A terraced house on a large estate, south east England, February: Green, spreading ink encircles the powerful forearm. Coarse black hairs poke through the tightly patterned lace of tattoos, a sleeve of foreign lands, former girlfriends, Mum, Dad and Hells Angels.
Outside, a cold, pregnant sky, full with snow, presses against the dark, curtained window. Within, tight smoke curls around the dying embers of a cigarette, glowing fitfully in the full, bearded face of the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon, reborn. The atmosphere of the small, modern terrace is at once tribal and mundane. Attention focuses on the former witch, wizard, mercenary and druid now sitting in front of the TV. The glare of a single, harsh kitchen light is reflected in his deep-set black eyes making them seem - for a moment - quite frightening. A rottweiler pads the leaf-patterned carpet around him. A crop-haired biker, a 'Shield Knight', the closest of Arthur's followers and oblivious to the stale smells stalking the house, sprawls in an armchair and studies ways of claiming from the 'Social'.
It is a communal house. Lucan, the young Shield Knight and, like Arthur, a former bike gang member, sleeps in a child's bed under the stairs. His left hand has developed arthritis, he says, "from too much punching". Above, Arthur, and his girlfriend and daughter, have rooms. There is a secret priest-hole, too, built by Arthur, where Excalibur (a former film prop found in an antique store) lies, together with dozens of legend and spell books, membership records and other paraphernalia sent by fans from across the world.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" asks the reborn king, in a friendly, southern drawl. He scratches at his left arm. It has been left curiously twisted and shortened by a parachuting accident. That was long ago, in his days as a soldier for Her Majesty's armed forces, during his "previous" life. Now he is known by his other names; Arthur Uther Pendragon, King Arthur, Titular Head of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, Member of the Council of British Druid Orders, Honoured Pendragon of the Glastonbury Order of Druids and Official Swordbearer to the Secular Order of Druids. And, as he states continually, he fights for Truth, Honour and Justice.
"You see, in life, you don't need a reason to live because you're gonna live anyway. What you really need is something worth dying for, if you like. That's the main thing. I happen to believe that's truth, honour and justice - we're warriors and that's what we fight for - though we tend to fight on a magical level." He punctuates his sentences with a high pitched laugh, shuffling constantly, nervously with a pack of cards.
"I'm also sworn on a sacred quest to fight corruption in high places, and to protect the ancient faiths of Wicca and Druidry. Part of that is to fight corruption, whatever the cost," he says, his voice bouncing from the bare kitchen walls: "And to reunite the Table Round and the Celts. That's my sacred quest."
This quest has brought Arthur into the media limelight - and into battle with the very essence of conservative, insular society. Arthur and his 'Warband' - 150 Shield, Quest and Brother Knights - have fought on behalf of the homeless, religiously oppressed and those who have lost, or are in danger of losing, their civil rights.
Arthur's major clash, until recently, has been with English Heritage over the closure of Stonehenge to worshipping druids (of which he is one). He was arrested in 1991 and 1992, together with several followers, whilst inside the four mile 'exclusion zone' surrounding the stones. Arthur condemns this as religious persecution and sent several of his knights to stage a sit-in in Winchester Cathedral last year as a protest. He has also successfully prosecuted the Chief Constable of Wiltshire Constabulary for wrongful arrest and unlawful imprisonment, receiving several thousand pounds in damages.
However, the reason for his current fame and media profile is his fight with the British government in the European courts, over the legality of the Criminal Justice Act. This Act made it illegal to trespass or to demonstrate in any great numbers and has been deeply unpopular across a wide spectrum of peoples. It even caused riots during its implementation. Arthur has also fought alongside the 'New Age' Dongas tribe against developers at the infamous Twyford Down dispute and has stood in the county and local elections. He also plans to stand as a candidate in the next parliamentary elections and wants to write a political column highlighting civil and environmental issues. In a sense, he is, together with his various knights, a 'rent-a-crusader', who joins others in their battle against the (perceived) inequities of the federal system. Their frequent arrests do not annoy them - they believe with righteous indignation that they are "political prisoners".
"His is a world in which freedom of mobility is cherished and there is an awareness of nature which we, his 'civilised' brothers, have all but lost,"
Peter Carmichael, 'Nomads' "These laws are all about control," says Arthur, pacing the kitchen in his socks and smoothing his long, black hair behind an iron circlet. "Nobody in their free-thinking mind thinks that control laws are a good idea."
He looks me straight in the eye: "Soon they'll [the government] say 'What we'll do is use the [Criminal Justice] Act to stop the Convoy - medieval brigands going to Stonehenge and having their festival - and while we're at it we'll stop the druids from worshipping there, and while we're at it we'll stop the bloody ravers having a party and having fun doing harm to nobody, and while we're at it we'll stop people squatting, oh, and while we're at that we'll stop these hunt saboteurs because they're social deviants as well - and we'll effectively stop the rights of assembly'." He pants, exhausted and weary for a second.
