The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
If you feel in the mood for a super ‘feel -good’ read now the nights are drawing in, then this true story, published by Penguin and now translated into 20 languages, is for you.
In the 1970s, when Tom Michell was 23 he travelled to Argentina to work at St George’s, a boys’ boarding school, which is still thriving today. On a break to Uruguay, he rescues a Magellan penguin covered in oil, places it in a string bag, cleans it, and names it Juan Salvador. The bird refuses to leave his side and Tom gets permission from the school to keep it on a terrace beside his room: everyone with whom the penguin is in contact is charmed by a creature which listens and offers non-judgemental support. The bird becomes the rugby team’s mascot, the housekeeper’s confidant and a swimming coach, and completely transforms the life of Diago, a deeply homesick child.
Michell acknowledges that he anthropomorphises Juan Salvador’s behaviour because of the way he responds or reacts: he appears totally ‘content’ with human company. He displays an emotional intelligence that humans would not normally recognise. The memoir is written with humour and without sentimentality.
The writer describes the South American landscape beautifully: the thin heights of the Andes, the plains of Patagonia, the wilderness of Terra del Fuego, the flora and fauna, the lives of the gauchos on the cattle ranches. He captures the political and economic situation in Argentina in a dark period of that country’s history, and this provides an interesting background to the penguin story – a creature whose friendship brings such comfort and tranquillity to the people whose lives he touched.