Angry White Duck: the Popham Connection
The adventures of Angry White Duck have been a regular feature on my Twitter feed for quite some time. During the working week, I tend to take Oscar out on a local walk every day and we often walk past the local duck ponds. There is a collection of ducks who inhabit these two small areas of water, and most of them are peaceful creatures who spend their time swimming about, gobbling up bread from the local kids and cleaning their feathers.
Then there is Angry White Duck. A photograph of Angry White Duck doesn’t really do this chap justice and I’ve never managed a successful video of him in action. This is because it’s hard to take a video with a lively Labrador on a lead, and Angry White Duck only kicks off when he sees a dog. He hates dogs. This must be exhausting for him, because the pond is in the middle of a busy estate where dogs go past all the time.
I’m assuming that at some point in his life, Angry White Duck had a bad experience with a dog. That dog was not my dog. Oscar is angelic around ducks and I can walk him right past them on the lead and he doesn’t even bark. By now all the other ducks on the pond are used to him and don’t even bother to jump back in the water as we pass. This is Oscar, they seem to say, and Oscar is all right. Oscar likes to watch the ducks and if it’s not too cold we sit on our favourite bench for a bit to observe that all is well in duck world. But the moment Angry White Duck sees Oscar, all hell breaks loose. That duck has the loudest quack I have ever heard, and it’s incredibly aggressive. The minute he sees a dog he will swim backwards and forwards or sometimes perch on Duck Island, quacking furiously until somebody takes the four-legged fiend away. Often, we can still hear him yelling after us into the distance.
During a recent discussion on Twitter, my friends came up with a number of theories about why Angry White Duck is so furious. Given that this is Napoleonic Twitter, where literally anything can happen, it quickly became established that Angry White Duck was probably a duck reincarnation of Sir Home Riggs Popham who wants to vent about the unfair treatment he gets from the other ducks and how they don’t appreciate his genius. Since then, Angry White Duck has been formally renamed Popham.
A few weeks ago, Oscar and I went out later than usual It was dusk when we reached the pond. Popham was sitting on one of the two little islands in the middle of the main pond, looking important. It was too cold to sit, so we made our way past, grateful that in the fading light, Popham did not seem to be able to see us. For once he was quiet, cleaning his feathers and preening himself. There was nobody about and it was a pretty evening.
Suddenly, without warning, there was an almighty noise of barking, followed by a great deal of ineffectual screeching. Something very fast went past us, and then there was an enormous splash. A woman ran past shrieking:
Nero appeared to be a fairly young and very large dog who had pulled away from his owner and dived into the pond. Dogs aren’t allowed in the duck pond, but Nero didn’t care about that. Nero had seen the ducks and he had a plan. Clearly he was a naval chap, and he was swimming strongly towards the ducks. In the background, his owner screeched a lot and waved her arms in the air.
The ducks weren’t happy. They all kicked off. For once, it wasn’t just Popham expressing his views. There was a lot of quacking. Popham the Angry but Aggressively Handsome and Resourceful Duck stood atop Duck Island, louder than any of the other ducks in his squadron. But the other ducks quickly realised it was time to retreat. They left the islands and began to swim towards the opposite shore. Pretty damned fast.
Popham Duck was horrified. The cowards! It was just like the Red Sea all over again. Only, you know, different obviously. By now, it was clear that Nero the Dog was in the employ of Lord St Vincent, Popham’s arch enemy. Popham Duck stood his ground, quacking even louder. He was not going to retreat.
At this point, I was beginning to think that Popham Duck might be about to join his long-departed namesake in the history hall of fame. But there was a new hero.
Oscar had been staring at the chaos in stunned silence up to this point, but he suddenly discovered his inner policeman. Oscar knows that there are places you swim and there are places you don’t. And the duck pond is one of the latter. Oscar began to bark furiously, something he very seldom does, and it was clear that in dog language, he was yelling:
“Get out of that pond, you numpty.”
Nero took no notice at all. His eyes were on the prize and he was getting closer to Popham Duck. At this point, Oscar realised he needed to intervene personally. After all, Popham Duck might be annoying, but a trusty Labrador can’t stand by and see him murdered. He took off at speed. Oscar has never done this before, and it turns out he’s a lot stronger than I am. I let go. It was better than being dragged into the pond.
Oscar ran into the pond and then stopped and barked at Nero. Nero turned in some surprise. Oscar barked again. To my amazement, Nero abandoned his assault on Duck Island, changed direction and swam back to join Oscar. Both dogs trotted out onto the bank and had a good sniff at each other. I retrieved Oscar and Nero’s sobbing owner retrieved him with heaps of thanks. I don’t know why, I didn’t do a thing. I just smiled.
Popham Duck stood alone on his island glaring at the other ducks. You could see that he was thinking that they weren’t getting a share of the prize money (bread) as they’d done nothing to earn it. As Nero left, he quacked a few more times then settled down for a snooze. Oscar and I walked home, and I gave him a treat for saving Popham Duck even if he didn’t deserve it.