"You know, these are what I call control laws - there's no need for them whatsoever. They are specifically down so the government and those in charge can pigeon-hole people to join the system, and if you don't join the system you'll be penalised for it."
Arthur hasn't joined 'The System'. He lives between three different houses, or out on the road in a beat-up Honda, campaigning. He once spent a winter living in a tree stump, picketing Stonehenge and surviving on handouts. Other homeless knights and druids live with him at these addresses, taking quests or fighting on behalf of 'worthwhile' causes. They frequently come into conflict with the State.
As with many of those rejecting the 20th century lifestyle, Arthur has refused to pay the local poll tax and fought his local council in court over the matter. Though a former member of Mensa (the society for those with a high IQ) and armed with a formidable knowledge of the law, he refuses any full-time occupation other than being Arthur Pendragon. As a result, he won't claim dole/ unemployment benefit: "I gave up all worldly goods as part of my pledge. I don't pay rent and I don't claim benefit because I don't want to sponge off the state." He is, he says, a king without a kingdom - his legal aid forms are signed under "employer" as "The People of Great Britain". He's now been without money for five years. "This is what makes me happy. All I need is food and shelter. It is all my life - seeking purpose."
Later we move through the estate, walking across damp playing fields to collect mail from his sister's house - several production companies want to film him - and then on, into town. Dirty, beaming kids greet us as we pass. Lucan strides along, keeping pace with the thump of Arthur's seven foot staff, his 'Holy Lance', upon the harsh concrete. I discover that Lucan has been riding with bike gangs since he was 14 - what he calls "a loose military background". He's highly intelligent, lucid and constantly attacks 'The System'. We argue about anarchy and discuss Arthur's story.
Arthur's version of Life is that he was "reborn" in 1954; "renamed" in 1986. As he puts it: "I was round a mate's squat and I got this plank of wood about this big" (he gestures with his arms) "that was lying around, picked it up, got a black marker pen and wrote King John in the middle...and I wrote me army and national insurance number...Bacardi, Geronimo, Ace, all me nicknames that I was known by up and down the country, 'coz I've always travelled a lot. There was about 30 in total," he says with a little laugh. "I wrote all these names down, including The Reverend, who I was at one time - I was a psychic investigator for the Church and got an honorary ecclesiastical degree - so, anyway, I write all these names down and being one for a play on words I passed it to a friend and said: 'I'm bored/board', whichever way you spell it. He looked at it and said: 'You're not King John'. I said: 'I know - I'm not Bacardi either', which is what I was known as in Liverpool: 'and I'm not Geronimo', which is what my old man used to call me because I wore a headband: 'and I'm not Hairy Willie', which is what my mum used to call me, not that my name was William anyway. So anyway, he said: 'You're not King John, you're King Arthur, the Once and Future King'. And I said: 'OK' and I smashed it (the plank), and I broke it, there and then, which is a very symbolic thing to do...and it all clicked then, it fell into place."
"New Age religion has the same effect on the mind as LSD," 'The Daily Telegraph' (London)
Arthur has always believed in another calling - right from his early childhood fantasies. "I get flashbacks to that era. I always have". His experiences have taught him "nothing is to be gained from the 20th century. The tools of the 20th century are no good." Running away from home at the age of 15, when his father was a sergeant in the army, Arthur hung out with bike gangs for the next four years. He spent another four and a half years in the Royal Hampshire Regiment, serving in Europe and Hong Kong. His parachuting accident ended any future with the forces, so he left to spend the rest of his twenties "running with various outlawed bike clubs". He settled down in the mid-Seventies.
"Then my wife and I woke up one morning and wondered what had happened to us. The system had sucked us in. In the end she went off to manage a riding stables and I got on my bike and headed for the horizon." Arthur took the name King John, inspired by a nearby castle, leading a local bike gang between 1984-86.
Living in Glastonbury shortly after his 'transformation', he received a letter from a man who claimed to have been doubting his own sanity - because, he said, he had been going round for years calling himself "Parsifal" (of the Grail). He became Arthur's first knight - a black biker believing himself to be a reincarnation of a Dark Age warrior. Then a letter arrived from Cumbria saying that the writer was a "Sir Cei". Another letter shortly came from a "Balin Le Savage" (Knight of the Two Swords) - both names from Arthurian legend. Arthur placed advertisements in the Mensa magazine and Back Street Heroes biker's mag for further recruits.
There are now over 150 members of the Arthurian Warband - 13 druids (known as The Loyal Arthurian Warband, or LAW, for short), 100 knights, seven mystics and 30 chieftains (leaders of bike gangs, etc). The oldest is 94. These are further divided into Shield, Quest and Brother Knights. Shield Knights are the closest to Arthur, believing themselves to be reincarnations of the original knights of the Round Table. They insist that this is based on "Dark Age truth", not Christianised medieval romance (though some of the knights are Christian). Next are the Quest Knights, convinced they are reincarnated from the Dark Age - but unsure as to their individual identities. Arthur sets these knights a series of quests so that they may better 'discover' their true names. Last are the Brother Knights - individuals who believe in Arthur and the causes he fights for, but "whose feet are firmly rooted in the 20th century."
