On the tail end of September 2019, the very last day, in-fact, of a period of intense heat that marked the last breath of British summertime; and, therefore, the beginning of my second university year in London, I stepped foot, for the first time in my life, hiking pack and tent in tow, onto a frontline activism camp.
The ground was arid and desert-like, the sun unusually dry and penetrating. I had just got off a bus headed towards the regional park, following instructions to ask the driver to stop opposite the West London Dog’s Trust. However this advice was hardly necessary, since as the bus turns the corner a hundred metres back, a striking amount of spray-painted sheet metal and wooden signage lines the side of the road, making the location and purpose of the ‘occupiers’, as we are so often called, abundantly clear.
I soon found myself sitting in a little shaded marquis about halfway up the field backing on to the road, filled with drums and an old table and other odds and ends, across the table to a very bearded man called Pirate who sat and joked around curiously, but hardly showing much interest given that I’d just turned up panting and layered in sweat with a huge bell tent over my shoulder. A small radio ruffled quietly in the background, a series of mostly unintelligible voices that no one was listening to.
Another guy with a grey goatee sat opposite staring off into the distance, saying nothing. A little mongrel dog wandered around between our legs with a stick in its mouth. From beyond the bottom boundary of the field the monotonous clunking of machinery droned its battle cry without end, and through the metal fence one could see men in bright orange gear and hardhats wandering around with walkie-talkie’s or sitting on iron girders looking at their phones.
Fast forward two months, I had been living in a canvas bell tent with a little wood-burning stove in wetland forest, roughly half a kilometre along the trail from the field camp and the road. Since my arrival, all the paths through the field and forest had become swamping mud rivers that slip and slide. Many people had come and gone; but a decent number of faces (somewhere between 8-15) remained consistent.
Winter approached, nights were becoming colder and colder. We spent much time huddling round the campfire singing songs. Our water, we tapped from a nearby farmer who is sympathetic to our cause; firewood from the deadwood around us; other odds and ends - such as wheelbarrows and kitchen sinks - we salvaged or received as donations.
Much of the camps food we salvaged; from regular ‘skipping’ runs: that is, cycling through the night into nearby towns, sneaking round the back of supermarkets and food stores, and filling our bags with as much thrown out food as we can carry. This food is, of-course, all past its sell by date, however, much of it is perfectly edible and unopened.
Croissants, Danish swirls, bananas, fifteen-pound Mary Berrie Victoria cakes, pea soup, sandwiches, carrots and squashes and peppers, tubs of peanut butter, M&S vegetable lasagne, salmon fillets, Tesco finest New York cheesecake; all salvaged from the arsehole of an economy-obsessed, consumer-fetishist, conveyor-belt culture that wastes perfectly good passion-fruit panna cottas so that groups of dirty activists can fill their bellies in a slim line of forest sandwiched in by two industrial compounds a few miles from the M25; whom, by the occupation of said land, and the implementation of a number of crafty tactics – as well as making their eviction as difficult and costly as possible - make the execution and furthering of the opposed projects a very sticky endeavour.
To illustrate some of the mischief that may occur in such contexts: two members of the camp - one of whom is Mark Keir, a familiar face around camp who’s running for the Greens against dear old Boris - recently took part in a lock-on in order to prevent a heavy-duty pile driver from entering one of the HS2 compounds for the purpose of illegally drilling into an EU protected aquifer. This lock-on consists of two men laying flat bellied on concrete directly in-front of the compound gate; their arms stretched out in-front of them, meeting in the middle of a massive concrete tube. Inside the tube, where their hands meet, is a karabiner that can only be unlocked from the inside.
Hence; 12 hours, 9 vehicles, and 20+ police and paramedics later – and, according to a chap from the evictions team, over £75,000 later, (from who’s pockets I could not be sure), the police eventually cut through the concrete tubing and arrested three activists who have since been released on bail.
But in the forest, it was very easy to forget the grim nature of what we were a part of. Ignoring the steady mechanical droning and drilling that penetrated our sanctuary for hours on end, the fact that everything was splattered and crusty with mud, and the crackling of radio’s and walkie-talkie’s, our little grove was rather like living in dreamworld – far away from the bustle of the city... a retreat, if you like.
My next door neighbour, as such, and a good friend of mine; in his own little tepee tent, was Dan; magic Dan, an ex-real estate agent with long flowing silver locks and a hash joint in his hand and a clumsy old-man staffy called Theo who would constantly knock the kettle off the fire and stumble into cups of coffee. Dan still drove his two-seater Porsche, in which we would sometimes run off to the pub together in; he also read Hermetic philosophy and listened to Krishna Das and drunk Red Stripe and was selling the house. Dan organised the camp meetings, and persuaded us to go out for Indians together, and kept us up to date with the weather forecast and the celestial position of Saturn.