Continuing with the Popham theme, and in conversation with our Popham expert, Dr Jacqueline Reiter, we have come up with the theory that if Angry White Duck is Popham in this scenario, and Nero was clearly hired by Lord St Vincent to make this cowardly attack on our hero, then is it possible that Popham Duck sees Oscar as Lord Melville, his long-time patron. This would make perfect sense, if all that aggressive quacking were not Popham complaining about Oscar, but Popham complaining TO Oscar, giving him a long list of problems that need solving.
Presumably, after this traumatic event, Popham Duck went off to compose a lengthy explanatory memorandum about the incident which he recited to Oscar next time we’re passing. To me, this sounded like a highly aggressive version of:
“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”
But according to Dr Reiter, who knows about this stuff, it really means:
“When I was totally minding my own business doing something great and secret (see attached letter from Lord Grenville, which is totally unrelated but shows how much trusted I have been by high-ranking people who can crush my enemies like a gnat, especially savage dogs with no manners), an agent of Lord St Vincent came charging at me and it was only by the skin of my beak that I survived at all. Now, sirs, let me continue at great length about how persecuted I have been by…etc, etc, etc.”
We didn’t see Popham Duck for about a week after that and I was a bit worried, although reassured by the expert that he’d probably just popped off to mount an illegal invasion of South America and would be back on Thursday. This proved to be the case. Popham Duck shows no gratitude to his brave rescuer and still recites a long list of complaints every time we walk past.
I’m in two minds as to the motives behind Oscar’s rescue mission. It’s possible that he just snapped because Popham was getting on his nerves and he wanted him to shut up, or maybe he really did feel obliged to help. Myself, I think there was a policeman element to it.
“Now then, my lad, you can’t go around scaring the ducks in this pond, it’s just not on. I know that one’s irritating, but you just have to learn to ignore him.” Probably the real Lord Melville felt the same way about the real Popham.
With Popham Duck back in his rightful place, things have continued as usual on our walks and up on the duck pond until today. With this blog post in mind, I wanted to try to get a couple of photos of Popham Duck, so I stopped off on the way back from the post office and Oscar wasn’t with me. Just as well, as it turns out, because the policeman in him would certainly have objected to THIS.
Clearly, after the failure of Nero to deal with the most irritating duck in the world, Lord St Vincent found a new and far more subtle agent. Assassin Cat strolled out of the bushes just as I was snapping a few sneaky photos of Popham, gave me a swish of the tail, then sauntered down to the water’s edge.
Astonishingly, Assassin Cat seemed to have no fear of the water. He paddled daintily in the shallows and had a drink. I could tell that this was a ploy to throw our hero off his guard and I’m sorry to say that it worked a treat. Popham Duck clearly thought that compared to Nero, this was a negligible threat, and made straight for the intruder, quacking furiously. He wasn’t the only one. Once again, all the other ducks (the ones with brains) swam AWAY from Assassin Cat, quacking loudly. I don’t speak duck, but even I could translate this.
“What are you doing? Popham, you bleeding idiot, come away from there! He’s a cat, he’s not going to jump in and swim, but DON’T GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!”
Popham ignored them. He always does. He swam closer and closer, and Assassin Cat pretended not to look. I wasn’t fooled. That cat had his orders, and he was prepared to carry them out. I wasn’t sure who I was worried about. Popham is a good sized duck, and that cat wasn’t very big. One thing was certain though. Somebody was going to get hurt unless I intervened.
Before Popham got to the edge, I went to stroke Assassin Cat. Being a typical feline, it wasn’t hard to distract him. A few compliments and a tickle under the chin, and he was following me back up the bank. Behind me, I could hear Popham’s enraged quacking.
“Come back here, you furry coward! I’m not afraid of you. You’re looking at the duck who once guided the entire navy through treacherous waters into the safety of a place that they weren’t supposed to be. You don’t scare me.”
I am hoping that with Assassin Cat out of the way, the ducks of Popham’s squadron will manage to explain to him that when you’ve got an advantage, you don’t squander it by making an unnecessary attack. If they don’t, sooner or later, that duck is going to get himself into a situation he can’t get out of. Who knows what will happen then, possibly an unwelcome posting to India or the West Indies.
In the meantime, I think Oscar has become so used to Angry White Popham Duck, that he quite enjoys his regular rants. He looks over at the pond as we go past, knowing that at any moment, the litany of complaints are going to begin.
“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”
“He’s in good voice today, Mum.”
“He is, Oscar.”
“Maybe we should bring him some bread tomorrow, see if it will cheer him up. And a treat for me, of course.”
“Why not. You’re a very good boy, Oscar.”
“Thanks, Mum. You’re a good girl, too.”
My thanks to John Haines who came up with the original identification of Angry White Duck as Popham and Jacqui Reiter who contributed to the rest of the story. Maybe we’ve all been in lockdown for too long…
Also to Oscar, for being wonderful.