The scene: the A30 protest, at Fairmile. The cast includes a girl called Animal, a dog called Badger, a man called Ratty, and Swampy digging his famous tunnel. A white Rasta is cleaning dishes with the ashes of a cooking fire. Someone passes round a peacepipe filled with motherwort and hash. Rats gnaw through sleeping bags and rucksacks. A mother wipes snot off her child’s face with her sleeve. ‘Great waterproofing, snot.’

At Fairmile last winter, protesters were disputing the building of a road; more cars, more pollution, more loss of countryside. Where protestors gather now, at a thousand-acre site outside Manchester, their complaint is greatly magnified, and in response to the building of a second runway at the airport, they have made tunnel-systems more extensive and bailiff-defying than those at Fairmile. I have stayed in treehouses and down tunnels on protest sites all over the country. What has struck me most is that ‘the road’ is just the beginning of the protesters’ quarrel with society; their way of life runs against the mainstream in religion as much as in environment, in architecture as much as in politics and, above all, in their attitude to nature.

‘In nature,’ says a protester, ‘no two things are the same.’ They name their sites after a genius loci – the Granny Ash camp at New-bury took its name from an ancient female ash tree. How did they know it was female? ‘I climbed up it, and looked down at how the branches were spread, and thought “I’m stood above a gaping vagina.” S’ amazing.’ Road-builders acted as if the land – at Newbury last year, or Fairmile this – was theirs to destroy. The road protesters are mystified. Nature, to them, can only ‘belong’ to itself. They have unlearnt centuries of Western history, and learnt an aboriginal bewilderment at the very concept of owning land or owning anything.

Many are not so much the dispossessed of society, as self-dispossessed. Fréa gave up a job in publishing to protest at Fairmile. Dale gave up nursing and Richard gave up managing a mental health phone-line. Many sign on, but many others choose not to. Going against the grain of consumerism, these renunciants have discovered that there can be power in poverty. At the Rio Earth Summit, a US delegate warned that environmentalism was the greatest threat to capitalism since Communism. One protester from the Pollok site in Glasgow paid dearly for his anti-consumerism. In a packed church one Sunday, he bawled out: ‘If it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven, how come this church’s car park is full of Mercedes?’ He was imprisoned for three months.

In protest argot, the word for possessions is ‘tat’. Property is slight and slighted. The verb ‘to tat’ smudges three distinctions: ‘to borrow’, ‘to use’ and ‘to steal’. The protest verb ‘to lunch out’ (as in ‘the bread’s been lunched out’) can mean ‘consume’. But it can also mean ‘waste’ (‘I lunched out the morning’). A language which will not make a clear distinction between ‘to consume’ and ‘to waste’ is one which suspects that all consumption is waste.

Using a twig as a toothbrush, and refusing to see soap as a necessity, road protesters adopt a Gandhian sufficient-unto-the-dayism. ‘I’m squatting this tool kit,’ said one tunneller at Fairmile. ‘I just need it.’ Status is conferred by one’s possession of qualities, not by the quality of one’s possessions: a good cook is more important than good ingredients. Where protest culture diverges most from consumer culture is in its rejection of the Protestant work ethic, answering instead the call of the didgeridoo and the pan pipes, the call of the protester’s play ethic. The spirit of panplayism runs amok. Reclaim the Streets (the anti-car organisation) does not hold demonstrations, but invites you to parties, ‘stop the streets street parties’. On any site there is something of a pyjama party feel. At Pollok, a pennant wagged in the breeze: ‘We shall fight them in the beeches.’ A pantomime cow at Newbury, by the name of Daisy, tries to break the security cordon, and is arrested and charged (in the name of Daisy). A yeti climbs a tree to protect it from chainsaws. Theo at Fairmile a few months ago wore a composite Lewis Carroll creation, a mushroom with a Mad Hatter’s hat, and a caterpillar snaking round his body. Ex-circus performers Rosie and Emma perform their tricky arts on the walkways. ‘Protesters are artists,’ says Ratty, a tunneller, ‘trying to make this more theatrical and more fictional. You build a film set for the TV.’ The Pollok protest site was full of Colin’s wood sculpture, totem poles and giant carved eagles crowding the teepees. At Newbury, pictorial banners hung in the trees, next to stag antlers, treehouses and hammocks. The ‘Trollheim’ camp at Fairmile boasted Jaye’s metalwork sculptures; also pagan sculptures of web and feather. ‘Carhenge’ at Pollok was a circle of burnt-out cars half-buried. Rab, poet-protester from Pollok, was banned, under bail conditions, from reciting his poetry as his ideas were thought to be ‘inciting’.

Protest architecture is a common craft; the ‘bender’ is a building for the people. It came into being at road protests at the same time as the new development at Canary Wharf. One end of society erects its tower, and develops its docklands. Massive projects, vast in expense, architecture of the corporation. At Fairmile, in contrast, an ancient architecture is remembered, bendy and circular, human-sized, dead cosy, all tarp and blanket-wrapped around wood-burning stoves – the ‘twigloo’ is born.

You get a lot of misfits on protest sites. Some come solely for evictions, to ‘give a security guard a kicking’. Some come to do ‘shit-loads’ of drugs. But some come seeking protection or simply a home, and some come, no fixed abode, care of Care in the Community. There is a coarse acceptance of the mentally ill, as robust as it is unpretending. ‘The nutters are quite welcome. They work very hard,’ says a protester.

