‘The Penguin Lessons’ by Tom Michell

The Penguin Lessons book coverWhat a joy to read is The Penguin Lessons [London: Michael Joseph Penguin, 2015] by Tom Michell! For me in particular, there are associations and coincidences that make it an even more fascinating read since, in several ways, our paths have crossed.

As a young man in his early twenties Tom Michell was seeking adventure as well as a job and successfully applied for the post as Assistant Master at a swanky public school at Quilmes on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. This was in the 1970s, the dying days of the Peronist regime that was soon to be ousted by the military, for the second time. Life was full of fascinating coincidences for Tom who was on holiday in the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este, house sitting for friends, when on his evening stroll on the day before his return to work in Argentina he spotted a raft of dead and dying penguins covered in oil and washed up on the beach – but one of them had survived. His rash decision to rescue that survivor which, to begin with, tried to fight him all the way, is the prologue to an enchanting story of the bonding of the man, Tom, and the Magellanic penguin, Juan Salvador Pingüino.

In the short time he had left that night before catching his bus to Montevideo and the ascafo up the Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires, he managed to clean and calm the bird, so much so that he was able to get as far as the Argentine customs before he was stopped. How he dealt with that problem you must read for yourself. However, there wouldn’t be a story if he hadn’t surmounted not only that problem and many others. You will find out how the penguin made itself at home a St George’s School and became the rugby team’s mascot; which fascinated me, since, in 1957, as a young naval officer, I was invited to Quilmes to talk to the prep school about my ship which had just sailed directly from the Falkland Islands to the Argentine and, at one point, secured astern of the ARA General Belgrano; not something that has been done since. The passionate feelings of many Argentinians about Las Malvinas is flagged up.

Later in the story, Michell makes an expedition by train and motorbike to Valdés in the south of the country where there is still a breeding colony of penguins to investigate the possibility of taking Juan Salvador there and liberating him. His adventures show how resourceful and lucky he was. However, the key moment of drama in the whole story is the quite profound and life-changing effect Juan Salvador had on one particular boy.

The tremendous quality of the writing is what lifts a simple recollection into a philosophical memoir that is well worth rereading. What a boon for its publisher: who happen to be Michael Joseph Penguin!

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