Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Brilliant People III: Michael Bond/Judith Kerr

Michael Bond

One day, a few years ago, Michael Bond was on a train, he says, when he overheard two elderly women talking about him. “Oh that Michael Bond was great.” Said one, and he admits he felt a burst of pride. “Shame he died years ago.” Said the second, and any swelling of ego was swiftly deflated. His ability to tell such stories with a wink and a nod shows that even at eighty-six, one of our finest children’s authors still has it. In the creation of Paddington Bear, Bond provided the 20th Century with one of its finest, its loveliest, and its culturally important icons.

Michael Bond was born in 1926, the same year Gustav Stresemann won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Stanley Baldwin declared martial law over the General Strike.  He was born in Reading, which has a Premiership football club now, but in those days had to settle for being on the River Thames, and having a train link to London that terminated at Paddington station. Funny, that. He survived this tumultuous year to be born in, and later survived the Blitz, and war service, to grow up to be a seemingly mild mannered young writer sell odd bits to various sources from 1945 onwards, as well as working as a camera operator for the BBC. He’d been suggested several times to write for children, by people who could spot talent when they saw it, but had never considered until a chance meeting that changed his life.

A chance meeting with a stuffed toy.

Bond explains in his biography:

"I bought a small toy bear on Christmas Eve 1956. I saw it left on a shelf in a London store and felt sorry for it. I took it home as a present for my wife Brenda and named it Paddington as we were living near Paddington Station at the time. I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days, I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young."

Write what you know. Write what you love. Just write and see what happens. Within the space of one anecdote, Bond presents three useful mantras for young writers. Which sums up the brilliance of Michael Bond, to entertain and educate within the same syllables is no easy feat. I’m also glad to know I’m not the only adult in existence that sees the sole teddy bear left in a shop and feels bad for it.

A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958. It was a sensation, which still holds up as well today as it did on publication. Like subsequent tales, it manages to describe the adventures of a refugee Andean Bear from Darkest Peru and its reactions to life in modern MacMillan Britain in a way that is both gripping and wonderfully humorous. The Michael Bond stand in, Mr Brown, acts as a great foil against the intelligent but naive and easily befuddled bear, as does the ever-frustrated Mr Curry act with great trepidation as the permanently put upon straight man, Hyacinth Bucket three decades early and with an ego as swiftly deflated.

“The great advantage of having a bear as a central character”, says Bond “is that he can combine the innocence of a child with the sophistication of an adult.” One of the earliest Paddington stories, A Bear in Hot Water, remains possibly my favourite, as he attempts to have a bath, which as we all know is a tricky operation at the best of times, and more so if you’ve never seen one before. The results are typical Paddington, and Mandy might jokingly add here that his declaration “never to want one of those again” at the end is a mantra I took too easily to heart growing up. Heh.

The Paddington books would live forever if they were merely great children’s books. They are that, but so much more. For the tenancy at the heart of the novels, and the series, is of charity and love, and a beloved children’s series that preaches both of those is worth so much more in my eyes. They exist from the very beginning, as the Browns find Paddington at the station that names him. The nametag on his blue duffel coat, which reads the legend: “Please look after this Bear”. What marks out Mr and Mrs Brown as the books human heroes, and ours, is that they do. The parallels existed at the time between World War evacuees and the bear, as much as they do now between the bear and asylum seekers. The exotic other appears in need and the characters group round to help it. That’s a brilliant message to give to our children, and all the more powerful for Michael Bond not realising his books could be read in that light, so the message is not hammered over the head of the readers.

When Bond came to realise the modern significance and reading people were given to his creation, it would have been easy for him to back away from it slowly. But that has never been his style. He took it head on and cherished it. When writing his second last Paddington novel in 2007*, Here and Now, Bond said in an interview with the Guardian:

"I think it's quite good not to sweep it under the carpet," he said. According to Bond, there's no duty for writers to explore difficult subjects, but authors should be "aware of them, and aware that life isn't easy for someone who's left their country and can't go back".
Paddington "hasn't changed at all", but the new stories "reflect life as it is", Bond said. "It is a very different world to the world of the original book. I think life was much more settled then."
Guardian 11th December 2007

*Second last at time of writing, as Bond has just finished a new Paddington novel, and claims the lovable bear may have a few more hits in him yet. Long may they continue!