There are also scholars. Becky, one of the first tunnellers at Fairmile, used to spend three days a week digging, and four days studying at Cambridge, where she graduated last year. Many left degree courses to protest full-time. Badger, the first protester at Newbury (and no relation to the dog at Fairmile), is, like many protesters, steeped in the learning of the past – coppicing, wood craft and hedgewisdom. (‘Yarrow is good for period pains,’ says one man at Fairmile. ‘I only knew raspberry leaf tea was good for that,’ says another.) Matt, doing his maths PhD in a bender at Newbury, is a modern scholar gypsy, reading Chaucer and on his way to Canterbury. Writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare are read on protest sites; they seem to speak in a language the protesters understand, not international ‘computinglish’, but English to the roots of the words. The notion of English ethnicity is alive and well here, for though protesters speak of a hatred of the state, they also speak of a love of native land. They are ‘mystified’ by the importance of national boundaries, but they relish tribalism – witness the Donga Tribe or the Quercus Tribe – and they cherish the idiosyncrasy of place. At Newbury, protesters pinned Union Jacks to some of the trees and specifically saw themselves in the tradition of soldiers of the Second World War, who believed themselves to be ‘fighting for their countryside’.

Protest culture has an epic sense of time. Jane, at Fairmile, looks at the oak tree which used to be her home before the evictions, and says: ‘that tree was growing before the internal combustion engine was invented and would have been there after the last oil was used up if it hadn’t been for this road.’ Compared to nature’s cycles of regeneration, going from nought to nothing in sixty seconds is futile, even fatal.

The Conservative Party conserves nothing old. The Labour Party is reeling in its love for the new. While political parties flounder in a world of abstract nouns – Community, Choice, Basics – on protest sites you hear ancient abstract nouns. ‘Society has forgotten a sense of shame,’ says Moira at Newbury. ‘Here is valour,’ says Martin. ‘Here is honour. Your word is your honour.’ ‘Politics has been here for ten minutes.’ A politician, to them, is little more than the spiv on the street corner, minding his creases.

Protesters love the past, and protect it by living in it. At first sight, the past they return to is a medieval time, which of all historical periods suits them best. They have Crusades for environmental causes, fighting against Costain, Brays, Reliance Security, Wimpey, Group 4, the DoT, Mott-MacDonald. Their musicians are jongleurs, leading protesters out to action, playing the medieval mandolin, pipe and tabor. A longbow archer in Newbury roped a tree by shooting an arrow up into the branches. Their scholar gypsies are 20th-century goliards, mocked for their New Age eclecticism. The protesters’ medievalism is clear from their appearance-jerkins, velvet pointy-up hats, boots with turny-out tops. Their living spaces are swag-bellied medieval halls with Falstaffian fires. Their turrets and towers are trees, flying flags of allegiance, defended by paint-throwing. At Fairmile, the Trollheim camp was a medieval fortification, with castellated walls; the main camp had a drawbridge and a (waterless) moat. One protester at Fairmile quotes the line: ‘Let it not be said, and said unto your shame, that there was beauty here before you came.’ The diction is unrepentantly ancient.

‘They did things differently then,’ one protester says wistfully. The protesters’ ‘then’ looks like the Middle Ages, but it isn’t. It is the olden days, an Ur-Time, the time of folk tales, the oral tales of the collective unconscious, the dream time of the Western Aboriginal. ‘Here Be Dragons’ was the name of one of the tunnel systems at Fairmile, ‘Kreb the Dragon-Rider’ the name of a protester at Newbury. Folk tales, set ‘hard by a dark forest’, often include a symbolicbattle against tyrants and titans, the battle of the younger generation against the old. Protesters battling in and for the forests today perform a modern folk-tale rite of passage. The national imagination was gripped by Swampy, that tuft of a man, precisely because the national imagination was brought up on Jack the Giant Killer.

Protest culture sees nature with the animistic eyes of childhood. Trees, many really believe, have feelings and character, badgers speak messages, the forest has its moods ‘to please you or to put you in awe’. In getting rid of the forest places, straight society is getting rid of the home of folk tales and everything which protesters would see as life’s magic, be it badgers or witches, tree-houses or mushrooms.

Several protesters have had ‘handfastings’ – pagan weddings. The 16-year-old Animal was handfasted to another protester during the Trollheim eviction – by one of the members of the Tactical Support Group at that. A sign in the A30 office read: ‘Calling all Witches and believers and Pagans galore’, who were urged to perform rituals for safety during the evictions. Tree dressing is a common sight. Protesters dress up as the ‘Green Man of the Woods’. The religion of the protest movement is the creed of the amoral outdoors, a volcanic resurgence of Herne the Hunter, the Oak and Holly Gods. ‘Great Pan is dead,’ it was said when Christ was crucified. Pan, the personification of nature, symbolises multiplicity: Christianity goes in for mono. This is at the very heart of the protest movement’s antipathy to society, the ancient battle, not just of paganism v. Christianity, but the clash of the Pan v. the Mono.

Fey remnants of paganism survive in suburbia’s My Little Pixie, the dingley dell figurines for mantelpieces. Protest culture’s ‘pixies’ stick potatoes up the exhaust pipes of JCBs. Straight society celebrates the coming of spring with the trinkleting of Morris dancers; protesters at Fairmile had a pagan ‘Beltane’ bash at May Eve, a ripsnorter of a festival, with fire breathers, fire jugglers, the firing of an earth maze and puckish figures dancing – naked to be sure – around a bonfire to panpipes and drums. One grubby dancer, the thick end of a year’s dirt on him, dances with a little scoop of a dried turd hanging off his bum. You can feel the hot breath of paganism down the back of your neck, feel the thump of feet on mud, the panache of Pan set free, roguish and ribald, filthy and fecund, in a rank and reckless, rocks-off, bollock-naked, uncorked stomp.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences