Philosophers of the Home:
Novalis, Weil and Paddington Bear
On Tuesday June 27, 2017 Michael Bond died. He was the author of the Paddington Bear series.
Michael Bond holding his creation, Paddington Bear. I love how they are transparent so you can see the world through them. It's a wonderful metaphor for Bond's globalist perspective.
I read Paddington Bear as a child (who didn’t?) but it wasn’t until I was fully-grown that I truly appreciated the book. I remember reading it aloud to my own children and getting choked up, while they looked at me in bafflement.
The author, Michael Bond, was explicit that Paddington was a refugee. Like so many of his generation, WWII left an indelible mark. The creation of Paddington was influenced by watching evacuated children passing through a train station. “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions,” he said. “So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
Now this gentle children’s story has become a political football, quoted by immigration lawyers and heralded as an anti-UKIP mascot. And Michael Bond is celebrated as the last of a generation which learned the cost of insularity and the value of a cosmopolitan sensibility.
While all that is true, I also think Paddington was more than that. He wasn’t just a refugee, vulnerable and helpless, buffeted by global forces beyond his control. Paddington chose to come to England. He was no victim, except perhaps of his own romanticism.
And therein lies the magic of this book: a semi-lost being who doesn’t know exactly where to go or how to get there is the hero in a story of mutual confusion, casual exclusion and equally casual common decency. It’s almost without dialogue or action or plot but tells the most gripping story of them all: finding a home.
Novelis (left) and some children, already labelled en route to someplace safe for the duration of the war.
Novalis, the 18th c German essayist, wrote: Where are we always going to? Home, always back home. And that’s what Paddington was searching for. He arrived in England looking for a home. As if all it required was a stamp on the passport. And you despair at his naiveté. And get frustrated at his foolishness. And cringe at the ruthlessness of Londoners. And sigh with relief, grateful to the tip of your toes, when Mrs Brown pronounces, “You’ll be one of the family”. Bless you, Mrs Brown.
To be home. It’s a universal sentiment. To be one of the family. Home. Going home and finding a home and returning to home and even fleeing home. It’s the backbone of more stories, songs, novels and poetry than I could count. The drive is powerful and non-negotiable and timeless. Simone Weil, the philosopher turned political activist turned mystic, who also lived through the Second World War, wrote “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
She considered “uprootedness” to be a symptom of modernity, the result of technology and upheaval fragmenting communities and alienating us from our own traditions. Being French, she wasn’t that fond of capitalism either and suggested it was, to a large degree, responsible. Her suggestion for reclaiming our roots was to find meaningful work that grants a spiritual connection to something larger than ourselves or the work itself. She may well be right about that, but if my experience is anything to go by, that’s easier said than done.
Simone Weil, the extraordinary thinker and activist, refugee and yet another victim of the war. Never robust, she died in 1943 from poor health and possibly stress-related illness at the age of 34.
I resettled in London at a comparatively advanced age, with one successful career already under my belt, one child in tow and another on the way. I was totally committed to the adventure of having a new career as a mother and an Englishwoman. London wasn’t the first place I’d moved to; I’d already spent years in several different major cities in more than one country. I thought I knew what was involved. But London was different. Maybe I was older. Or maybe it was the kids. Or maybe it was just that London's one tough cookie. What should have been a fun, even joyous experience of creating a new home, was astonishingly difficult and not at all homey. Like Paddington sitting at the train station unable to determine his next move, I was at a loss to know what to do with this new life of mine.
Skip the studies done by academics crunching long strings of data. Skip the heartfelt first person memoirs from migrants. You want to know what’s it’s like to go in search of new home? Read Paddington Bear and you’ve got an inkling.
And that's why I tear up reading A Bear Called Paddington.