I was on my way home just after dark tonight with my partner and our daughter, who is two and a half. And on the blind side of the local Bargain Booze outlet we came across a large stuffed penguin, maybe a metre tall, lying face down on the pavement. Not a real dead penguin immortalised in taxidermy. You don’t get those round our way. A toy one. That kind. Now, my daughter is a big fan of penguins. It all started with Pingu, who before she was two she decided to call “Tettay”, and it extended from there to the point where “tettay” is now a generic term for all penguins. There’s going to be a nasty moment when she starts school and some smartass contemporary points out that the generally accepted name for these birds is actually “penguin” and not “tettay”, because daughter, when the mood takes her, is one stubborn individual, and she will stand her ground with exactly the truculent, doomed certainty exhibited by my former schoolmate (and everybody’s former minor celebrity) Johnny Vaughan when, in 1975, he went head to head with me (and, obviously, lost) on a sportsman’s bet that the “Loch” in “Loch Ness Monster” should be pronounced to rhyme with “blotch”.
The tettay we found lacks Tettay’s appeal in almost every respect, particularly for the fact that its designer saw fit to attach a bright yellow, Botoxed bill more suited to a cartoon duck than a penguin. It’s neither a handsome nor a dignified stuffed toy. It’s pretty fucking hideous. But, hard determinism and daughter determination being what they are, the chances of that penguin not being scooped up and wedged on top of the already overloaded pushchair were a big fat zero. It’s strange, and more than a little sad, that if the stuffed toy had been an actual living, or dying, human being, lying there face down on the pavement on the blind side of Bargain Booze, we’d have been more frightened of it than wanting to care for it – sadder still that phobos and caritas would both have been present in force but the ignoble emotion would have quietly prevailed. But. Be realistic. We’d never have got the living, dying human being onto the top of the pushchair and taken it home without incurring major disruption to our largely smug and comfortable lives. The penguin wasn’t going to make any sudden moves.
So, yes, the bill-faced tettay came to live at my house and be an inanimate and compliant friend to the nipper. And, since it was taken off the street, it’s enjoyed an exciting ride in the washing machine (of which it was in dire need) and been massively fussed over by a sassy, beautiful little girl and her sappy father. Currently it’s sitting on a little stool in front of the fire, drying off from its washing machine trauma and listening to Anomie and Bonhomie with me. Soon I’ll take it and sit it at the end of her bed before I retire myself. And when she wakes, full to overflowing with the instinctive joy and love that certain parties with vested interests in her becoming a piece of machinery will systematically attempt to kick out of her for the rest of her life (but who will fail), and she greets it like an old friend, it will have completed its twelve hour Miracle On Charlotte Road transformation from a large lump of abandoned synthetic fibre to a valued family member.
By any measure, that’s one very fortunate stuffed penguin. When the anthropologists of the future, who will very likely be descendents of the whale, wring their flippers in bafflement as to how, during this era of unsustainable consumption, so much instinctive human goodness was diverted to the care of inanimate, mass produced objects while we all knew perfectly well that our fellow smart apes were dying daily in their thousands on shabby streets all around the world – of hunger, of diseases curable for the price of a packet of fags, of wounds from weapons paid for in the rich world but largely discharged in the poor one, what can we takers-in of ridiculous stuffed toys possibly say in our defence? Just, I think, that we were frightened: we saw all the misery, but to remain sane in the face of it, and in the face of our breastfed belief in the capitalistic lie that for every winner there is a loser, we battened down the hatches and were just thankful that for the moment we were OK and had nothing more complicated than our own smug, comfortable lives and a mucky penguin to deal with. It’s not much of a defence.