Tuesday, April 04, 2006

ten years after

Settle in, this is going to be a long post. It warrants it. If there is such a thing as a defining time of my life, that's the subject matter herein. Also, we recently had to bury one of my comrades from that time. Allow me my reflection.

In the mid 1990s camps were established among the woods on the route of the proposed Newbury Bypass. By occupying the trees due for destruction, protesters made the building of the road take longer and cost more, and they gave a show of resistance to the world.

On 9th January 1996, felling started and acted as a shout across the country for anyone who opposed it – anyone who cared about our natural heritage, anyone who valued wildlife over industrialisation, anyone who believed in sustainability over accommodating greed - to stand up and be counted.

Each day the chainsaws would work behind a cordon of security guards whilst people repeatedly charged at the lines. Where they weren’t repelled or arrested, they got through to the trees and scrambled up. Nobody in the felling teams was trained or insured to drag protesters out of trees, so it meant they would have to come back another day.

On 11th January, they arrived at land at the far north of the route, where the new road would join the existing A34. There were a dozen tall trees in a line across the field. Protesters breached the cordon and occupied three, the rest were killed. That night a camp was set up there. It was named Mary Hare, after the school for hearing impaired children in whose grounds it stood. I arrived a few days later and stayed for three months.

It was an inhospitable place, three trees in an open field beside a dual carriageway. Others would come to the protest and find Mary Hare first, it being so visible and all. But soon they’d move on to the more beautiful camps in ancient woodland where the spirit of the natural world could envelop you, and where there were more trees to defend. This left very few of us there, living in the traffic noise and sweeping winds. For two periods of four days I was alone in that field, one of them in the deep snow.

In mid February they started evicting the camps. They were intense, powerful and brutal. People were violently assaulted by the bailiffs whilst the police looked on bored. From our camp, we’d see huge palls of smoke in the sky as piles of bulldozed trees were burned, and we wondered when our time would come.

We had treehouses in two of our trees. Living in the treehouses was crucial. If the bailiffs came in and found you on the ground it’d be all over in minutes. But with people living in the treetops it took expensive specialists to get you, and you could dodge them around for a long time, making the process for clearing the nine mile road take three months.

I suffer from vertigo, so it was only with a great deal of effort over an embarrasingly long period of time that I’d become comfortable with the lower one of our treehouses. The other, over in the big tree, was a classic Swampy treehouse. The future face of road protest had been astonishing, moving from camp to camp, free-climbing to the top twigs of the tallest trees and building treehouses, then moving on to the next camp to do it again. By early March, we’d had nobody in our top treehouse – our only hope of any real delay in the eviction – for weeks.

Having lived outdoors through the coldest part of winter, we were ground down and exhausted. We’d seen our friends at other camps beaten up by bailiffs and police, we’d seen so many pieces of wild land lost forever to concrete.

Early one morning at the beginning of March a man appeared in an ex-army parka and, much more importantly, a climbing harness. He was new on site and wanted to get his bearing on the protest and find some friends who were at another camp.

I saw in Guy an experienced climber who could move into the top treehouse. I begged, pleaded, explained and persuaded. He went off to locate his mates, but later that day came back and moved in. Although the camp with his friends over in Snelsmore was a better place to live, we at Mary Hare were more in need. As I was to learn, it was typical of Guy to apply himself not where was easiest, but where he could be most effective.

He radiated a sparkling committed energy, and just being around him was tremendously rejuvenating for our lagging souls. He had a great sense of purpose and enthusiasm, he was focussed, practical and definite. Me and him quickly developed a deeply ribald sparring banter.

The campaign owed its success to many thousands of people who helped in many thousands of ways. But at our camp, there was a core team of five of us in that last month. Me, Störm, Suzanne, Helen and Guy.

Guy knew that, alone and defending the most inaccessible treetop, he would be the last one left when the eviction came. Out of sight of witnesses, he would be at serious risk of the worst malice and violence of the bailiffs. He never even mentioned it as a concern.

From three dozen camps in mid February, the campaign ended March with four.

On 29th March something very odd happened. The 250 year old oak tree known as Middle Oak was given a reprieve. Although on land compulsorily purchased for the bypass, it wasn’t actually in the line of tarmac and could be retained. It still stands on the junction of the A34 and A4.

On 1st April, they finally came for us at Mary Hare. To our surprise, we were offered a reprieve as well. Once the Undersheriff had declared it in front of the press, we voluntarily left.

