The Politics of Paddington

A cute tale of an abandoned bear or an acute political thriller with heightened resonance ahead of May’s General Election: all is in the eye of the beholder. To a five year old in the front row, perhaps it is the cuddly cartoon, rather than the curmudgeonly satire that stands out. Mind you, with the release of a new children’s book, The Election, (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/are-you-sitting-comfortably-lets-vote-new-childrens-book-primes-the-next-generation-for-politics-9946625.html) angled towards the future Tory backbenchers and champagne socialists, who knows what the Parental Guidance audience perceive.

While Ben Whishaw’s wishy-washy waltz of a voice (Paddington) or Hugh Bonneville’s fuddy-duddy daddy, Mr Brown, might steal the plaudits, the adult fun is in the politics (and not just the references to Nicole Kidman giving Paddington a ‘stuffing’ or, personal favourite, the accidental bathroom waterboarding scene that is a laugh for kids and slightly macabre for the adult audience: CIA black sites, anybody…). In the age of UKIP’s revanchist nationalism and populist racism, the significance of the middle-upper class bourgeoisie Brown family granting intra-species refuge to a bear from Darkest Peru has already been expounded (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/film_and_tv/article1488162.ece). Do not for one second believe that this is the only element of Paddington’s political pioneering.

For starters, we have the tumultuous tremors that disturb our young hero’s Robinson Crusoe halcyon habitat, killing Michael Gambon and consigning Imelda Staunton to the ursine care home. Fortunately, both are in bear form. No known national treasures were harmed during filming. This is not an inane reworking of The Day After Tomorrow complex, but reveals a rare scale natural disaster that destroys the bears’ humble abode, making Paddington an exile. Fingers crossed, 2014 was a seminal year for the climate with the signing of a carbon emissions reduction agreement between Xi Jinping’s China and the freshly invigorated Obama (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/12/china-and-us-make-carbon-pledge). At least the chance of a future environmental catastrophe in the Andes is more likely to be down to an accident of fate than to mankind’s apathetic stalemate over Earth’s fortune.

The earthquake leaves our protagonist Paddington, in effect, an illegal immigrant to British shores.  Home Secretary Theresa May may baulk at the ease with which an innocent, apparently innocuous bear, smuggles himself (and an unholy quantity of marmalade) through UK Border Force, making a mockery out of the customs officials in the process. In Britain we view this phenomenon through the prism of the Conservative government’s war on net immigration and the phantom pursuit of the blessed ‘tens of thousands’ figure (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30167160). To expand this perspective beyond the parochial and into the European, Paddington’s plight is a necessary reminder of a plague that besets an unholy quantity of those stateless, forgotten, third world fugitives who seek salvation in the unwelcoming arms of our so-called first world philanthropy.

2014 was not a good year for European narcissism. We like to think of ourselves as pro bono Bonos singing lyrics like “Well, tonight thank god its them, instead of you” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DS7bn_gm9o0) as we donate a collective £32.6m to Children in Need. Meanwhile, Britain not merely sat on the fence of international responsibility but built a French fence in Calais, the aptly titled “Ring of Steel”, to hide behind, away from the problems of refugees and illegal immigration. However, this was not an issue limited to the English Channel, but reflected a broader humanitarian crisis, with its crux at the gateways of Europe: Italy, Greece and Spain. The resolution was simply to withdraw search and rescue from the Mediterranean (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11192208/Drown-an-immigrant-to-save-an-immigrant-why-is-the-Government-borrowing-policy-from-the-BNP.html). This raises the question of whether a lone Paddington, idly casting off into the Atlantic and entering difficulty in EU maritime territory would even be rescued or left to the waves of our choked charity.

On a slightly less grave note, Paddington has a strangely stark relevance in the void between Christmas and New Year that we now inexcusably dub ‘betwixtmas’. As paying punters paraded and pounded the platforms of a Paddington station closed due to blocked lines, huffing and puffing their way through the crowds of the delayed, Paddington, the bear, was fortunate that the train delivering the Browns arrived at all (http://www.itv.com/news/london/update/2014-12-27/paddington-station-now-closed-due-to-blocked-lines/). Met by the morose madness of the city rush hour crowd, Paddington is left to reflect upon the shuddering lack of sympathy and absence of a welcome that these distressed, stressed and depressed locals grant our beloved bear. Tellingly, this social critique is an insight into the disparity between a Western Europe that is both among the wealthiest and least happy of the world’s regions. 11% deemed themselves ‘unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy’ in a recent global survey (http://www.wingia.com/web/files/richeditor/filemanager/EOY_release_2014_-_FINAL.pdf). Britain ranked below Mexico (cartels), Pakistan (Taliban) and Ukraine (civil war) on happiness levels. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, then find a Peruvian bear, give it a home and start afresh.

Or maybe, just maybe, we should start looking out for each other first. Thanks to Paddington, there’s a New Year’s resolution for us all.

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