Review: The Penguin Lessons, Tom Michell

I have a long-term affection for penguins.  As a child, the Penguin Parade was the highlight of any visit to Edinburgh Zoo and it still makes me so sad to see how far diminished it has become.  There is something about them – is it the way in which their feathers resemble a tuxedo, adding a peculiar dignity to the way they waddle about?  Is it the contrast in their on-land and in-water behaviours?  Whatever it is, there is something truly remarkable about penguins and seeing them always makes me happy.  However, other than Death and the Penguin, I have never really spotted many books in which a penguin plays a significant role, so when I spotted The Penguin Lessons, I knew that I was going to need to investigate further.  I finally sat down to the audiobook and via the soothing tones of Bill Nighy, I heard the beautiful story of Juan Salvador.  He was a friend, a companion and also happened to be a penguin.

Tom Michell was a middle-class young Englishman from rural Sussex, doing the 1973 equivalent of a ‘gap yah’ teaching abroad in a boy’s boarding school in Argentina.  A few days of holiday took him to stay with some expat friends in Uruguay, where he saw some penguins diving for fish.  Wondering why there were not more penguins about when there were such easy pickings, he walked further along the beach and the reason became immediately obvious.  With great restraint, Michell describes what looked at first like a ‘black carpet’ with lumps in it.  It was in fact an oil slick which had engulfed hundreds penguins, killing them all.  Bill Nighy’s voice remains calm throughout but it is a truly distressing passage, as Michell contemplates  how nature is despoiled by the acts of man.

Looking on at the devastation, watcching as each new wave washes more little carcasses on to the shore, he notices one of the penguins is still moving.  While his first thought was to end its suffering, watching the little creature struggle to its feet, Michell realises that he needs to do something to come to the bird’s assistance.  Managing to find an old fishing net among the flotsam and jetsam on the beach, he takes the bird, who is understandably furious about his situation, and manages to carry it back to his lodgings.  Using butter, soap, olive oil, shampoo and indeed anything else that happened to be at hand, Michell does his best to wash the oil off the bird and return it to its original state.  The point where the bird stops trying to bite and, apparently recognising that Michell is trying to help, begins to cooperate is really remarkable.

With the penguin once more in a state of cleanliness, Michell hoped originally to return it to the sea.  However, uncertain about what damage the washing process might have done to the waterproofing of the penguin’s feathers (and with no way in the pre-Search Engine days of looking it up), Michell was wary about what to do.  To make matters more complicated, even when he took the penguin down to the sea, it flat out refused to leave his side.  The situation was clear.  For better or worse, Michell had just adopted a penguin.

The memoir’s overall atmosphere is one of whimsy.  Michell’s continuing adventures as guardian to a penguin kick off with all the fuss around getting his charge smuggled back across the border into Argentina .  The penguin evacuates its bowels while on a bus while Michell was talking to a pretty girl with whom he thought he had hit it off but who backed off due to the smell).  Michell then has to negotiate the whole ‘having a penguin’ point with a border guard.  My own favourite though was when a young street child ran up asking if Michell wanted a shoe shine, but then in the middle of his work, the child spots the penguin peeking out from the bag in which he was hidden.  The question, “Senor, why do you have a penguin” stumps Michell and ultimately the child nods and answers himself, “Because you are English”.  The baffling behaviour of the British abroad is so accepted as eccentric that even when one of these strange creatures is travelling with a penguin, one cannot be surprised.

Moving into the boarding school, the penguin gains a name – Juan Salvador – and a following of fans, with the boarding school pupils all coming to confide in him in times of emotional distress.  One boy discusses with the penguin over whether he should ask out the girl he likes.  The overworked school cleaner chats with Juan Salvador as she goes about her work.  He is the perfect listener, never interrupts and seems to take a genuine interest in the welfare of his new friends.  Michell imagines the penguin’s inner voice, with Bill Nighy adopting a particular business-like tone while inhabiting the spirit of Juan Salvador – this is a penguin who takes life seriously.  Michell recounts the various ways in which Juan Salvador improved the lives of all he touched, of the penguin’s role as mascot on the rugby team and how he spurred them on to a better performance, and then most touchingly of all, the incident where a young boy who had been an outcast within the school leaped into the swimming pool to swim with the penguin and was exposed as a champion swimmer.  Juan Salvador was a beacon within the school, brightening the lives of all who lived and worked there.

The Penguin Lessons is a light-hearted memoir, Michell’s rose-tinted memories of his own youth.  Of course the man now in his sixties would look back on the madcap adventures of his twenty year-old self with affection.  Who would not want to tell their children about when Daddy was known as the Englishman who went about with a penguin?  This is also a book heavily influenced by the expat experience.  It is not about life in Argentina, for while Michell recognises and refers to the political instability in the region – he was originally warned off going there in the first place – these are very much events which are happening to other people.  The cleaning lady will have to pay the price, but not Michell or indeed anyone he knows.  He is working in a school for rich boys whose parents want them to have the trappings of an English education despite living in South America – the environment could hardly be more British.  Yet for all this, the genuine warmth with which Michell remembers his penguin companion makes The Penguin Lessons a really likeable book.  It was originally marketed around Christmas 2015 but I find myself thinking of it more as an ideal beach read.  It is easy to imagine Juan Salvador waddling around the edge of the school swimming pool in the sun, undecided about whether he wants to get in.  So easy in fact that I was astonished to find actual video footage of the penguin himself back in the 1970s, doing just that.  He was just as I had pictured.

This is a hugely friendly book – it has the feel of a personal anecdote, as if one sat down beside Tom Michell at a dinner party and he began regaling the table with the escapades of his long-departed companion.  We sense his grief at the penguin’s ultimate departure and as Nighy describes Michell’s recent return visit to Argentina, we have a sense of a long-held worry that he had somehow failed the penguin in being unable to return him to the sea.  Michell is the classic stiff-upper-lip British male and The Penguin Lessons can be taken as a dignified tribute to a fallen companion, the ultimate eulogy to Juan Salvador, a penguin of true courage.

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The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
Published by Penguin UK on November 5th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Educators, Pets, Birds, Travel, Essays & Travelogues
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9781405921824

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Penguin Lessons, Tom Michell

  1. I’ve became obsessed with penguins when I saw Dick Van Dyke dance with them in Mary Poppins. I really wanted my mom to make me those pants so I could waddle like that. Instead, while she wasn’t looking, I jumped down the staircase with an umbrella hoping to fly. When it didn’t work, I went in search of the ladder so I could get onto the roof. My theory was that I needed to be higher to catch enough wind. Ha!

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