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Holy Ground Revisited: Vale Royal

It has been more than 25 years since Goldmark published Aidan Dun’s first epic poem, Vale Royal. Now, on the occasion of a timely reissue, poet and translator Josephine Balmer reviews its ongoing legacy.

Aidan Dun, reciting for Mike Goldmark at home

Aidan Dun, reciting for Mike Goldmark at home

On a sunny day in the late spring of 1995, I was taken on a magical journey through what was then one of the most derelict and notoriously shabby areas of London: King’s Cross. Nearly three decades later, I can still recall that May morning with perfect clarity as my guide, the poet Aidan Andrew Dun, unveiled his vision of a mystical landscape shimmering beneath the rubbish-strewn city streets like a lost, drowned world newly revealed at low tide. An engaging companion, he certainly looked the part of the enigmatic bard; tall, clothed in black (including beret), his intensity only leavened by flashes of self-deprecating humour.

Dun’s epic poem, Vale Royal, which explores the history, mythology and psychogeography of the area, was just about to be published by Goldmark Gallery. And I was writing a profile of the poet for The Observer newspaper, hence the whistlestop tour of the (to him) most sacred sites celebrated in his verse: Claremont Square, which he believed was the site of ancient Druid worship; the cave where Merlin slept out the centuries beneath Filthy MacNasty’s Whiskey Café (now a gastro pub) on Amwell Street, as well as his own spiritual lodestone, St Pancras Old Church - according to the poet, not just the oldest church in the western world but the site of an earlier, pre-Christian Celtic shrine. ‘Holy ground,’ as Dun said to me that day. ‘Take off your shoes in King’s Cross.’

A few weeks after our meeting, Vale Royal appeared to universal acclaim. Michael Moorcock in the New Statesman declared that ‘an enduring mystical epic has been added to our literature’. Kate Kellaway in The Independent found ‘a surprising lyricism, a rural sweetness within his urban landscape’ while Iain Sinclair in London Review of Books also praised the work’s poetics, flowing ‘effortlessly like a smooth stream’. Never one to think small, Mike Goldmark booked the Albert Hall for a launch reading featuring Allen Ginsberg alongside Sinclair and Dun. Now Goldmark is reissuing Vale Royal in a new edition, again beautifully produced and typeset – with a nod to the twenty-first century as a QR code replaces the original’s double CD of Dun reading the work – to make the volume an objet d'art in every way.

Signed poster for the Royal Albert Hall launch of Aidan Dun's Vale Royal, designed by Rigby Graham, 1995

Signed poster for the Royal Albert Hall launch of Aidan Dun's Vale Royal, designed by Rigby Graham, 1995

The poem’s renaissance is even more welcome, given its long and tortuous path to original publication. Dun started working on Vale Royal while living in squats around King’s Cross in the 1970s. He first contacted Mike Goldmark in the mid-1980s after his original literary mentor, Hutchinson editor Oliver Caldecott, died of cancer. Unfortunately, Goldmark Gallery was then publishing its first volume, Iain Sinclair’s debut, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, and couldn’t take on any more authors. The pair lost touch but seven years later, in 1993, Dun contacted Goldmark again on the off-chance, only to learn that the publisher was about to send out private detectives ‘to scour the squats of north London for a poet named Aidan’.

Goldmark showed Vale Royal to the Nobel Prize-winning Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who by another strange coincidence, had known Dun as a child in the Caribbean. (‘Ask him if he remembers my poems,’ Dun told Goldmark. ‘If he gets too mystical,’ Walcott advised Goldmark in response, ‘hose him down’.) Similarly, Iain Sinclair, who by now had also read the manuscript, was lunching with novelist Peter Ackroyd a few days later when, out of the blue, Ackroyd mentioned a poem about King’s Cross he had come across years ago that still haunted him. ‘It was very strange,’ Sinclair told me at the time, ‘that it was following that same agenda of secret London. And that it should come up again to Uppingham… but I knew how finely [Mike] would do it.’

In the intervening years since Vale Royal’s first publication, Dun’s sacred ground has changed beyond recognition. Since redevelopment of the area began in earnest in 2007, the disused railway buildings and ramshackle industrial ruins have been replaced by new high end piazzas, luxury shopping malls, expensive restaurants and bars. Nearly 1700 luxury apartments have been constructed, with those within the skeletal frames of the area’s distinctive former gasholders selling for up to £7.5 million.

Allen Ginsberg and Paul McCartney perform at the 1995 Royal Albert Hall launch of Aidan Dun's Vale Royal

Allen Ginsberg and Paul McCartney perform at the 1995 Royal Albert Hall launch of Aidan Dun's Vale Royal

Dereliction has become de rigueur. Wasteland has been replaced by Waitrose. It is not all bad news. The new British Library, the Central Saint Martins campus for the University of the Arts London, and the cultural hub of Kings Place all jostle for place among the new headquarters of multinational tech firms such as Facebook/Meta and Google. And a verse by Dun, first chalked on the walls of the about-to-be demolished Battle Bridge in 2008, is now inscribed in Granary Square on the developed site, fittingly running along a newly-planted lime grove:

Kings Cross, dense with angels and histories there are cities beneath your pavements cities behind your skies. Let me see!

So the poetry of place endures, as if it has been written in any time, of any site. As Iain Sinclair has noted, Vale Royal could have been ‘discovered, scratched on parchment, in the tower of Old St Pancras Church’. Like the church’s graveyard, destroyed and dissected in the 1860s by Midland Railway with the help of then apprentice architect (and future novelist) Thomas Hardy, the poem’s ‘broken-down oasis in a desert of stone’ will exist in the mind, and especially in the spirit, long after it has been physically demolished.

The signed, cloth-bound, hardback collector's edition, with an additional triad in the poet's hand, limited to 100 copies and the deluxe paperback edition

The signed, cloth-bound, hardback collector's edition of Vale Royal, with an additional triad in the poet's hand, limited to 100 copies and the deluxe paperback edition

‘Vale Royal,’ argues Matthew Beaumont in his introduction to the new edition, ‘will be needed not only to rebuild its most meaningful monuments but to reconstruct its most meaningful histories’. In today’s revisioned and reconstructed King’s Cross, the buried river Fleet still flows on silently in its living tomb beneath our feet. And when the crowds lining the new squares have gone home, its ancient daemons and demigods still wander its different streets, whispering their secrets, their memories of a hallowed past, in our sleeping ears. Fortunately, Goldmark Gallery’s elegant, high quality reissue can once again map out Vale Royal’s consecrated, other-worldly terrain without the need for excavated parchment.

 

Josephine Balmer is a poet, classical translator, research scholar and literary critic. She studied Classics and Ancient History at University College, London, and completed a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her publilshed works include the acclaimed translation Sappho: Poems and Fragments, newly revised and enlarged in 2018, and Ghost Passage, her most recent poetry collection, published February 2022. She is presently a member of the Classics and Poetry Now Research Group (CAPN), chaired by Lorna Hardwick, and based at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. 

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