Jul 18, 2023, 05:55AM

Third Time Lucky

A new version of The Trials of Arthur.

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Photo by Brian Barritt: Arthur and the author. 

My first book was published in 1996, by Faber & Faber, called Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the UndergroundIt was about a contemporary phenomenon at the time, the rise of the rave movement in the UK, and the reaction of various groups—ravers, squatters, protesters—to government legislation attempting to curtail their activities.

In the process of writing the book I reconnected with an old friend, Steve Andrews, who I’d known in the 1970s. We met in a pub in Cardiff, which is where he lived at the time (and where I first met him). We had a jolly afternoon drinking beer and talking about counterculture in all its various forms. Steve was a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, very much a countercultural figure himself.

In the course of this afternoon Steve told me a story, about a guy, an ex-biker who was going around calling himself King Arthur. Steve had become one of his followers, a Quest Knight and Bard in King Arthur’s druid group, the Loyal Arthurian Warband.

Something in me stirred when I heard that. I wanted to get into contact with the guy. I spent months chasing him, going to sacred sites around the UK in the hope of meeting him. I eventually found him sometime in 1996, in Avebury in Wiltshire, which is a village in a stone circle, with a pub in the middle. It’s one of my favourite places.

I took to Arthur immediately. Despite the fact that he’d changed his name to Arthur Uther Pendragon and was claiming to be the reincarnation of that mythical King, he was very down to earth. We both liked a drink, and, together with all the other druids who’d descended on Avebury that day (it was Lughnasadh, one of the eight pagan festivals) we got magnificently inebriated and I ended up taking a bunch of wild, drunken druids and all their paraphernalia (swords, shields, robes and staves) back to Bath with me in my beat-up Morris Minor. There were four in the back and two in the front. I was so drunk I kept swerving across the road. Some of the more rational druids were saying, in mild, timid voices, “Please don’t kill us. We’re too young to die.” Arthur was up front, rocking about in his seat and shouting at the traffic while waving his arms about, which made me swerve even more. “Yes, yes, kill us,” he roared, at the top of his lungs: “kill us now!”

I wanted to write a book about him. It took a few more years before that came about. It was Arthur who got the book deal, with an imprint of Harper Collins called Thorsons. After we’d signed the contract—in the pub—Arthur and I got drunk together. I vowed eternal fealty to him then left him in the pub fast asleep while I made my way home.

That was very much the story of the writing of our book. We usually went to the pub to discuss it, and ended up drunk. On one occasion we met in Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. I had a return ticket with me, but Arthur ripped it up. He promised he’d get me home. Once the pub had shut we got some chips, and then went up to the petrol station on the A303 and started hitching. It was the middle of February, and very cold. There was a hard frost and hardly any traffic on the road. Arthur fell asleep, wrapped up in his voluminous druid’s cloak, and I was left to fend for myself. I tried hitching, but it probably looked like a ritual murder had taken place, me standing next to the corpse of a druid shrouded in his cloak. People were swerving to the other side of the road to avoid us. Eventually I gave up. I found a dumpster full of cardboard in the service station, which I climbed into, layering the cardboard over me to keep me warm. I didn't sleep, but at least I didn’t freeze to death either.

The following morning we made our way back into Amesbury and caught the bus. Arthur had kept his promise. He got me back home by getting me to spend my own money on bus tickets for the both of us. Writing a book with Arthur was always an adventure.

The book was difficult to write, mainly because I’d suffered a catastrophic loss of confidence after the failure of my previous book. Having a co-writer made everything more complex. We did most of our interviews on the phone. Then, in the middle of it, 9/11 happened. I got involved in the anti-war movement. A book about druids and road-protests in the 1990s seemed irrelevant. I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to finish it. Several deadlines came and went and Arthur began to lose patience.

Eventually he arranged for me to go to Glastonbury to stay with a mutual friend. I’ve written about that before. Being able to read out that day’s work to an audience of appreciative listeners helped break the deadlock. I was inspired again and the book made progress. Pretty soon it was finished. I rushed the first and final chapters in order to hit the latest deadline, knowing that the publishers would ask for changes, and delivered the manuscript. It was already over a year late.

The publishers never did ask for the changes. The commissioning editor had left, and the new editors weren’t particularly interested. None of them had been there at the start, so there was no one in the office with any commitment to it. It was published, but without enthusiasm. The final result was less than satisfactory, at least to my critical eye. The opening chapter was clumsy and the first half of the book slow-moving. It didn’t really take off till about half-way through (which is when I’d gone to Glastonbury).

It was published as The Trials of Arthur: The Life and Times of a Modern-Day King on January 1 2003. The first part of the title was mine. It was a reference to the Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I suggested The Trials of the King based on the fact that Arthur had been to court a lot and had experienced many trials. The publisher changed it to The Trials of Arthur and added the subtitle. Neither Arthur nor I liked the title. The book wasn’t a success.

It seemed like the end of my writing career. A couple more years of struggle and, unable to make a living, I gave up and got a proper job. I became a postal worker. I used to say that “The Arthur Book,” as I always called it, was the rock on which my writing career had floundered.

Time passed. Writing’s a vocation. If you’re a writer, you have to write. Despite my job and many disappointments, I was drawn into the writing habit again. I wrote a piece under a pseudonym for the London Review of Books about my life as a postal worker. It was a big hit and I was offered a book deal on the back of it. That was a hit too. It was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, read out by Philip Jackson, a well-known British actor.

By this time Arthur managed to get the rights to our book returned. I was full of confidence again and decided to rewrite it. Arthur had written a couple of new chapters. The result was The Trials of Arthur Revised Edition published by The Big Hand books on October 31 2012. It was more than 20,000 words longer than the first edition, and had nine new chapters. I rewrote the beginning and changed the end. I was very happy with the result.

The Big Hand was the publishing imprint of my friend John Higgs, the writer. He’d created it in the first place to publish an unpublishable manuscript by the beat writer and artist, Brian Barritt. Later he published a number of his own books, including the one that made him famous, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. Higgs has since gone on to have a successful career and has written a number of books for a mainstream publisher, three of which I reviewed for Splice Today, herehere and here. In the end he decided to focus on writing rather than publishing, and shut up shop on The Big Hand, which has left The Trials of Arthur without a home for the last two years.

Until June this year, that is. The book is once more available to buy on Amazon. It’s been revised again, mainly to correct some errors in the original text, but also for magical purposes. I won’t tell you what these are. You’d have to read the texts side by side to work it out. This is the third time that the book has been published. 

—The Trials of Arthur: Second revision 2023 is available here.



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