There certainly were dragons in our recent past, but they moved around too swiftly to be painted onto a medieval-style map for the sake of public safety.
I refer to the human variety of dragon that often carried an umbrella and a handbag (Periculosum Humana Draco). Until quite modern times they patrolled every street and lane throughout Christendom, performing a function that many deemed essential to Western Civilisation. One particularly fierce specimen nearly caused the premature death of a friend of mine in the medieval university town of St. Andrews.
On an uncharacteristically sunny autumn morn in Scotland, my chum’s traditional scarlet scholar’s gown (ever worn by St. Andrean undergraduates) flapped in the sea-breeze as he strode along a narrow lane and began to nibble at a chocolate bar. Suddenly, coming out of a teashop, a formidable creature materialised before him. Dorothy Gash, the frightfully English and tweed-bedecked wife of the Professor of Modern History, was not only a dragon; she was a dragon’s dragon and probably kept the rest of her fearsome species firmly in check.
“Good morning, Mister Benson!” she trilled, over-pronouncing her consonants in a staccato delivery normally associated with a Maxim gun. She stared at him as though she wore a lab-coat and he was caught lounging in his Petrie dish along with the other bacteria.
“How-I-despise-people-who-eat-in-the-street-but-how-are-you?!” she demanded.
The terrified student swallowed his chocolate bar in one gulp and it lodged firmly in his larynx, looking as though he wore a skin-coloured bow-tie above his collar. Today, more than forty years afterwards, and almost a generation since Mrs. Gash passed away, he is still too frightened to eat in the street.
“I don’t know!” squirms the now-distinguished man in late middle-age. “Maybe she has been reincarnated or something.”
“That,” as Mrs. Gash might have said, “is-precisely-the-point!” She disapproved of people eating in the street, and in at least one case she stopped it ever after.
Such fearsome creatures abound in literature because they once flourished throughout life itself. Chaucer and Shakespeare feature them, and there is no shortage in Restoration comedies. Dickens depicts human lady dragons in various sizes, ages and stages of development, Kipling gives us a most sociable one in Mrs. Hauksbee, and in P. G. Wodehouse virtually every woman of middle age or older is a prime example worthy of being stuffed with sawdust and put on permanent exhibition in the Museum of Natural History.
The late actress Dame Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) could rise to the dragonesque at least on screen, and Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II looks as if she could do a dandy job of it if ever that highly-principled and devoutly Christian woman ever so permitted herself. Some impressive American dragons once flourished too, such as Clare Booth Luce, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and many others. Most of us over age fifty remember at least a few of them within our own communities.
A wise and unconsciously grand literary friend, representing another valuable endangered species, says that the formidable defines a dragoness and he may be correct. Some were hostile, others frosty, and still more could be warm but all were formidable. But they were more than just that because, unlike termagants or shrews or battle-axes who are merely voluble and domineering, dragons patrolled every byway and social gathering with a selfless sense of higher purpose. Like the stone gargoyles guarding a medieval cathedral, these flesh-and-blood monsters defended the principles of civilisation down to punctuation, dress, deportment and onward. Thus dragons buttressed even greater values, just as a recent New York mayor’s policy of “zero tolerance” showed that broken windows and jay-walking encouraged more harmful lawlessness, or as Singapore’s firm opposition to chewing gum and littering is said to build public order in deeper ways. Our dragons were our civilisation’s first line of defence.
There were male dragons of course, who bestrode certain occupations and professions such as the academy, the law, finance, the church and the military, causing mere mortals to tremble in their wake. But lady dragons seemed to be far more numerous, possibly because they were more visible to everyone and because they defended a broader territory that included almost all human activity outside of the workplace. From intimidating those who poured tea incorrectly, to chastising the improperly attired, to correcting otherwise innocents guilty of holding foolish views, the lady dragons were many and kept themselves very busy indeed.
They had many clever strategies beyond direct confrontation, and I saw one save the life of an American infant almost forty years ago. The North Sea winter blew bitter cold, the gas heater had gone off and the young American couple had no luck phoning the repairman until the upstairs neighbour caught wind of it. The daughter of the renowned St. Andrews classics scholar and pioneer of mathematical biology, Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, she doubtless came from a long and vigorous dragonian line. Within seconds she was on the blower, not to the repairman or his boss, but to the gas-man’s mother who was her former classmate at St. Leonard’s School, which was exclusive, all-female, harshly Dickensian and staunchly traditional in every sense. Its graduates, all formidable, were not to be trifled with and that puts it mildly. It was a kind of a dragon hatchery.
“Och, Mary! They’ve a wee bairn! An’ he’s gang tae dee o’ frostbite!” she shouted down the line, warning that the couple’s infant may freeze to death. “An’ it’s aw’ your son’s fault!”
Even though it was a Saturday when gas-men rested, the son was there in moments. Burly and hyperventilating, the young Scotsman restored the gas supply, gave them his home telephone number in case there was the slightest matter requiring his attention, and begged them, “Never, never, ever let her call my mother again! Please?”
