and then smuggled him through customs
- Young Tom Michell rescued a penguin from an oil slick in Argentina
- At first ungrateful, the penguin soon took to following Tom everywhere
- He was smuggled through customs and lived in Tom's mother's flat
THE PENGUIN LESSONS
by Tom Michell
(Michael Joseph £9.99)
You could call this a shaggy dog story, but on second thoughts, it's more of a shaggy penguin story.
Back in the mid-Seventies, Tom Michell was young, free, single and keen to see the world. South America was his dream: he had been teaching himself Spanish since the age of 12, and in his early 20s he secured himself a job as an assistant master at a posh school in Argentina.
Never mind that the Peronist government there was about to fall, that terrorism was rife, that kidnapping and murder were everyday events. Nobody in their right mind would dream of going. 'This, of course, was exactly what I wanted to hear and all the encouragement I needed.'
Fishy friend: A South American penguin much like the one a young Tom Michell rescued abroad in Argentina
Six months later, having settled comfortably into his new job and not once been kidnapped, Tom was taking a well-earned break at a holiday resort in Uruguay. Walking idly along the beach, he saw something terrible. A massive oil slick had washed ashore, and with it, the bodies of hundreds of dead penguins.
It was almost too much to bear. But hold on - was there movement down there? Wandering over to investigate, Tom found a single survivor. The penguin was covered with oil and surely close to death.
Tom faced a stark choice: he could leave the animal to die, or put it in his string bag and take it back to the flat he'd borrowed to try to wash the oil off in the bath.
It was no choice really, although the penguin wasn't exactly grateful. At every opportunity it tried to take a slice out of his rescuer's hand, and succeeded on one occasion. Tom still bears the scar.
Once scrubbed with butter, olive oil and detergent, the penguin calmed down. Tom took it back to the beach to set it free, but the penguin merely followed him back to the flat. This presented a problem.
The following morning, Tom was going back to Argentina, by bus, hydrofoil and then bus again, to resume work. He couldn't take the penguin with him. Could he?
On the first bus, he was sitting next to a lovely girl called Gabriela, while the penguin perched between his legs in the string bag with a paper bag over its head.
No one suspected a thing until the penguin loosened its bowels and deposited a pungent pile of fishy guano on the bus floor. Gabriela gave Tom the filthiest look imaginable. "What could I say? 'Don't blame me, it's the penguin"?'
At Argentinian customs, there was a small commotion when Tom's brown paper bag let out an enormous squawk.
'It's a penguin,' explained Tom. In the interrogation room, he proved it.
'Oh! It really is a penguin!' said the customs officer, who was fat, unshaven and wore mirrored sunglasses. He grinned hideously. 'You have dollars?'
Tom feigned outrage, and asked to see his commanding officer to complain. The penguin was quickly waved through.
Now named Juan Salvador, after Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the penguin would become Tom's friend and fellow adventurer.
Back at school, it quickly became an object of fascination. It lived on the terrace outside Tom's room, complete with tin bath full of water and a steady supply of sprats from the local fishmonger.
Penguins are social animals: they live in huge groupings. Juan Salvador loved to be the centre of attention, and appeared to listen, rather seriously, when people spoke of their troubles.
Psychotherapists offer a similar service, of course, but for a rather greater fee than a few fish.
Tom Michell isn't a professional writer and would not pretend to be, but his formal, even slightly pompous tone suits the material perfectly. In short, you believe every word.
For Juan Salvador clearly made a profound impression on people. Insatiably curious, the penguin embraced everything that life presented him with.
The first time he tried to go upstairs, for example, he bounced off the bottom step as though he hadn't seen it. 'He studied the obstacle, first with one eye, then with the other, until suddenly he appeared to understand.
'Without further ado, he walked back to the step and hopped up and forward, landing on his belly on the first tread.'
No fool, this penguin. No fools, these publishers, who have unleashed such a delightful and charming book just in time for Christmas.