Aidan Dun, one of our greatest poets, tells us about meeting Arthur Rimbaud in a vision and finding inspiration in King's Cross.
These days, England doesn't much care for its poets, tending to prefer them safely dead and serviceable as colourful subjects for the heritage industry. The one I'm meeting lives more or less in typical obscurity, beyond a small band of loyal believers. But he's the real deal. And they never invite him onto Radio 4.
Aidan Dun has more going against him than most: an idiosyncratic exponent of what Aldous Huxley called "the perennial philosophy", the mystical traditions he feels most at home with are the Celtic Church and Rastafarianism. Not the kind of figure the liberal, secular gate-keepers of the arts are very comfortable with.
When we meet in a café in north London, the first warm sun of the year is shining over Pentonville Road. It's Friday and the evening rush is starting around Angel tube station. Aidan enters with an unhurried stride. He's a presence. Tall, intense eyes, chiselled good-looks still intact. Palpably tuned to a different frequency. These days, he's eligible for a "Freedom Pass" on London transport, but it's impossible to guess his age.
The coldness of London's elite has become a mode of existence. You sign up for it, and in a biblical sense it's transgressive. It's satanic. Let's not mince words: it's satanic.
The night before we meet, he'd performed at an event organised in opposition to the proposed £800 million mega-complex of luxury tower blocks at London's Bishopsgate Goodsyard. If it's approved, this slick package of high-end residential, office and retail space will cover 11 acres on a site bordered by Shoreditch High Street, Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane. Its biggest tower will be as tall as the Gherkin, throwing the residential streets to the north into shadow. Only 10 percent of the housing was designated as "affordable" [after publication of this article, a spokesperson for the developers contacted VICE to say this has since been upped to 15.8 percent]. For Dun, it epitomises the nihilism and arrogance of today's London elite: "Their coldness has become a mode of existence," he says. "You sign up for it, and in a biblical sense it's transgressive. It's satanic. Let's not mince words: it's satanic."
Dun is known as "The Voice of King's Cross". He believes this patch of London – dominated by three railway stations – has a "mystical geography". This idea weaves together his own experiences of mental breakdown and recovery while living there in a squat in the 1970s; the presence of a pre-Christian Celtic shrine on the site of St Pancras Old Church, thought to be the first Christian church in Britain; and the extraordinary pantheon of visionary poets that have lived, worked or written about the area. These include William Blake, Thomas Chatterton, Percy Shelley and Arthur Rimbaud. For Dun, these elements combine to make King's Cross a sacred place, "set aside for an experiment in human consciousness".
Dun's work found critical acclaim in the mid-1990s after the publication of Vale Royal, a 700-verse poem, written over the course of two decades, that articulates this unlikely vision of an area that in the later stages of the 20th century became synonymous with post-industrial decline, drug-dealing and prostitution. It was launched at a major event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. Allen Ginsberg flew in from New York and anointed Dun as a natural heir to the Beats. Peter Ackroyd called him "a divining-rod for history."
Since then he's produced poetry that has travelled the globe in its settings and subject matter, reflecting a childhood growing up in Trinidad and youthful travels across Europe, the Middle East, India and north Africa. This week, he'll publish parts two and three of his most recent work, Unholyland, a verse-novel set among the Israel-Palestine conflict. There's also an album with his wife Lucie, a professional pianist, coming out on an American jazz label later in the year. But King's Cross is still his lodestar. "If I deviated I would be doomed to success," he says. "As it is, I live with this glorious failure."
He talks about his obsession with the area with a combination of messianic intensity and scholarly erudition. "First I had to go mad in London," he says. In his youth, he'd trained as a classical guitarist. But a serious injury to his tendons ended his playing career in his early twenties. "My ego had to get thrown to the floor and the portal, the gateway, opened to King's Cross."
In a state of desolation, a series of chance encounters over the winter of 1972 led him to a squat on Charrington Street, not far from St Pancras station. This stately Georgian terrace, where two-bedroom maisonettes now change hands for three-quarters of a million pounds, was then a vast, dilapidated warren of squats. Several hundred counter-cultural drop-outs, visionaries and acid casualties called it home.
