August 7, 2010


The Dragon in the Garden
by Reginald Maddock
144 pages, Heinemann, 1969

Review by Pat Black

Holy moley, a school book! There must be thousands of British schoolchildren within a certain age range familiar with this one. It wasn't on the curriculum, but it was certainly read out in classes for 11 and 12-year-olds the length and breadth of the island. You might even have picked it off your English teacher's shelf and read it yourself, like me.

School books usually mean boredom; dull but worthy fare, "message" fiction, like when He-Man explained to you at the end of Masters of the Universe exactly why Skeletor was giving him crap this week.

But, hold up... The Dragon in the Garden was actually pretty good. It managed to combine dinosaurs and martial arts, for one thing. Sadly this didn't mean, oh, say, ninja warriors slicing up marauding tyrannosaurs (please God, make it happen...). It went a little bit deeper than that - something that I actually appreciated at the time, as opposed to the penny dropping years later.

Young Jimmy, our hero, has never been sent to school before. His father, a slightly weirder version of the dad in Danny The Champion Of The World, has instead decided to school the boy himself. Jimmy's parents are artists (read: hippy acid casualties) with their own very fixed ideas of what's best for their boy. They do seem to have turned out a decent enough kid. However, for reasons which I can't quite recall, his father decides that now is the time to dunk his lad straight into the primordial stew of high school, aged 13. What could go wrong?

Jimmy's odd clothing, his hairstyle, his intelligence and above all his manners attract the wrong kind of attention at school, and soon he is taking verbal and physical abuse from the clodding villain, Fagso Brown.

Sighing, perhaps at his own folly as much as the inevitability of the human condition, Jimmy's dad decides to teach his bruised son the black belt judo skills he had hitherto kept hidden from the youngster. This early-70s Mr Miyagi soon has Jimmy practising and perfecting his falls as well as turning his opponents' actions against them in a wonderful zen style. Goody-two-shoes points awarded for lack of brute force, there.

On top of that, there's a sub-plot involving the creature in the title - a dinosaur fossil Jimmy finds and tends to, which is soon threatened by Fagso and co's actions. Unfortunately, there's no sign of any reanimated flesh-mangling monsters waiting inside deep dark caves to rend the baddies into mince - but the story seeks to educate people about fossils and geology. So the goody-two-shoes points are almost off the chart.

However, this book would be nothing without a climactic physical showdown between Fagso and his born-again-hard victim. When it happens there are no flying jump kicks (Circle, Square, tap L1 and X), Bigglesish uppercuts or swept legs - it's a clash realistic enough to satisfy smug fight porn realists as well as any bloodthirsty little hoodlums in the audience.

Once the dust settles, we're not quite done. As in real-life, a brawl does not quite mark the end of the dispute. But rather than leading to a mass revenge attack, a fatal stabbing at the school bus stop or a Facebook diss war, the final fight breeds an odd sense of conciliation which you wouldn't have bet on at the start of the tale.

The story progresses in unusual and often moving ways, especially regarding Jimmy's hippy dad and the bully. It examines the motivations behind violent, bullying behaviour and draws some enlightening and courageous conclusions regarding how society can tackle it - and correct it.

A great tale with depth - The Dragon In The Garden is the British Karate Kid, and all that might entail.

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