"They happen to believe this is their first time," says Arthur. "That's up to them. It's fine. This is their time - I'm only here to support them. It's all part of the (Celtic) resurgence."
We drink later that afternoon in The Tumbledown Dick, a concrete box of a pub dumped beside a busy bypass. Talking quietly andsmoking a SuperKing, with the blare of Metallica in the background, Arthur reveals more of his history. At the age of 14 he began practising 'wiccan' - moon magic; the power of the witch. He was known as Wolfdog. From there, he says, he graduated via his spells as an exorcist and wizard, to druidic (nature) magic and worship of the Sun.
Wiping beer from his beard with a heavy, callused, tattooed hand, he also reveals he has been 'inside' (imprisoned) several times. So has Lucan. Arthur also fought in Biafra (Africa) - shown by a tattoo on his arm - after leaving the regular army. He was a mercenary, paid in the local currency. He admits trying to get out to Angola during the mid-Eighties, as well - but was turned back at the airport. All the others who went on his flight, he believes, died or were captured. During his time, like many cult-style leaders, he has also fathered seven children (all from different mothers). He doesn't want the kids to find him. They are a reminder of his bike gang days. "I'd be a damn good dad," he argues, "but I wouldn't be a part-time dad."
Arthur revels in being a true 'pagan' and it is certainly a superstitious existence. For example, great reliance is placed upon the number three, for "mystical" reasons. Witness the use of three word titles and phrases such as King Arthur Pendragon; Arthur Uther Pendragon; Shield, Quest, Brother Knight; Loyal Arthurian Warband; Truth, Honour, Justice.
Arthur claims to dream in Cornish, Welsh and Breton. In common with many so-called evangelical Christians, he has spoken in tongues. And when a Quest Knight has 'found' him or herself, he/she goes through a process (coined from the film Highlander) that Arthur calls "The Quickening". He is vague about it - it sounds extremely disquieting. There is a pervading sense of unreality as the pub chatter and strains from 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' stream past.
We later visit some followers, a tired-looking mother shouting at her kids, and a lanky, greasy-haired youth mending a clapped-out van outside a filthy terraced squat. Inside, mongrel dogs chase each other across the fag-stained carpet. A flea lands on my arm. Arthur receives what almost seems to be a ritualistic welcome; shown to a rickety chair beneath a Seventies heavy metal poster, and fed with copious amounts of beans. We drink tea from tannin-stained cups as the talk turns to bail, police and witchcraft. Arthur confides to me that he used to date the mother and that he lost her to the nameless youth outside during a betting game. The 'Welfare' are expected soon. It seems a sad and lonely place. Is this the sort of society Arthur wishes to forge in the future - or is he preying on the weak-willed and easily led, like so many other cult leaders?
Whatever, it is certainly a tribal society; close-knit, nomadic, looking for an alternative ethos, or way of life. Many of its members simply want to be left alone. They seem very much centred around the person of Arthur, which he himself admits may not be the best thing. There is the possibility of a Hitler-syndrome developing, and he is worried about being alone in this position.
However, when the 'original' Arthur perished so did his dreams. Already, Shield Knights have been known to fight each other until Arthur has had to intervene. Many of his theories are interesting, valid and well-thought out, but others are erratic or inconsistent. There seem to be few women in leading roles - though I am assured that the warband has many female members, including a Shield Knight, a Lady of the Lake and a number of witches who are partners to knights.
Certainly, among his own and many of the druidic communities, even among some members of the police, Arthur seems to have earned respect. He is a man of the heart and a romantic, in the true sense of the word. He writes poetry and short stories, publishing them in "The Latterday Book of Arthurian Bards", carried in a belt pouch. He obviously loves his girlfriend Sheila, a Scot and a witch (from whom he has now split) and she seems to support him wholeheartedly: "Arthur is basically a good guy," she says.
Again, like many cult leaders, Arthur has a strong set of principles and a moral code, harsh in its own way. He doesn't take drugs. He believes in work camps for criminals, but not capital punishment. And he adamantly wants "a" law, if not necessarily agreeing with the present one. "There's certain things a king can't do," says Arthur. "For example, I don't break the law," citing his dilemma at Stonehenge when others were jumping the fence surrounding the stones.
He talks of being a diplomat for many of the "free-thinking peoples" and of entering the political arena. His is a desire, he argues, to re-educate people. An anti-European, he is opposed to Brussels and the power he believes it wields (though curiously he is willing to use the European Court of Human Rights to fight the British government). Nursing his beer, he cries: "I'm talking in the politics of the people. People represent people, not parties. I'm at the spearhead of a political revolution - watch this space and see!"
We part in the damp mist of a February night, perhaps to meet again, perhaps not. I last heard he was heading off to a Welsh mountain, reputed to give inspirational dreams to those sleeping upon it. The clank of his staff is muffled in the distance as the night air engulfs him.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Post © August 1994
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