Have you seen any bears roaming around in Reading recently?
On 2 August 2017 we will welcome our usual pack of teddy bears and their owners to the Forbury Gardens to enjoy craft, stories and share a picnic with their families. Hundreds of children join us each year to take part in this annual event. This year we are keeping an eye out for rain and will hold our picnic inside the Museum if needed!
Our annual Teddy Bears’ picnic began in 2010 to coincide with our temporary exhibition ‘The Life and Times of Paddington Bear’, celebrating the famous bear from ‘darkest Peru’ and his creator, Michael Bond. The exhibition plotted the story from the very first book A Bear Called Paddington, published in 1958, to Paddington: Here and Now published in 2008, exactly fifty years later.
This year we sadly said goodbye to Michael Bond, after he passed away in June. As Stephen Fry wrote ‘So sorry to hear that Michael Bond has departed. He was as kindly, dignified, charming & lovable as the immortal Paddington Bear he gave us.’ 
Mr Bond had been inspired to write his stories after finding a toy bear in London’s Portobello market. The little bear came home with him and was soon integrated into family life. In only ten days the author had written eight stories and realised he had a book on his hands.
Michael Bond grew up in Reading and the newsreels of war time evacuees helped shape the Paddington stories "When I was small, I had memories of children being evacuated from London with a label around their necks and all their possessions in a suitcase, and this became part of Paddington as well…Paddington Bear was a refugee with a label - 'Please look after this bear. Thank you', and he had a little suitcase." 
We can only think what legal repercussions Paddington's Aunt Lucy might have faced today, after she entered a home for retired bears and packed Paddington off as a stowaway at such a young age! Our small bear is to all intents and purposes an illegal immigrant from ‘darkest Peru’, who becomes a rather lovable and clumsy addition to the Brown’s London family.
The UK’s moral and practical struggle of dealing with immigrants and refugees has become an ongoing headline story in recent times, although sadly the situation is nothing new. Many of us would like to think that if we had had the chance to take in and support some of the huge numbers of displaced people currently in Europe we would try and give them a warm welcome as the Browns did. Of the Syrians displaced by the current civil war very few (5,453 by March 2017) have been resettled in the UK  in comparison to the hundreds of thousands taken in by Germany and other European and Middle Eastern countries.
Mr Bond worked for the BBC in Caversham Park after the war and has spoken of the many Polish and Russian refugees he worked alongside. The character of Mr Gruber in the Paddington books was himself a Hungarian refugee. 
Perhaps we have much to learn from the adventures of this marmalade-loving, duffel-coat wearing bear who arrives in London knowing no-one and with only a ‘special hard stare’ taught to him by his Aunt Lucy as means of defence. It is certainly a stroke of luck he meets Mr and Mrs Brown who take pity on him at Paddington station “A bear? On Paddington station?..Don’t be silly, Henry. There can’t be!” 
What Paddington and the inhabitants of Reading can be proud of is Reading’s long history of being a diverse and culturally rich town, demonstrated by the many communities we welcome into the Museum each year. Reading goes a long way in terms of having communities integrated with one another. Although Paddington can speak perfect English, taught to him by Aunt Lucy, in our Reading schools students now speak 150 plus languages.
On Wednesday amid the slightly squashed sandwiches, teddies and mayhem at our Teddy Bears' picnic you will see a small paw raise to toast to Mr Bond and his dear friend Paddington.
1. Stephen Fry (Twitter, 2017)
2. Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington postscript (Harper Collins 2001)
3. Emma Midgley, Paddington Bear 'inspired by evacuees' says author Bond (BBC News online, 2012)
4. House of Commons Library, The UK response to the Syrian refugee crisis (www.parliament.uk, 2017)
5. Michael Bond, Paddington (William Collins & Co Ltd, 1958)