The ideas don’t just stop at the bear himself though. Nicholas Lezzard noted a few years before in the same paper that: “it is nice that Bond took the trouble to introduce Mr Gruber, the kindly, courteous Hungarian antique-shop owner, representative of the displaced wartime immigrants whom Bond came to know when working for the BBC Monitoring Service.”

His book series earned a television spin off, with a genius pastiche of Singin’ in the Rain a highlight, but you can buy Paddington everything’s these days.

Not merely content to be a symbol of charity within his novels, Paddington is now the symbol of charity in real life, having been the mascot of Action Medical Research since 1976. Bond’s involvement with the charity has raised millions of pounds worth of aid to help babies and young children in desperate need.

We so rarely see a children’s icon, which promotes the ancient rights of persecuted peoples to come to this land, that it is right to champion it when it comes along. Bond admits he hadn’t considered that reading of his loved character when he devised it, but he fully endorses it as a reading.

Anyone can write a ripping yarn if they put their mind to it. To do that, and create a character which promotes love and charity, and all that is good in society, while poking fun at all the stupidity of red tape and egos and the like, is wonderful. To use that character to help in real life, and to write and become active within the charities though is a different beast all together. Paddington Bear and Michael Bond. They’re pretty much inseparable. Both have done the world a great deal of good.

At a mere fifty-four years and eighty-six years respectively, may they do the world a great good for many more years to come.

Judith Kerr

“I really did have this dream when I was nine or 10 years old. It was very odd, because I knew all about Hitler and what was going on, but I also used to have fears that he was hiding behind the curtain in the lavatory. As a child, you can think of a thing in two different ways at the same time, and I'm not sure it doesn't happen to you as an adult, too, if you're very frightened. The other reality is, if anything, more frightening.”

A fine writer who is now a supportive mother and grandmother to other writers (“who write corkers” she says), Judith Kerr continues to write novels for children even to this day. Like Bond, she is of the highest rank of children’s writer, both fun and important.

When Kerr was a child, her family had to escape from the Nazis. A family friend she remembered, who thought he would be safe as his only connection by blood to the Jews was a grandmother he never met, was later killed. A choice of which cuddly toy to bring on the flight to France and later England spurned the title of her autobiographical tale of childhood, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The author of the Mog books, and countless other children’s novels, and the widow and guiding force of Nigel Kneale, Judith Kerr is still writing in her ninetieth year.

All great children’s writers have one classic to their name. Judith Kerr has not only Pink Rabbit, but also the entire Mog series and the wonderful The Tiger Who Came to Tea. She was a writer who worked for the Red Cross, and writing had run in her family: not only had her dad been a well-respected writer in Germany before they had to flee, but her daughter is aiming to take up writing as a career also. Like Bond, she has an OBE for children’s writing, but combines it with Holocaust education. Like Bond, she manages to juggle great works of writing with great feats of charity.

The Tiger, a story that seems ageless but was born in 1968, is the ideal story of a human like tiger whose success has now transformed into plays and memorabilia, as well as several foreign language translations.
"Judith has created a totally feasible unfeasible experience, the juxtaposition of two realities in a way that would be impossible in our world. The result is both very funny and slightly unsettling."
Michael Rosen (a man who knows a thing or two about children’s books)

Her survival was of a traumatic childhood: her dad, even before the escape, had bodyguards in case of a Nazi assassination plot, and later had trouble finding work, tragically ending his life; her mother, wound up a translator at the Nurnberg trials; and her brother Michael was imprisoned during the World War as a friendly enemy alien. Even now, Kerr recounts her child hardships with nary a bitterness in the world, which makes one almost over awed.

Mog the cat, the forgetful cat, remained a children’s favourite until Kerr killed him off for good in 2002. It was important, she felt, to convey how to deal with the tragic loss of a loved pet to younger readers.

She is a lady who came a long way in her life, and continues to teach with all her wise words and books.

Writing is as much as tool for learning as it is for entertaining. When we combine both, we have the legends. These two were just two of my favourites who combined both.

I started this series in a more jovial tone. To ease the reader in. Next time, we get a bit darker and edgier, but for all the right reasons, as we focus on one ordinary man in a horrific situation who did more than almost anyone could have, and is rightfully loved worldwide in his old age. And a woman, sadly passed on since I came to think of this series, who is for my money one of the most inspirational, brave and couragous people who ever lived. Till next time!