Kevin on Newbury
Autumn 1995. I am living in Meanwood, Leeds. There is a dole strike – the jobcentre workers are off, which means I don’t have to sign on to get my unemployment benefit. I decide to use this opportunity to travel, and I hitch down to Newbury, where a high-profile anti-road campaign has been going strong for several months.
The woods are still leafy when I arrive at Manic Sha, but they are already damaged. Sensing that my relaxed character doesn’t fit in especially well with the industrious ambience of Manic, I move to a smaller camp, a bit derelict and unglamorous and dominated by an overbearing woman with a log cabin. I build a treehouse from a couple of pallets and a tarp. It is a bit scraggy, but it is mine. It gets very cold at night. I sleep on my boots to try to stop them from freezing solid. They freeze solid anyway.
One day I find I have to defend my tree from the workers. Having been here long enough to know about walkways and harnesses, I find that my tree and an adjacent one are surrounded by a cordon of yellowcoats. Suddenly I am hanging upside from the walkway between the two trees, while the smaller one is being pushed by a digger. The digger has to stop because of me. Protesters outside the cordon are shouting “Hero! He-Ro!” and berating the digger driver. This is what Newbury is like. A battle made up of countless inadvertent individual acts up there in the trees – beauty, kindness, heroism, betrayal. A yellowcoat defects and is made king for a day, lording it up surrounded by admirers in a cushy bender.
A sunny day. I am up on my treehouse platform. The tarp is off, the light beats down on my face. This is my place. I built it. I defended it. It is beautiful. That is what this is about. Sometimes I get visitors who reach my treehouse by travelling along the aerial walkways from treetop to treetop through the forest. Sunday lunch at the travellers’ site. I come out of the forest in all my climbing gear and am greeted with smiles and a sense of a tribe. I feel a part of it. Everything is possible. I belong here, I live here, I know what is going on, I am part of the conversation.
There is a brilliant man with a ginger beard here in the woods. He is truly feral, wild, wise. He is very young, but somehow a huge person – one of those people who knows more than I will ever know. Magical things happen when you hang around with people like him. We spend a day together working with a two-handed saw, singing, chanting, laughing, and talking about all the different things you could use to wipe your arse with in the forest. We come up with: moss – it is moist and antibacterial; and a smooth stone. A man called Tree is disdainful of our ideas and calls us hippies. The ginger man also teaches me the ancient Chinese ‘Thirsty Dragon Finds Water’ technique for cleaning my teeth using only my tongue and saliva. I discover that I agree with him: you can floss your teeth with saliva; I don’t brush my teeth again for the next six years. There is also an ex-SAS man who calls himself the ‘Fire Dragon’. He spends his time going from camp to camp improving and remaking the fires wherever he goes. My girlfriend comes for a while, and offers to give me a massage in the deluxe bender at Manic Sha. We get in out of the freezing cold, carefully close the door, take off our muddy boots, clamber over rows of sleeping bodies, light an incense stick, get down under the sheepskins, and I find that I really need to pee.
The woods are disappearing. The evictions are underway. One weekend, I have to go to Yorkshire to help my Telegraph-reading parents move house. It is very far away and the hitch takes an age. Once I get there, I just want to rest and be cosy, and on Sunday evening my Dad offers to give me a lift all the way down the next morning. The offer is to tempting and practical to decline, but in my heart I know what will happen. I fret the entire journey and at a petrol station 40 miles from the woods, I call the campaign office to find out what is going on. My camp is being evicted right now. I am missing it. I weep copiously in my father’s car. Both of us are shocked and bewildered by the intensity of my emotions.
When I reach the camp, I find it is nothing now but mud, dying wood, and trampled tarpaulins. I had never realised how deep those diggers can churn the mud. It makes big trees look like little sticks. It is like a war. Personal effects are mashed into the ground. The loss I feel is like a bereavement: the grief is as though a friend has died. I go to Manic Sha, which was also evicted today. It is a mess. Everyone is in shock, everyone has lost something today. Chris never drinks but tonight he has a bottle of amazing rosé. Like the rest of us, he knows what tomorrow holds. Only one tree remains, and the workers will be coming back for it. Its limbs have been removed but a couple of us climb it and spend the night working up there.
First we set up a lock-on – a bar inside a stump wedged into a fork in the tree – and then we take a bit of dirty speed and spend the rest of the dark hours knotting a cargo net for us all to lie in. Complete focus. Dawn comes, misty and bleak. An immense rumble grows, from all around. Emerging from the mist is a moving line of infantry: hundreds of security guards, cherry pickers, diggers, climbers. There are about thirty of us in the tree. For some reason I have volunteered to be in the lock-on. Unfortunately I don’t have any handcuffs so I am faking it with gaffer tape and a carabina. The climbers reach me first and the other protesters watch from the cargo net above as I am tortured. The climbers go for the pressure points on my neck, back, arms. This takes all my energy, I cannot think or defend myself. I am screaming, screaming like a girl, and so humiliated. I keep thinking how embarrassed everyone must be by my weakness. The climbers rip the arm of my coat to see inside the lock-on. They suss out that I am not handcuffed. One ties a rope around my upper arm, throws it over a higher branch, climbs up, clips himself to the free end of the rope and leaps off the other side of the branch. This tears my arm out of the tree stump. I am taken down and arrested. I am indignant and vow to sue the climbers for the injuries they have caused me. But, after a night in a police cell, the marks on my arm have practically disappeared.
I return to the woods as soon as possible. There is another eviction taking place: Ricketty Bridge. I build a brilliant tree house there with my girlfriend and my mate Ruari. It has a trap door and everything. There is a great underground lock-on at Ricketty; this camp is very organised. Sound system speakers are hoisted up into the trees, and on the morning that the workers arrive, they are greeted by the Seven Dwarves’ song from Sleeping Beauty, followed by intense techno music all day. It makes a surreal soundtrack to the battle. One battle made up of a multitude of individual fights. Shouting, screaming, and laughter too.
I am engaged in my own eviction battle story. I make my way along walkways to a platform very high up amongst the trees. The sky is brightest blue. All my friends are sitting up there, cross-legged with their arms linked. When I appear their faces turn to me and light up with smiles. There is a beautiful moment of recognition and love between us. Then a cherry picker rears up behind them. We are all arrested. After this, I can’t do any more. I have to leave. I walk the length of the route, to get to the edge of the existing motorway to hitch home. As I reach the crest of the hill I look back and see the diggers arriving to destroy another camp, but I can’t do anything about this one.