In Search of Darkest Peru

“I’m not a foreigner,” exclaimed Paddington hotly. “I’m from Darkest Peru.”

This is a line from the first chapter of the new Paddington book (written to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the bear), which neatly encapsulates the delightful paradox of Paddington: utterly ‘exotic’, yet thoroughly home-grown. As Stephen Fry is oft quoted as saying, ‘He is a British institution’. It makes complete sense that Paddington can be both from Darkest Peru, yet also not a foreigner. ‘Darkest Peru’ is an entirely ‘home-made’ concept, coined by the author of the books, Michael Bond (who at 83 has written Paddington Here and Now, which is purposely given a more contemporary setting and foregrounds Paddington’s immigrant status). The phrase might well be thought to cause offence, but that is perhaps too easy a thing to say. It seems much more interesting to consider how Paddington represents a more subtle representation, how he seems to suggest a whole ‘other’ kind of subjectivity. A review in the New Statesman (12 June 2008) offers one alternative reading of his status:

But what do Peruvians think about the fact that their representative in the UK – the only one of their countrymen considered worthy of a monument here – is a hapless refugee who ignores Peru’s feted national cuisine in favour of marmalade sandwiches and cocoa? Are they upset by the description “Darkest Peru” – particularly as Bond, who coined the phrase, has never visited the country? More than 35 million Paddington books have been sold globally in the 50 years since they first appeared, but the bear is not so famous in Latin America. Has Paddington caused offence at home?

Apparently not. The Peruvian embassy was insistent: “Paddington Bear is very important to British people, so the name Peru has a positive association for them from childhood. And I think ‘Darkest Peru’ is a great phrase. It has come to represent exoticism, so it’s very cool.” Peruvians represent less than 0.1 per cent of immigrants in the UK, but Paddington’s refugee status is no cause for concern. “People have been moving around for centuries,” says the embassy spokesman.

In fact, the Peruvian attitude towards Lima’s most famous bear is so warm that when HarperCollins, which publishes the Paddington stories, held a reception at the embassy recently, officials helped him out with his immigration woes. “In the book, there is a problem with Paddington’s papers, so the Peruvian ambassador gave Michael Bond a passport for him,” explains the spokesman. “He will not have those difficulties again.”

Of course the spokesman was also careful to point out: ‘It’s not a real passport. He is a fictional bear.’ Nonetheless, the quandaries which circle around Paddington’s status are revealing and I think – like the bear’s own nature – suggest a certain optimism.

The article quoted above also notes how ‘[n]ew versions of popular children’s books generally introduce a token ethnic character or two to reflect the diversity of Britain today.’ Examples are given of an Asian couple, Ajay and Nisha Bains, who run the railway station in Postman Pat;  and the introduction of George’s Anglo-Indian daughter, Jyoti, in the new Famous Five books. Numerous other examples could be cited.

Yet, writing back in the late 1950s, Michael Bond ‘had immigrants in his tales from the start. Not only is the duffel-coat-wearing protagonist a stowaway from “Darkest Peru”, but one of his closest friends is also an incomer: Mr Gruber, the antiques dealer who shares elevenses with the bear every morning, is Hungarian’. The Browns who ‘take in’ Paddington are of course a model ‘liberal’, forward-thinking family, against which all sorts of post-colonial (and gendered) arguments can be raised (not least the fact that they impose a name upon the bear, because – by his own admission – his ‘real’ name is difficult to pronounce). Yet, the ease with which Paddington is able to assert an alternative category within the dominant order is, I think, of real significance. Looking back, I can see how Paddington was for me a very genuine (anti-)hero of the symbolic order in which I grew up. He was able to foreground his difference, yet simultaneously walk entirely free of any kind of categorisation. To apply Barthes’ term of the Neutral, which is an ‘idea of a structural creation that would defeat, annul, or contradict the implacable binarism of the paradigm by means of a third term’, Paddington represents an unprejudiced other. Importantly, Barthes’ term of the Neutral is not about blandness or a process of levelling things out. Quite the contrary, he suggests it refers to ‘intense, strong, unprecedented states. “To outplay the paradigm” is an ardent, burning activity’, it is everything ‘that baffles the paradigm’. The exploits of the duffle-coated bear are surely of this order and, particular to the concept of the Neutral, there is an optimistic sense of a happy, peaceful untying of meaning and representation. It is about ‘looking for [our] own style of being present to the struggles of [our] time’ – something Paddington does with such affable charm.

Yet, the need for Paddington to exclaim ‘hotly’ in the new book that he is both ‘not a foreigner’ and yet equally ‘from Darkest Peru’ does capture something more contemporary and less optimistic. I am led to think of Rageh Omaar’s book, Only Half of Me, in which he writes about growing up a Muslim in Britain. Like the invention of ‘Darkest Peru’, Omaar describes Edgware Road (which was round the corner from where he lived as a child) as London’s ‘Little Arabia’. It is both not foreign, yet equally of a quite different order. The saddening thing is that this other space, rather than having been a means to free up the categories by which we live, has become contested and caricatured. Prejudice and ignorance is nothing new, but what is different, Omaar suggests, ‘is that these caricatures are no longer a matter of prejudice, they are now a matter of life and death for all of us’. And he adds: ‘The call has been for a dialogue within Islam to try to find the answers … But there is no point in pretending that the responsibility rests only with British Muslims … Where are the equally prominent calls for a dialogue with Islam and Muslims?’. There are a number of potentially shifting categories here, because at the heart of the book – as given in the title – is the crucial point that even within ourselves there can be the need for cross-cultural dialogue. ‘Only half of me is the person you think I am’. We need more stories that reveal the complexities of identity and their dialogues. We need to continually reacquaint ourselves with the very heart of ‘Darkest Peru’.

My Dad, whose history I know I still do not know, came to the UK around about the time of Paddington’s own arrival (the pre-history of which is similarly vague). Of course I never saw the connections growing up, but it intrigues me now that of all the various interests I had as a child we both shared an affection for the bear. Perhaps this ‘final’ instalment of the Paddington stories offers a chance for me to reclaim something of my past, my ‘roots’. I will forever remember being picked up early from school by my dad (perhaps it is my ‘Rosebud‘ moment, as we get at the end of Citizen Kane). He rarely if ever came to collect me. This was a special occasion (of course today being taken out of school early would no doubt be frowned upon!). He had found in the paper an advertisement for a Paddington Grotto in Selfridges, in London. It was an evening out, just for the two of us. Ironically, I do not recall anything of the actual grotto, just the fact we went up there together. We used public transport all the way. I still remember fidgeting at the bus stop, in the cold, waiting for the first part of the journey to begin and to officially get away from having been at school.

My Dad never read any of the Paddington stories. He may well have seen some of the TV programmes, but essentially – as far as I can tell – his affection for Paddington was entirely intuitive. And he still keeps my Paddington Bear (the best Christmas present I ever had, which came with real little Wellington boots!). Bizarrely, he stands, somewhat battered and forlorn, in the kitchen by the backdoor. Occasionally, if we talk about him, I sense a little dismay, as if my Dad feels I have abandoned my bear. Yet, equally there is ever that note of optimism. My Dad is and will always be his custodian. I know where to find him. It is, then, perhaps not so strange that everyday I seem to be searching for an equivalent phrase to Paddington’s: “I’m not a foreigner, I’m from Darkest Peru.” I’m not a foreigner (that much I can, must say), but as yet I’m not sure what ‘Darkest’ place I might suggest I’m from. When I work it out I look forward to the occasion I might state it ‘hotly’.


One comment

  1. What a lovely post! I love Paddington Bear and I imagine that people who like him too must be very nice 😀

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