Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Children’s tales have hidden morals. They’re subversive in that way. The sneaky little critters lure readers in with imaginings so irresistible that one hundred or more beloved Once Upon a Time’s later the story-ethos has eaten its way into the subconscious and there it resides, influencing thought and action with subtle mastery. Now this is not a bad thing if the imposed idea is a good one. For example: don’t leave the path or talk to strangers and always listen to your momma, is the lesson Charles Perrault preached in 1697. Grimm revamped it in 1812 to say that even if a girl does leave the proverbial path there’ll always be a dashing young huntsman to save the day. In the 1970s Angela Carter empowered the girl by imbuing her with the skill of seduction – and then Roald Dahl tipped a nod to feminism by making Little Red shoot that darned wolf and turn him into a coat. Standing tall against the evolution of culture, the little girl with the red cap, who appeared as early as the fourteenth century in some European countries, has been preaching ‘stranger danger’ for centuries. Not a bad lesson at all. But how does it fly in the year 2014?

The truth? It flies pretty well. The inherent discomposure invoked by the presence of the unfamiliar is something that has not changed since families sat around fires and nonnas told of a little girl with a red cloak who didn’t heed her mother’s advice. And as Time’s beard has grown in stature, the world has become only darker. With paedophiles, serial killers and terrorists apparently lurking around every corner, parents expend an insurmountable amount of energy protecting their young from the peril that permeates contemporary existence, making Red Riding Hood as relevant today as she was 600 years ago. But relevant is not always favourable. There are stories out there, modern stories that challenge the status quo by proposing a caution of a different nature. Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington (1958) is one such tale. The much adored story of a bear that travels all the way from darkest Peru to London’s grand Station as a stowaway in search of a better life throws a rather hefty spanner in all of Little Red’s hard work.

Darkest Peru is a metaphor for any figure other to oneself – the dodgy pierced dude exiting the tube at Camden Town, the dirty man sitting on the floor with his dog outside Sainsbury’s, the immigrant waiting in front of you at the doctor’s

In his memoirs Bond reveals how the image of what has become England’s most familiar furry fellow – sitting on an old leather suitcase, wearing a tag reading “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” – was influenced by his memories of newsreels showing trainloads of child evacuees leaving London during the war, with labels around their necks and their possessions in small suitcases. The allegory is poignant. While war ravaged the world, the kindness of strangers saved the lives of many of the children who were evacuated from bomb-crazed cities to the relative safety of the countryside. Although reminiscent of the effects of man’s great propensity for evil, Paddington is also a reminder of man’s great propensity for good. If the little bear had not made himself vulnerable to the empathy of Mr and Mrs Brown, strangers who opened up their hearts and their home, where would Paddington be now? Certainly not embellished with 70-odd sequel stories plus a blockbuster feature (due out on 28 November), that’s for sure. Bond seems to be cautioning against a mindset that is hardened to the plight of others, which raises an interesting conflict when considering Paddington in light of the media-propagated culture of fear that governs modern society.

The tension is cleverly played out in Bond’s first Paddington book: Mr Brown plays the role of the modern parent, the voice of reason to Mrs Brown’s mother instinct:

“We can’t leave him here all by himself. There’s no knowing what might happen to him. Can’t he come home and stay with us?”

“‘Stay with us’ Mr Brown repeated nervously?”

As well as a reaction to the weirdness of having a talking bear eating peas with the fam’ at the dinner table, Mr Brown’s nervousness is also a sign of the times; society’s general disinclination to be of assistance – whether rooted in fear or the annoyance of being made uncomfortable, the trepidation exists. A value that is being passed down to our children not only by example but by the way we translate literature. Which begs the question; “at what cost?”

Bond’s tale challenges what has become a burgeoning trend toward an insular way of life, something that poses a real threat to the community spirit that pulled England out of the trenches in the twice-aftermath of two of the world’s greatest tragedies. Whilst freedom, a constricted concept, is objectively not what it once was and parents are right to warn their children, a world sans certitude could be the makings of an even greater tragedy. Darkest Peru is a metaphor for any figure other to oneself – the dodgy pierced dude exiting the tube at Camden Town, the dirty man sitting on the floor with his dog outside Sainsbury’s, the immigrant waiting in front of you at the doctor’s, a neighbor who looks like he’s walked straight out of Bedlam circa 1455…Paddington did end up in London after all. Has fear removed the smile from our lips, the courtesy from our voices, the patience and tolerance that should be given as well as received? What are we, as a people, without hope, faith and compassion? Perhaps the caution is this: even in a world ravaged by the sin and corruption of a fallible people, there are certain values that direct a moral compass; values that if not abided have the ability to dehumanise man’s heart, more so than it might already be. So, really, in the name of saving the world from certain wretchedness, a spot of mild-mannered persuasion is acceptable, especially if a cute bear is the one doing the indoctrinating.

@rantchick

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