Touching Lives - February 2008
How Paddington turned Karen into the Charity's own Bond girl!
At some point in 2008, Karen Jankel hopes to have a hip replacement. It’s a surprising operation for someone not yet 50 to be planning, but Karen was born with a hip condition and has lived with complications arising from it, ever since. So despite being a youthful woman in her prime, the prospect of surgery is being faced with the same stoical optimism that Karen has displayed all her life. It’s a cruel coincidence that a woman who has spent many years as a doughty supporter of Action Medical Research should have experienced more than one condition featured in the charity’s portfolio at close quarters. But perhaps the biggest link with Action Medical Research is a certain bear.
A bear is born
Now at the helm of the cuddly empire that is Paddington and Company, Karen is the daughter of the famous bear’s creator, Michael Bond, and was brought up with the world famous bear. In fact, Paddington began life before Karen was even born. Michael Bond was working as a TV camera-man, when on a very wet Christmas Eve in 1956, he took shelter outside the London store, Selfridges. “He wandered into the toy department to escape the rain,” says Karen, “And saw a bear all alone on a shelf. He couldn’t leave it there of course, so he bought it for my mother and called it Paddington because they lived near the station at the time.” The first Paddington Bear story was begun after Christmas and was never intended as anything other than a writing exercise for the creative Michael Bond. But such was his wife’s enthusiasm for the tale that Michael was inspired to try to get the book published. Inevitably, the irresistible story was snapped up by publishers and on 13 October 1958, the UK public got their first glimpse of one of the most lovable characters in the history of children’s literature. Karen believes there’s a lot of her father in the personality of the unfailingly polite little bear. “Paddington has a strong sense of right and wrong and is always polite — my father is like that too.” she explains. Two months before the publication of that first Paddington story, Karen had been born. Naturally, it was a very happy time for the Bonds but gradually they realised that she was not developing as she should. “I didn’t start to crawl,” said Karen, “And so at nine months old, I was taken into hospital for my first operation.” Sadly, the surgery to correct her condition, developmental dysplasia of the hip, was to be the first of many. Karen ended up spending the best part of her first six years of life in and out of hospitals. “You learn to live with the pain,” Karen recalls, “But what got me through was seeing all the other children with conditions that I felt were so much more serious than mine.” For the Bonds, however, seeing their only child suffering must have been excruciating. Karen’s parents would spend two hours on a bus going to visit their daughter and two hours making the journey back just to see her every day. “They were utterly selfless,” recalls Karen. Unsurprisingly, one of the central things that got Karen through her many stays in hospital was a teddy bear. “We’ve always been a bear family,” said Karen, “And so I had mine, just called Teddy, with me in hospital.” One of Karen’s abiding memories is watching in horror as an overly officious nurse cleared away the toys — including Teddy — into a locked cupboard. “She accused me of fibbing when I told her Teddy was my own toy which was as mortifying as having Teddy taken from me!”Thankfully, dad was able to liberate Teddy when he arrived at visiting time.
Bear in Action
It was experiences like this which undoubtedly influenced the young Michael Bond’s choice of charity for Paddington to be associated with. “By the mid 1970s, Paddington had become very popular and organisations often approached my father asking for his support,” recalls Karen. But it was a chance meeting between Michael Bond and Action Medical Research’s founder, Duncan Guthrie, that struck a chord. Karen said: “My father believed he could do a lot more good by supporting one charity which covered a broad range of issues than by backing just one cause and he also remembered the children suffering the aftermath of polio from visiting me in hospital. “With its broad spectrum of work and history of helping develop the UK polio vaccine, Action Medical Research was a perfect fit. Paddington, says Karen, heartily approved the link. “Paddington loves Action Medical Research because he believes in getting value for money and so backing a charity which supports so many causes is a bargain.” In 1981, Karen went to work with her father and took over the running of Paddington and Company in 1984. With the job, came Karen’s official affiliation with Action Medical Research and today, Karen is the Charity’s longest serving trustee, and one of its most ardent supporters. “Medical research is vitally important and I like the fact that the Charity’s work includes different conditions because you never know what’s around the corner,” said Karen. “Recently, someone asked if the Charity funded research into epilepsy and it was good to be able to say, yes!” In Karen’s life, she has not only overcome her own problems but faced the devastating news that two of her children, first daughter Robyn and son, Harry, both had the same hip condition that she was born with. Happily for Robyn and Harry, medical techniques had moved on considerably by the time they were diagnosed and today, neither of them have any signs of hip dysplasia. When Karen’s youngest child, India, was born in 1992, it was ultrasound, one of the many techniques championed by Action Medical Research, that revealed conclusively that she did not have the same hip condition. However, India’s birth brought a different set of complications with it; Karen suffered pre-eclampsia and India weighed just 4.5lbs when she was born. Today, India is as healthy and bright as her older siblings. “Medical research has relevance for all of us,” said Karen, thinking of her personal links with the Charity’s issues. But it is her professional links, through Paddington which brought her to Action Medical Research.
The next chapter Her agreement to take on the role as head of Paddington and Company, was partly to allow Michael Bond to pursue his love of writing on topics other than the beloved bear. But Karen reveals that her father has just completed his first Paddington novel in almost 30 years. Called Paddington Here and Now, the novel will be issued to coincide with the bear’s 50th anniversary in 2008. It’s sure to be as relevant to children today as it was when Michael Bond first penned the character all those years ago. Karen said: “The thing about my father is that he has never deliberately written for children.There’s nothing really slapstick about Paddington, the books are much subtler than that. Paddington is quite a serious-minded bear but he has an innocence which children share and so they can relate to him.” Whatever Paddington’s appeal, his personality has always dove-tailed with the Action Medical Research philosophy — to help as many people as possible and to be relevant to everyone regardless of age, sex or background. What a partnership!