Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: Paddington means much more to me than a duffle coat and marmalade

"With my personal similarities and geographical connections, I cannot help thinking that I am in some ways Paddington Bear"

I note with interest the continuing ascendancy of Paddington Bear, in book, TV and film. At Paddington station itself there is a stall selling Paddington Bear plethora, and the meeting point on the station concourse is a metalled sculpture of the bear.

I cannot help thinking that I am in some ways Paddington Bear. I was born in Paddington a few minutes walk from the station. Although I was not a foundling like Paddington, I went to an orphanage as a child. Paddington Bear is a composite of Second World War children who were sent into evacuation with luggage labels around their necks.

Also, it echoes the cock-up described in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, wherein a baby is left in the parcel office at Victoria station. And like Paddington Bear being given the name based on where he was found, Ernest Worthing gets his name because he was discovered at Victoria station in the parcels bound for that seaside town.

Paddington station was profoundly important to me as a child, and then later. First, as the place where my mother and other members of her family disembarked from Ireland having travelled by boat from Rosslare. And then as where I slept as a runaway; worked in a printers later, where my eldest son was born, my grandson born and, much earlier than all of us, where my father himself came into the world.

I first heard of Paddington Bear when I was the printer for the Victorian Society – a protection association trying to protect such places as Paddington from modernistic architects. At some stage Michael Bond, author of the books, jumped in with some words of support.

Paddington station was profoundly important to me as a child, and then later

Now, of course, the new Paddington Bear must be Alan Johnson, who could be king of the Labour Party if he so chose but doesn’t, who was born near Paddington Green. So poor is the geography of modern journalists, on account of their being mainly madly ambitious provincials, that they traduce the map of London and make affable Al a Notting Hill boy! Crying out loud! NH is well west of Paddington station, pillocks, not due east.

But when you’ve got books to sell – as Al has – a bit of geographic drift does you good because NH is much more sexy than under the flyover at Edgware Road, which is where Paddington Green sits.

But Paddington is no longer my favourite station. I have slept in many. I have used the glories of many “wash and brush-ups” in countless stations in my wandering years. The very best station is when they drained St Mary’s Loch and created Waverley station, named after the recently dead Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels.

What a station, what a wash and brush-up! Where you could strip naked and wash your gonads and your oxsters (armpits) and not upset a soul, back in the heyday of grey underpants and bodily smells.

Perhaps it is time that someone wrote Waverley Bear for Edinburgh’s main station, so that all sort of merchandise could be sold from a barrow there. Perhaps he might be more critical of the gap between rich and poor, and globalisation, than our little lost bear from Lima.

But I also am a bit like Paddington Bear in other ways. I am tremendously clumsy. I turn handles on radiators, car doors, slap someone on the shoulder and cause injury to body and objects. I sometimes manage to flood rooms, block toilets and traipse mud over carpets.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Which brings to mind a story by Hanif Kureishi which he submitted to The Big Issue in its early days. We were worried about offending our older readers and rejected the story. It described the character going to his new girlfriend’s mum and dad’s and going upstairs to the toilet. Unfortunately, he managed to produce a real blocker. The story is how he struggled with it, going from bad to worse in true Paddington Bear fashion.

I regret not publishing the story. In a strange way it was gripping; though one would not expect that from a turd.

My happiest Paddington station moment? 1960: getting off the Oxford train from Oxford Detention Centre. Free now to start wrongdoing all over again but for a few moments seeing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s terminus in all of its glory. Alas it was also the station at which, handcuffed, they took Oscar Wilde. On to Reading jail and two years of ignominious hard labour.

That’s Paddington for you. Not just a cuddly, incorrigible bear.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords