Mysteries of Kings Cross

Iain Sinclair

  • Vale Royal by Aidan Dun
    Goldmark, 130 pp, £22.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 00 000015 9

A senior lecturer in English and American studies at one of our livelier universities, himself a fine poet, was talking to me on the telephone. A student had decided to write something about London poetry – was there any? He’d toyed with David Gascoyne’s A Vagrant (‘They’re much the same in most ways, these great cities’), but decided that Paris was the principal focus there. He couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the post-Olsonian outpourings of the Seventies, most notably Allen Fisher’s Place, Place was set largely south of the river, a nowhere defined by unnecessary particulars. Now Roy Fisher, he could do something with him – but the man had the poor taste to base his mythology on Birmingham.

My problem was the contrary one: I couldn’t imagine a poetic that was not centred on, and earthed in, London. There was no single poet I could recommend without going on for ever – backwards or forwards from The Waste Land, from Chaucer to Spenser and Shakespeare and Donne, through Milton and Blake and Keats, to David Jones, Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Moore, to Lee Harwood’s Cable Street, Bill Griffiths’s Whitechapel and Brian Catling’s The Stumbling Block. London infected its interpreters, soliciting contributions to an open-ended project. The names of the poets were the stanzas of a continuous book.

Aidan Dun’s Vale Royal, an epic based on the mysteries of Kings Cross, fits seamlessly into the continuum. I hope it is giving this elegantly produced book its due if I call it anonymous: egoic interference is minimal, the poet wills himself to disappear into his text. The fate of this degraded, fought-over, misrepresented landscape, between the nexus of railway stations and the loop of the canal, is what concerns the poet; publication, achieved after twenty years of struggle, he saw as merely inevitable. The book had to succeed. It wasn’t his work, it was the present articulation of an ineradicable benediction: an incarnation of the numinous on the ground of the city. Late-century Romanticism, which some commentators pronounce as the new ‘mainstream’, was back with a vengeance. Dun, recognising that Blake’s prophecy – Kings Cross as the temple of the New Jerusalem – was imminent, felt the ‘ineluctable urge to get down on my knees, take off my clothes and give thanks’.

London is a transitional concept: it achieves an envelope of identity by being constantly rewritten and redefined. Vale Royal remains close in spirit to other difficult to categorise, difficult to explicate, poems: Charles Williams’s The Region of the Summer Stars and David Jones’s The Anathemata. Dun’s expository notes form an independent unit, a parallel text. His theme, a contemporary reworking of the Matter of Britain, is an active project, rather than an antiquarian exercise. It is an attempt, no less, to realign the spiritual energies of the metropolis. Kings Cross, or, more specifically, St Pancras Old Church, must be fitted to accept the apocalyptic destiny proposed by William Blake.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in