Rimbaud was standing beside me saying, 'Aidan, go down into the hell of King's Cross and you will see the earthly paradise, you will see the site of our hope'.
On the roof of his squat one evening, Dun says he had a vision of Arthur Rimbaud, the blazing teenager of French poetry who came to London with his older lover, the poet Paul Verlaine, in 1872. They lived together in a house on Royal College Street, yards from where Dun was at that moment standing, with Rimbaud's poem "Promontoire" in his hands.
"I looked up from the page and there was Rimbaud's text in the skyline. And I looked back to the text and there was the skyline of King's Cross. And Rimbaud was standing beside me saying, 'Aidan, go down into the hell of King's Cross and you will see the earthly paradise, you will see the site of our hope.'"
And so, he did.
The "vale" in Vale Royal is the valley of the river Fleet, a lost waterway which begins in the hills of north London, runs through King's Cross, past St Pancras Old Church and into the Thames. Once a significant feature in the life of the city (its course was dotted with wells believed to have healing qualities), by the 18th century it had become a stinking, disease-ridden ditch. It was eventually bricked-up into underground tunnels, through which it still runs 20ft under street level.
The running water of the Fleet is a central image of the poem, hidden beneath the modern city of material abundance and spiritual aridity. The saint that gives St Pancras Old Church its name was a child martyr, beheaded by the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the age of 14 for his conversion to Christianity, and he inspires the poem's central character, "The Sunchild", an archetype that also represents the poets who, Dun tells me, were "spiritually breathed upon by this part of London".
Swirling round their stories are elements of Arthurian myth and the Grail Legend. There are pre-Christian Druids on Primrose Hill and Freemasons manoeuvring for political control in 18th century Shoreditch. Struggling forces play out over a mythological metropolis. Running through it all is a quest for spiritual illumination and inner peace. With the victory of the Sunchild, King's Cross becomes "a geographical vessel, a symbolic container of the quiet mind, a perfect place to realise the vision of oneness".
At times Vale Royal can seem like the worst of New Age bunkum: the occultist's need to impose spurious meaning on the chaos of history. To many, it, and Dun himself, will simply appear deranged – which is probably the view of the art establishment that has shunned him. But there is an incantatory power to his work. His elegant lyrical verse has integrity because it has been hard won. He makes the unfathomable immensity of London's human history bearable.
"When I walk up Primrose Hill with my eyes closed, I'm in the Dreamtime," he says. "With the Druids, with the Sunchild, with Pancras, with Chatterton."
King's Cross has changed a lot in the last decade. At the end of Vale Royal,Dun prophesises that it will be the site of London's spiritual transformation, and when the developers actually turned up at the start of the century to "regenerate" the former railway yards, he wasn't shy in telling them what should be done – in his words, "harassing them, hammering them, badgering them, lecturing them". Some of the recent developments in the area are welcome – he sees the arrival of St Martins art school and the arts venue King's Place as broadly sympathetic to his vision of Kings Cross – unlike newcomers Google and biomedical research lab, the Francis Crick Institute, which he thinks are manifestations of top-down corporatism.
The developers inscribed a verse of his in stone in the main piazza, Granary Square: "King's Cross, dense with angels and histories, there are cites beneath your pavements, cities behind your skies. Let me see!" It runs through a line of lime trees, next to fountains – the long-envisaged running water in Vale Royal finally come to this inner-city wasteland: "I'm proud of my words but I'm more conscious of the feeling of success from my mission when I look at the fountains and the kids from Caledonian Road dancing through them," he tells me. It gives him faith to carry on as this genius loci, a step out of time in the frenzied permanent-present of modern urban life.
"It is for the quiet mind that I advocate," he says. "At the heart of the city. That's what it means to be the voice of Kings Cross."
And with that he's out the door. The last bard of London. Looking for real gold in the money-laundering capital of the world. A dirty job, but someone's got to do it.
Aidan will read from his new work Unholyland at London's P21 Gallery on Wednesday 1st June.
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