At a very young age I knew way more about penguins than most people ever know. While other boys were busy bashing conkers and trying to strangle each other with striped school neck ties I kept myself separated from the herd mentality by being South Yorkshire’s premier authority on penguins.
I knew that penguin egg whites don’t turn white when you cook them – they just stay transparent. They also taste fishy. And, when you crack open your breakfast penguin egg it will, more often than not, be already fertilized so you’ll likely see a partly formed beak and a pair of eyes. All of which amounts to a rather horrid breakfast.
I knew all 24 penguin breeds by heart. And I had my favourites: Rockhopper and Macaroni penguins were up there but not so high ranking as the Emperor Penguin, the largest of all penguins and the only one to breed during the Antarctic winter. Each parent takes care of the young while the mate goes off in blizzards to forage for food.
Adelie penguins were my other big favourite. The appeal of the Adelie to me was their irreverence. I saw them as the clowns of the penguin world. And like clowns there could be a dark side to their antics. Like when they fight and jostle at the water’s edge until one of them falls in. That’s when the rest get to see if their major predator, the leopard seal, is lurking to snap them up. An Adelie can out-swim a seal for short distances but the seal has more staying power and eventually exhausts the penguin.
At the heart of my passionate interest in Penguins was the fact that my father had lived surrounded by them during his years in Antarctica. He’d gone there as a young man as part of the British Antarctic Survey team in 1957. As a child the story that made me laugh most was the one about the new arrival to Base F: the fun loving American who thought it would be “a gas” to run into the middle of a crowd of Adelie penguins flapping his arms. His fun didn’t last long because one of the creatures leaped up and attached it’s beak to his rear end. The brave penguin was still hanging on as the American fellow made a hasty retreat from the surprisingly well defended colony.
My penguin obsession carried through into art class. At nine years old Mr Pannett my teacher became infuriated at my never ending stream of penguin paintings. I had discovered that penguins were one of the almighty deity’s creations that could be easily and accurately drawn from memory. Drawing a penguin simply meant creating a black bollard with a white tummy and pointy bits for the beak, feet and tail. After that it was just a matter of scale – I could draw them either small or large.
The way I usually went about my art was to first draw a mountain or iceberg. This would then be populated with identical penguins. Variety was achieved by always being careful to create them in various sizes so as to denote their distance from the viewer. I also took care to have about half and half facing left and right.
The total lack of vegetation in Antarctica was an added bonus: Mountain peak with penguins plus occasional rock. Done. At the very top of the snow-capped mountain (the colour of white paper therefore no painting needed) were placed miniscule penguins. These were in contrast to the large close-ups of penguins about to begin their trek up the mountain. Their eyes, if observed closely, showed the intrepid determination often seen in the eyes of mountaineers, polar explorers and boxing day shoppers.
Why the penguins felt the need to climb the snow covered slopes I never made clear. Perhaps I imagined them gleefully hurling themselves down the other side in order to partake of that penguin tummy slide that many years later I discovered I could emulate by throwing myself down the local toboggan slope in my slick Viking brand rain gear.
You might suppose I was a lazy artist, but I don’t believe so. In art class we were pretty much left to ourselves and weren’t ever taught much in the way of skills. Lacking the trio of artistic necessities known as talent, confidence and skill I realized that I could get passable results so long as I stuck to my penguin theme. But I can see how a casual observer, such as Mr Pannett, might think that I was simply trying to keep art class as effort free as possible. Well, okay, maybe there was a bit of that too, but whatever. After seeing me produce a dozen or so of these “Penguins on a Mountain” pieces he finally told me, “No more penguins. Paint anything, but no penguins.”
I did as requested but I stuck to my proven strategy for art production. Again the plan was to pick an animal as simple as possible to draw. I decided to paint a fish. Yes, a fish would fit the bill nicely. The creature could be placed in a plain, easy to paint environment: deep water, say. Unfortunately this was going to take a lot of blue paint as opposed to my customary white paper background but I saw no way around this.