There were 10,000 trees lost and only four saved. How odd that, for all the hundreds of people and trees around the camps in Snelsmore Wood and elsewhere, it was us up in that isolated field who won something tangible.

The Newbury campaign brought the roads issue to a head. Others had led up to it – Jesmond Dene, Twyford Down, Claremont Road, Solsbury Hill – and by now our solid arguments had become undeniable. The roads budget was slashed by three quarters overnight. Because we fought at Newbury, we did not have to fight at those places that would’ve been next. The water meadows around Salisbury are surely still grateful.

The bonds formed in extreme circumstances are strong, simply incomparable with the ones formed in other circumstances. At the camps our very presence was an act of resistance against greed, unsustainability and industrialisation. Just sat there arsing about making a cup of tea and rude remarks about one another’s next of kin was still an occupation of the land and so in itself defiant. We shared everything, and the most basic of practical tasks could seem deeply profound, whilst the most extreme risks could become mundane.

Pretty much anyone I talk to who was on such a campaign remembers it as the time they were most alive, most right, when life seemed the best fit. Our desire to defy the money god, disenfranchisement and the plasticity of consumerism and instead do something that was positive, nature affirming, inspirational, free and bold has never been more sated than it was then. Though there’s still time for more!

The three trees are still alive. They are older than you and I and, hopefully, will outlive us all too.

I have said that line many times since the day we were evicted. I never thought of it as being something I would confront so soon.

Guy died on 28th January in a mountaineering accident in Scotland.

It’s made me realise that not only us but our trees too will die one day. So on Saturday - 1st April, the tenth anniversary of our victorious eviction - we planted a few dozen new trees among the three big mature limes. We did it to commemorate our time there, to celebrate our tiny victory, to remember Guy, and as an act of responsible hope.

We kept in touch after Newbury. I visited him in Oxford a few times, getting him out of the office and into the pub. Never have I known anyone more in need of dragging to the pub. Some people need less persuading, others need more but don’t really enjoy it once you get them there. Guy had just the balance of commitment and playfulness that meant he’d need someone else as his validation for doing it - he often needed a bit of a shove to get out of the uptightness - but once that was done he was brilliant, a great conversationalist, knowledgeable, intelligent, uproariously funny and brilliantly blunt.

I can picture him in such a variety of emotions, but always the first that comes to mind is his cheeky mocking smile that prefixed dismissal of whatever I'd just said and the raising of conversational stakes.

He became Campaigns Director at People and Planet. He had a gift for finding campaigns that, despite being a smallish body of 6th formers and students, they could have a real effect on.

I was deeply impressed when he left People and Planet. For all the great work he did there, he could not become complacent and once he felt he was capable of achieving more he moved on, even when he was unsure exactly what ‘more’ would be.

Such audacity raises the bar, it dares us to create the circumstances where we can be most effective, to push ourselves as he did.

He set up Power Shift, giving his proven skills to a range of campaigning organisations.

In 2004 he founded Crisis Action, which co-ordinates NGOs and other interested groups so they respond more effectively to armed conflict.

A small and moving tribute site has been set up for Guy, and it's attracted postings from many people who knew him.

One of those is Adrian Lovett, the Campaigns Director at Oxfam: 'He knew that we will not win without being very good at what we do, and he was. He also knew that without idealism and belief, all the professionalism in the world is worth nothing.'

I last saw Guy a couple of months ago, after several years. It was Sunday night in Oxford after People and Planet's Shared Planet conference, an event Guy founded. I was walking up Cowley Road, he was on a bus going the other way. With only a few seconds and no words available, my instinct was to vigourously moon him.

I could read his face well. He knew I’d be slightly embarrassed at mooning in the street, but this would be cancelled out by the greater embarrassment he’d have being sat among people on the bus who thought such a vulgar loon was his kind of friend.

If me and Guy were to have sat down a year ago and planned one last crossing of our paths, I can picture the conversation coming around to that idea and us both laughing our heads off and knowing it would be the best.

Guy was a motivator, an instigator, a man with a relentless drive to leave the world a better place for him having been here, to really challenge himself to do it to the limits of his ability, and yet nonetheless to enjoy his time too. He succeeded.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post Merrick. I never met Guy. After reading this, I'm very sad about that.

Becca Lush said...

What a wonderful article. So glad I took the time to read this, despite not knowing Guy. He sounds one hell of a guy. Wish I'd known him

GreenEyedTrailMonster said...

Truly lovely. A bit sad and a bit happy in the way that remembering special people always is xx