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The spirit of Fenton

The Common Cause for Nature report highlights the importance of both talking about and experiencing nature in motivating people to support the environmental agenda. We asked author of Silent Spring Revisited and Looking for the Goshawk Conor Mark Jameson to write something about the importance of connecting with nature. He found inspiration from nature in an unlikely suburban setting, via YouTube.

I’m not sure why I laughed so much when I saw Fenton the black labrador in what is by now a legendary piece of amateur footage. It has even gone viral, viewed about 10 million times on the internet. In fact I’m not sure it’s even right to laugh at it, but laugh I – and so many others – obviously have. I’m not actually sure why it’s even funny. I’ve been trying to analyse the reasons.

It’s worth mentioning first that not everyone has found it funny. Comedian Paul Merton, for example, national treasure observational surrealist, was surprisingly – but completely – nonplussed by it. In fact it was on his show – Have I Got News for You – that I first saw the clip, and caught on to the phenomenon of Fenton. It was by this time already such a big deal online that it was making broadcast news headlines, in that oddly democratic way that everyday incidents can climb the news agenda.

In case you haven’t seen it, the clip opens with an idyllic rural scene. It’s a view of Richmond Park. Fallow deer are relaxing in the meadow, among some scattered trees. The tranquillity is interrupted by the sound of a man shouting in the distance. ‘Fenton!’ comes the cry, in a sergeant-major, parade ground bark, repeated every few seconds. There is increasing volume and urgency each time. The onlooker’s camera-phone pans to the right, to reveal a lot more deer, beginning to stampede into view. Within seconds the gathered and now large herd is galloping away. Into shot comes the streaking black shape of what one can only assume is Fenton.

This is clearly a dog whose moment of glory has arrived. Suddenly the dappled deer are like gazelles, the manicured, sanitised park is the wild Serengeti. Fenton has reverted to wolf state. One can almost hear Attenborough’s breathy commentary in his head. “Seeing his opportunity, now, Fenton must hunt. The life or death struggle of Richmond Park plays out, in the heat of the Middlesex afternoon…”

Behind him, and lagging behind somewhat, and at a much less impressive pace, comes the owner of the dog, and the voice.

‘Oh Jesus Christ!’ he gasps, as the futility of his efforts to retrieve the situation become apparent. ‘Fen-tonnnnnn!’

Just one man and his dog, in complete disharmony. You’d think a dog with such a distinguished name would at least turn round, let alone come to heel, when ordered to.

There is another ‘Jesus Christ!’ or two for good measure.

There is anguish in the blasphemy, the kind of oath normally uttered as death throes in a movie. Of course it feels entirely out of proportion to the seriousness of the situation, viewed from the comfort of your living room.

The joke seems not, for some, to wear thin. An equally hilarious spoof has also now appeared in which these cries of ‘Fenton!’ are overdubbed on a sequence from Jurassic Park in which dinosaurs stampede across a primeval plain. There’s also a TV ad in which a veritable Noah’s Ark-worth of life forms are fleeing the unseen beast. The owner’s cries are slowed and distorted the way dramatic moments and sounds sometimes are in melodrama, a parody of the over-reaction of the owner. It works well too.

fenton

So is it OK to laugh at the poor man’s predicament, and inconvenience of the deer? Clearly it would be better if a domestic pet wasn’t chasing innocent ruminants in a public park; but the deer can presumably cope with a bit of a chase, and are unlikely to be outrun by a rotund family pet which has probably never caught more than a tennis ball or mauled more than a rubber bone in its life.

There is a road up ahead, so perhaps there is a danger there, but surely the menace of the motor car is ever-present. The drivers can see these deer coming. In any event I think no deer was harmed in the making – no, snatching – of this little episode in the life of suburban England. No dog had to be put down. Fenton annoyed one person – his owner – maybe two if you count Paul Merton, and delighted millions of others.

An out of control dog in a park – hardly sounds like comedy gold when described. You may agree, if you got this far. I think the clue to the humour is revealed if you strip away the elements. Would it have been funny if the owner hadn’t sounded so much like a parade ground sergeant major? I think no. If the dog had been a pit bull? No. Clearly had it been a Rottweiler or Alsatian it wouldn’t have been so funny, or even funny at all. But then the owner probably wouldn’t have sounded posh, and the dog wouldn’t have had a name to match the Range Rover, Barbour coat and green wellies you imagine are back in the car park (for all we know of course Fenton’s owner is a thoroughly lovely chap). And the dog probably wouldn’t have been walked off the lead in a deer park. No, it has to be a black lab to work.

I think it’s a joke at the expense of how we perceive the aspirational classes and their assumed status, their symbols. One suspects the cries of ‘Fenton!’ are in part for the benefit of any onlookers, although the owner can’t have known that there would soon be 10 million of us, according to the viewing statistics on YouTube; his illusion of control brutally exposed. I think we all snigger at the fantasy inhabited by most owners of large dogs that they are in control, that by shouting their dog’s name often enough while it ignores them and does what it wants they are somehow in charge of the animal.

People who argue for and against the reintroduction of wolves Canis lupus to the UK may forget that we already live with 8.3 million of them, disguised nowadays as Canis lupus familiaris in all its forms: some small, some large, some in handbags and some waiting to remove the inattentive post-person’s fingers. But all, deep down, the wolf… with all its carnal cravings.

My parents-in-law reported one day seeing a Jack Russell terrier chasing two roe deer in a field and over the brow of a hill. Minutes later the terrier reappeared, the deer now hot on its tail. I’m tempted to assume that the deer came to realise mid-chase that, while their assailant smelled of wolf, this is where the similarities – and the fear – might end.

Finally, Fenton has reminded me of Rupert Pupkin’s (King of Comedy) old adage – better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime. We increasingly live our wild lives through the heroics or bravado of others, whether animals, action heroes or wayward sportsmen. For 45 seconds, unless you tutted disapprovingly, most of us were rooting for the black lab gone feral, and just maybe felt the rare stirring our own inner Fenton.

GuestThe spirit of Fenton

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