges. Bond had been scribbling for more than a decade – his first short story was completed in a British army tent outside Cairo in 1946. He bashed out the bear opus in 10 days in the spring of 1957 on a typewriter in a tiny flat off Portobello Road.
He located the book in the shabby world around Paddington and Notting Hill, and created the bear out of his memories of evacuee children in the second World War, luggage-labelled against loss in transit. A generation later, the bear was interpreted as a sympathetic allegory of the Commonwealth immigrants of the 1950s: Bond initially wrote that Paddington came from “darkest Africa”, but his agent noted that the continent no longer had native bear species, so Bond amended it to Peru.
Seven publishers rejected the book, then Collins paid Bond £75, and brought it out in 1958: there were 13 sequels, though no later illustrators matched the original, Peggy Fortnum, who drew Paddington as stubborn, catastrophe-prone and kitted out in duffle coat.
He began to bank serious writing money only in the 1970s, after Graham Clutterbuck and Ivor Wood created a BBC TV series. The books were translated into 40 languages, including Latin, and sold 35 million copies worldwide. The 2014 film, starring Hugh Bonneville and Nicole Kidman, used Ben Whishaw’s voice, animatronics and CGI to bring the bear to life. The sequel is to be released later this year.
Bond based the good-hearted Brown family on his own father, Norman, who worked for the post office in Newbury, Berkshire, and the safe, warm house his mother, Frances, kept.
Bond attended a strict Catholic school in Reading, Presentation College, which he left as soon as he could, aged 14. He joined a solicitor’s office, then followed his aptitude for building wireless sets into transmitter engineering with the BBC. After soldiering in the Middle East, Bond returned to the BBC in 1947 and got behind a camera in the improvisatory days of TV, shooting everything from Dixon of Dock Green to Face to Face.
Writing radio plays for what was then Ceylon, and Hong Kong, and journalism for Men Only, Lilliput and the Manchester Guardian, was an extra, and Bond did not give up the day job until April Fool’s Day, 1966.
Paddington was a rare British merchandising success, making £5 million a year. However, the deals for more than 200 merchandise items, the prosecution of pirates, and the requests for more TV scripts pressured Bond into depression. For two years he was switched off by sleeping pills and on by whisky, but he said that his responsibility to Paddington got him through.
Bond’s first marriage disintegrated during those years (a relationship with one of his book editors produced his son, Anthony) and he took refuge in more work, writing 18 hours a day. He and Brenda divorced in 1981; he then married Susan Rogers, who was employed by his agent. But he remained friends with Brenda, and they kept joint custody of the Christmas bear, always considered a member of the family: “We ring each other and say, ‘He feels like coming to you now’. I wouldn’t go on holiday without him.”
In 1997, Bond wrote his own memoirs, Bears and Forbears. In all, he wrote more than 150 books and was awarded an OBE in 1997 and CBE in 2015 for services to literature. Yet he was reconciled to Paddington being his permanent achievement, with such cracking lines as “ ‘Bears is sixpence extra,’ the taxi driver said gruffly. ‘Sticky bears is ninepence.’”
For the bear’s 50th anniversary, Bond attempted a contemporary book, Paddington Here and Now, in which the bear was arrested (he is, after all, an illegal immigrant) when his trolley was clamped, and then doorstepped by the tabloids. His most recent Paddington story, Paddington’s Finest Hour, was published in April.
He is survived by Susan; his daughter by Brenda, Karen; his son, Anthony, and by four grandchildren.
– Guardian News and Media 2017