If Dan was the mum of the camp, the Daddy was PK: a short, extremely powerful and strong minded woman – half Indian, half South African – hair shaved short and striped; an ex-heroine addict - long clean, a intuitive practitioner of earth magic, and a channeler of a spirit called Wolambe who comes out in song and chant in a strangely enchanting, mysterious language (here is not the place for me to discuss such matters). PK had a way of keeping everyone in line: no drinking round the campfire (Dan built a separate tepee pub for containment purposes); noise down late at night, ‘face your shit and love yourself’, that sort of thing.
Then there was Freeman and his 3 dogs: a Jack Russell called Cheeky who barked continuously at certain people and pranced around on everyone else’s laps with princely self-importance and always tried to wriggle into my sleeping bag in the middle of the night; Karma, a most loving and gentle female staffy who slept next to me on the floor and would greet me in the morning with extensive face-licking and a most endearing side to side wiggle she always did; beautiful gazing eyes. And finally, Freedom, a sheepdog – a slightly autistic bundle of energy; always poking sticks at people and stealing food from the kitchen. Freeman was a younger man; a gigantic, muscular brown body – a strange mixture of ghetto-speech and upper-middle class etiquette; deep anger at the established system, a heart full of rage and love and courage.
Across the path from Dan lived the camp elder, a man known simply as ‘Yoda’. Yoda was a veteran activist, a master of improvised construction; I have since visited sites that are home to his own impressive scrap-wood structures, rustic huts and hazel benders. Yoda did not talk much, and spent a-lot of time alone in his tent; meditating, listening to the radio. He walked around with a cigarette in his mouth constantly, and would appear at the campfire late at night - where a few of us remained singing songs or staring quietly into the embers - to boil the kettle for tea, vanishing back into the night as quickly as he came. When we did get into conversation I found a man rich with stories and practical knowledge with a fantastic memory, and the kind of self-restraint that I suppose comes from living this kind of life for many years.
Walking down the path out of the forest camp, one is led along the side of a large and picturesque lake, and continuing this way, past a turnstile and a few minutes down the track, one comes across the mid-camp, otherwise known as the boat. Suddenly, out of the cover of the trees, in a muddy open expanse, squeezed between two metal fences, is a little enclave; a small sailing boat is tied against the fence making a bed – a patched up collection of oddly angled wooden poles and tarpaulin makes up a largly uneffective roofing and a series of dirty torn tents are almost sewn together alongside it. A kettle boils on a little tin can fire, a few muddy books are scattered around. Here lives Matt, a younger guy; shy, socially awkward, but with an intelligent and calculating mind, an obsessive reading habit (he would borrow my books and return them faster than I could read a few chapters; an exceptionally dirty and barren living arrangement. The only other man on this outpost was a most peculiar character called Tom.
Tom was older, an ex-theatre man, a Buddhist of sorts, though I suppose he would have me at the throat for saying that; with a kind of compassionate lunacy that intrigued me. One of the first things he said to me was, quoting a friend of his: ‘Your sanity is like your virginity, once you lose it, you can never get it back!’. I was never sure how literally he meant this - in-fact, the more I spent time with him, the less sure I was.
I would spend many afternoons with Tom engaged in all sorts of strange and absurd activities that he would devise and improvise on the go: smashing for hours with scaffolding poles at an old barnacled safe that we rope-towed out of the lake in order to ‘make a dutch oven’, smashing drums all afternoon in a very specific rhythm whilst shouting at the top of our lungs at the HS2 workers across the fence as they carried on their legally unsanctioned operations, deliberately getting steamed on Somerset cider as part of an experiment devised to purge our innermost thoughts and loosen up the system and connect to our Somerset roots (both having been born in Somerset, he would often greet me in the country accent and lecture me about being a Somerset boy.. something that I found strangely comforting). Tom would change the name by which he referred to me every few days: a few of my favourites were: ‘Technique’, named after the Alexander Technique; ‘Young Blood’, and ‘Cpl. Harry Tuck’ – named after a name on a WW1 memorial monument we happened upon somewhere in Sussex.