However I soon discovered my artistic abilities were unequal to the challenge of producing the classic fish shape. The fins were too big, the tail too small and the overall shape, though sleek, was not of the symmetrical nature that common fish varieties have. An epiphany! I drew an orange beak on the fish and realized I had created my finest and most sophisticated penguin of all. Oh glory – yes! A swimming penguin! Maybe a fish didn’t fit the bill but the bill certainly fitted the fish!
This penguin was a far cry from the static figures standing in watchful docility on mountain slopes. This penguin was a creature of speed and roiling action as it twisted its sleek and streamlined body in a high velocity manner. Perhaps its goal was to catch a foolish herring that had strayed within gobbling distance or, possibly, it was turning in mid-swim to avoid the hungry clutch of a leopard seal’s maw. It didn’t matter. All I knew for certain was that the fish needed to be repainted in glorious black and white. I was most of the way through this process when Mr Pannett came by to check on my work.
Despite the “No penguins” rule an inner sense told me that the strikingly active beauty of this particular penguin would doubtless win him over. It came as a shock therefore to find out it didn’t. He didn’t say much. He stared and shook his head in a similar way to Mr Sykes, my previous teacher. During woodwork Mr Sykes was equally dumbfounded to discover I’d made a train engine with square wheels because I didn’t know how to cut round ones. My feeling was that since the wheels were glued on and the train wasn’t going to be going anywhere surely it didn’t matter if the wheels were square, round or penguin shaped.
Returning from Antarctica my dad brought an assortment of artifacts which eventually found their home in the attic of my childhood. When I look back on that attic I see it as the place where my imagination took root and gained a form that would remain relatively unchanged for the rest of my life. The attic was a treasure house of curious and wonderful objects. Among them was a banjo-ukulele without strings. There was an old photo album bound in leather and embossed with golden words: My Samoyeds by Ralph Shaw. Odd to see my own name alongside a word I had never heard anyone say. This Ralph Shaw was my grandfather and he’d been a part-time dog breeder. The book was full of blank pages. What on earth was a Samoyed? My grandfather had planned to keep a photographic journal of his Samoyeds but instead sold them and never mentioned them again.
Also in the attic was a huge black bear skin hanging from the wall. It waited to terrify me every time I went up there. There was a wheel from a foot powered sewing machine fastened to a block of wood and which I had plans to install as the steering wheel of my racing car as soon as I could figure out how to build one. Hanging from nails were a pair of snow shoes made from bent wood and caribou gut by Sammy Pachine, an Indian who lived in Northern Quebec. He and his family had marveled and laughed at the size of my father’s size 11 feet and had accordingly made his snowshoes extra large. A large blue metal steamer trunk contained Antarctic clothing – real explorer stuff this was: An old style parka with fur trim around the hood, a fleecy hat with ear flaps and a Norwegian sailor sweater so itchy only the toughest, most leather skinned sea dog could wear it.
A favourite thing to do in the attic was to empty out a small cardboard box of small but fascinating objects. A broken pocket watch. A cut-throat razor. Assorted penguin parts. There were 3 wings and some feet. I didn’t find much use for the penguin parts except to inspect them closely whenever I had the chance. In fact the only practical use I ever put them to was a few years later in the boy scouts. To gain my Pathfinder badge I had to make plaster casts of five different animal footprints. I discovered a dearth of usable prints in the mud by the river but I am nothing if not resourceful and I showed up at the next scout meeting with my five necessary casts: dog, cat, duck, human and penguin.
It was my dad who told me about the unappetizing attributes of penguin eggs. A scientist on Base F tried adding a multitude of ingredients to the whites but nothing served to make them any less see-through. As well as knowing the name of every penguin breed I also knew many of their habits, where they lived, what they liked to eat and what liked to eat them. I say ‘knew’ because much of this knowledge has settled far back into the dark recesses of my memory along with knowledge of how many guns the battleship Tirpitz had and exactly what shade of green was used to paint Sherman tanks. It was all vital knowledge at some point in my life but no more. What I do remember is my Grammar School science teacher, Miss Horne, who gave us our first homework assignment: Write a scientific report about something that interests you. Naturally I wrote about penguins. She told me later she had originally marked my essay 15 out of 20. Minutes later she turned on the television and found herself watching a documentary on penguins. Every fact in my essay was there in the programme. She returned to her pile of schoolwork and amended my mark to 20 out of 20, which, she pointedly told us, she had never given anyone else before.