A generation ago, every small community had at least one and usually featured a clutch of dragons; the larger and elder ones maintaining the standards of the younger trainee dragons who then roamed individually or in small groups policing the rest of humankind. The species found its nourishment chiefly in the better type of teashops, establishments specialising in starched table linen and superior baked goods; today the shops are mostly gone, perhaps because their fire-breathing clientele became extinct.
They were by no means only British, Commonwealth and Americans; English-speakers in other words. Even a scant two decades past, such dragons were said to habituate the Muscovite subway and buses, and woe betide any Russian not properly tending to his or her young or deporting oneself with anything less than full propriety. The Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians once had them aplenty too, but I cannot speak for today. In Sub-Saharan Africa they still flourish as portly black matrons, in brightly coloured garments that make them resemble tropical birds of prey striking fear into the hearts of almost everyone, but also inspiring gratitude and respect for few Christian peoples are as religious, respectful of elders and mindful of values as are the ordinary Africans. But these fierce and intrepid female creatures seem to have vanished elsewhere, apart perhaps from some small enclaves run by (usually) black church-going matriarchs.
The late Patricia, Countess Jellicoe (recalled here on this website) terrorised a meddlesome customs agent at JFK airport, threatening to strip naked if he kept trifling with her wrapped Christmas parcels. Her mother, interned in wartime Shanghai, turned a bucket over the head of an ill-mannered camp guard and would have been shot for her insolence had not other Japanese officers laughed at their colleague. But in even what were once the great dragon preserves of London’s Belgravia and Mayfair, their like is no longer to be seen.
Competing theories for their disappearance abound. Some believe that yesteryear’s great battalions of dragons were hard-bitten spinsters, marital victims of the Great War whose potential young husbands died in the trenches; but that is unconvincing for many or even most were married. Others contend that we are now far too polite to correct the behaviour of strangers, but road-rage and much else suggests that we are less tolerant than our forbearers overall. Yet it is possible that the upper-middle and middle classes, once laden with dragons, are intimidated into silence either for fear of being superior or of violent retribution by corrected savages who lack respect for anyone or anything beyond their immediate appetites.
It is perhaps true that dragonesque tendencies have been sublimated into defending newer values such as Political Correctness, particularly among misfortunates unschooled in better standards. There is, across Western offices, a considerable herd of (usually female) busybodies eager to intimidate anyone brash enough to use an unfashionably traditional term for this week’s Progressive buzz-word. But they are hardly full-blooded lady dragons. They neither thunder and roar nor breathe fire; rather they skulk like junior commissars or STASI informants, sneering in supercilious asides. They often lack bravery and forthright character. If our traditional dragons were mighty wooden ships-of-the-line, all billowing canvas with 20-pounders blasting, these meagre ideologues are submarines dangerous only when unconfronted and concealed beneath the surface.
Some may think that dragons disappeared once such bright and forthright women joined the formal workforce, but I wonder. If so, their former sense of public spirit may have been transmuted into lower desires for mere self-advancement once unique to men; in any case their absence on the street and in our drawing rooms is to be lamented even if their administrative achievements are not. Although unpaid, a dragon’s cultural value was immeasurable.
An otherwise sensible friend refuses to mourn their passing, claiming that dragons were agents of racial bigotry and other regrettable thoughts, but this misses the point. They were fearless defenders of social values and normative behaviour, most of which was traditional and some of which evolved and even improved over time. Blaming a fine upstanding dragon for defending her community’s values is tantamount to savaging a policeman or a judge for enforcing a law that is similarly susceptible to change. What matters is that they seem to have vanished and no one has risen to take their place.
Our late lamented dragons were, I believe firmly, Western Civilisation’s equivalent to miners’ canaries. Just as the caged birds died when oxygen ran out in the pits, their disappearance is due to social and moral doubt, to our former sense of cultural certainty done down by Progressive media and now in headlong retreat. The loss of either species is a lethal warning that time is running out.
Yet all may not be gone forever. A young traditionalist friend from the tiny shire of Rutland says that a few dragons can still be found deep in the ancient countryside, and America may have some too. Amid English cottages of native stone, in picturesque villages overlooking the hedgerows and fields and forests, far from committees, away from the chattering classes and the Progressive State still lurk a few great and noble beasts, lumbering with age but as fiercely diligent as ever before, continuing to defend the one and only way of pouring tea correctly, of dining and dressing properly, of deporting one’s self in public and never ever eating in the street. Not surprisingly, those communities seem to be the last parts of England free from discourtesy and largely devoid of crime.
So dragon bloodstock is still preserved, their extinction may be averted and, by improving the cultural environment and once more enabling a formidable sense of certainty, this species so venerable and valuable may return to roam free across Britain, her Commonwealth allies, America and the other imperilled nations of Christendom.
Indeed, if you possess the gene or the inclination, you may wish to cultivate your inner dragon.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.