Living on camp during this time was a very odd, dream-like experience. Apart from the 3-times a week that I would head in to the city on the Metropolitan line for my University classes, I essentially spent a few months wondering around plastered in mud with these characters and more who came and went; from every imaginable background, with every imaginable accent and reason for being there. It was a fascinating and diverse little world; some days (and nights) were spent following the workers around in and around their compounds getting in the way of their construction work and causing general mischief – waiting and watching and running and shouting at the top of our lungs, and other days were whispered away in our little forest sanctuary; stoned on hash, reading and playing guitar and cooking the skipped food in massive curry pots; or going on strange nonsensical adventures with Tom whenever he turned up unannounced with a mission to drag me off on.
But it was not to last forever. Things never do. There soon came a night when everything was to turn upon it’s head in one fell swoop; a night that I wish not to go into great detail describing– for it was all really quite a pointless and stupid tragedy, though lucky, I suppose, that it ended in the way it did.
To cut it short, a strange man turned up late one night, who we shall call ‘V’. He claimed to influence the weather; he drank the holy water, aka, Brandy; he spoke often in a strange kind of poetic, biblical prose that one had to listen very intently to follow. We allowed him to stay, and he seemed mostly to be a genial and harmless character. But a point came at which his behaviour became subtly more sinister, manipulative, even - or perhaps it always was, and a few camp members, my-self included, began to catch-on to this; or smell it, or something.
One night, after a vicious and hot-headed confrontation; the culmination of a long-simmering build-up of tensions, the majority of camp members decided that V must be told to leave, immediately. What followed was a series of events that caused great confusion and conflict; a great roaring hot fire erupted somewhere in the forest – it was V’s tent; intense arguments ensued, no physical violence; but accusations, threats, bitter tensions.
V cursed and proclaimed his biblical vengeance on the camp, shouting from the periphery as the chaos was still simmering down before eventually raging off into the night.
One man went with him, and they disappeared sometime around 10pm. Half an hour later, we were singing campfire songs and chatting away as if nothing had happened - at-least for that night, we wished, naturally, not to dwell on what had just happened, and to attempt to return back to something resembling our normal cheery atmosphere.
But alas, a few hours later, as we sat quietly chatting, a sudden and menacing roar came from somewhere behind us into the forest but 10 metres away; it was the sound of a chainsaw. V and the man who had left with him were back in some crazed state; V wielded some kind of long electrical shearing tool. They both flung these things around at tents, trees, and even in the direction of people. I remember distinctly meeting eyes with the guy wielding the chainsaw; whom I have not named for obvious reasons - and perceiving a manic, glazed over, drunken viciousness in his eyes. He looked hypnotised; and stared at me in that way as he walked in my direction, revving the chainsaw wildly.
Somehow, after twenty minutes or so of attempting to shepherd them away from camp; following, or being followed by them, up to the top camp, calling the police – so on and so on, it was over.
No one was seriously hurt, one activist had been hit in the head by a torch, another by a metal pole; but everyone was OK. Across the camp a number of tents had been teared upon and ripped apart; and the forest camp was a mess - the attacking party had disappeared, an arrest took place... and the moon stood unmoved in the cloudless sky.
A month or so later, the camp now is a different place to what it was before that night. Only a few remain in the top field – the forest camp is all but deserted; a far more dystopic, greyish kind of atmosphere. I spend much less time there than before; and miss often the remarkable little sanctuary of strange individuals that converged for that little moment in time as Autumn bridged the way between summer and winter, which now seeps its frosty hands over barren fields and into the forest groves. When I do still spend time there it is a much less diverse affair; a lot more shouting at the ‘pumpkins’, (the orange suited workmen), a lot more mischief, a lot more white cider, a lot less teeth.
However, there is much to say for the people who remain in that cold muddy field day and night as the days grow shorter. These are the few men and women who remain after the chaos; not the first of such events they have witnessed, I have gathered, living the life they do. They remain, I feel, out of a sense of duty, not necessarily because they have nothing else to do – or nowhere better to go. They remain because to them, there is no better fight than this fight; no more valiant devotion than a devotion to stopping those bastards across the fence that saw through ancient oak trees and pollute natural waters; those pumpkin fuckers.
Perhaps those pumpkin fuckers really are just other human beings caught in a tough place in history with families to feed and kids to look after. And perhaps, for some activists, their devotion really is more an action of pure blind anger and boredom, a need for conflict or something to do; not as far from their enemies as they may think. But I feel, after spending considerable time with some of these more devoted activists – that there are deeper reasons running through these commitments to resistance; woven into a far more fundamental and human story – a story of defiance, a story of blindness and corruption in the face of nature, a story of those who care enough to sacrifice everything, a story of the battle between the heart and the head of man – a story that has continued for centuries, millennia even; a story that will continue as-long as the corruption of man continues.