But here’s a penguin related coincidence yet more stunning than the timing of that documentary. I’ve had a few awesome coincidences in my life but few compare to this event perhaps as fantastic as a tale from the Brothers Grimm.
Imagine my dad, there on Base F with the other 10 fellows, with no outside human contact. Obviously they needed ways to occupy themselves during the 6 month periods between visits from the supply vessel. They had a reel to reel Grundig tape recorder which they used to record a radio show they’d written à la The Goon Show. Once, after finding a dead Adelie penguin, my dad stuffed it according to a taxidermy manual left on a shelf by a previous scientist and mounted it on a piece of wood. In storage was a year’s supply of newspapers and once a week one of the chaps, usually Geoff, would go to the newspaper room to get the newspapers for that week. Of course they were exactly one year out of date but this detail didn’t bother anyone as they sat around arguing about “current” events.
He had a guitar but minimal skill. It was pre rock and roll and my dad had had a difficult time finding someone in his hometown to teach him to play. No-one could play guitar. When he finally returned home from Antarctica he discovered Elvis had come onto the scene and the world was now filled with singing guitar players. Everyone, it seemed, was now playing the instrument he had struggled with alone among the penguins. Curiously, in the early 1990s, this was reflected in my own life when I tried to learn the aforementioned banjo-ukulele in a Canadian wasteland devoid of uke players. That is once I’d put strings on it of course.
For my father, this whole period of being in Antarctica: training to be a scientist, catching seals to feed the huskies, melting snow water to do dishes, treks with sleds to visit ice-mountains, and so on, had a profound lifelong effect on him. He gained a distant philosophical perspective on the world while at the same time being enveloped in a rare and beautiful landscape that was rarely paper white.
On leaving Antarctica my dad brought many things back including the stuffed Adelie penguin. It didn’t quite make it to England though. As the ship came within sight of his homeland my dad took stock of his belongings and viewed his first taxidermy effort as others might see it: more like a misshapen mallard than a prime example of southern wildlife. It was not going to impress anyone. He tossed it overboard and rarely thought of it again. The year was 1960.
The years passed and my dad met my mum and they settled down in a small South Yorkshire village in a house with an attic. A few years later I came onto the domestic scene followed by my sister Heidi. Sometime in the mid to late 1970’s during a family vacation we were spending a rainy day browsing through a used book shop. My dad pulled a book from a shelf. It was called Sharks of the British Isles, or something similar.
This was the period soon after the super successful movie Jaws and the book had likely been written to help slake the thirst for shark knowledge for which the public was gagging. He opened it at random and started to read, (by the way I’m guessing at the exact wording here) “Sharks are the waste disposal units of the oceans. They will eat just about anything. Objects found in the bellies of sharks include: old boots, tin cans, bottles, jewelery, coins, entire suits of armour and once – a stuffed penguin!”
Now I invite you, dear reader, to pause a moment and consider the coincidences that had to line up there to make all that happen. Really. What are the chances? Sadly my dad didn’t pause long to ponder and he didn’t buy the book. I imagine him smiling to himself as he slid the book back on the shelf.
It’s a shame that he did that. I wish he had bought it. He could have had years of telling his Amazing Penguin Story and at the end of each telling it would have been so satisfying to see him pull out the book so we could see the punchline of his story corroborated in print.
Wouldn’t it be great to find that book? Let me know if you ever do. After all, it’s the only physical evidence to support my dad’s “A shark ate my stuffed penguin” story.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
I hope you continue to find only the most beautiful treasures in the attic of your imagination!
© Ralph Shaw 2016