Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Great Trees of England #1: Middle Oak, Newbury

Middle Oak, Easter 2012 (Martin Porter)
Of all the trees that stand in England, none are luckier to still be here than Middle Oak.

When Brian Mawhinney, the Tory Transport Secretary, signed the order to build the Newbury Bypass - half an hour before he left office - he condemned ten thousand mature trees.

Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of them were felled, but one remained; Middle Oak.

It's survival is a remarkable tale.

Middle Oak 1996 (Ben W aka textlad)
There has been plenty written about the protest culture of the nineties, but by far the most concise summary appeared in Janes Police;   "For a protest you need protest sites, a cause and protesters"

Construction of the bypass provided 120 acres of oak and ash and beech spread over nine miles as protest sites. Great trees abounded, the greatest of which was the 150 foot Corsican Pine at Reddings Copse, dubbed the 'Pinus'.

Clearance work (Martin Porter)
The cause was opposition to 'The greatest road building program since the Romans', which had kicked off in 1992 with opposition to the destruction of Twyford Down to make way for the M3. By the time they came for the trees at Newbury it had become a mass movement.

The protesters were a mixed bag from the growing underclass of Tory Britain.Some had been bloodied at the Battle of Beanfield or camped at Greenham Common. Some had grown up on the road or in the camps. More were simply the growing number of under or un-employed. Others, like Balin, were locals outraged by the loss of their woods.

All were leavened by the eco-warriors of Earth First!, the dreadlocked vegans of the stereotype, EF! kick started many campaigns and provided an itinerant band of activists with the skills and tactics to fight the bulldozers. They provided the radical yeast that made the dough rise.

And so began The Third Battle of Newbury. Monty Don later wrote in The Observer:
The battle for Newbury Bypass set the forces of moral right against sanctioned wrong. Not that you can take an objective view about the bypass itself in such polarised terms. That was, and is, a matter of opinion. But the manner in which the Government imposed its will against the defiance of protesters seemed an explicit image of the impotence and hopelessness of the state against the human spirit. On the one hand you have a hired band of thugs, recruited from rabbles on the streets like a medieval army, most of whom cared more for a few pounds and a hot meal than the rights of what they were doing; and on the other, a clutch of tree people, risking life and limb with astonishing blithe courage for something they passionately believed in. These protesters were a gaggle of individuals, but they met might with wit and dignity. The law was fronted by Nicholas Blandy, the absurdley-titled Under-Sheriff of Newbury, who found his 15 minutes of fame from a lifetime of small-town legal drugery, puffing and strutting in front of his donkey-jacketed ranks of bully boys. He was almost a figure of Dickensian fun, had he not prompted me to think of other little men prancing before Hitler's, Mussolini's and Franco's troops, enforcing brutalities in the name of might and right.
Middle Oak stood on its in a field between Snelsmore Common and the Kennet and Avon canal. Initially an outpost of nearby Granny Ash, it eventually became a camp in its own right.

The protector of Middle Oak, and the person who gave the previously anonymous tree its name, was Jim Hindle. A veteran of camps at Fairmile and Stanworth, he was a survivor of mental health problems brought on by his experiences. Led by dreams to defend this solitary oak, he was at the same time haunted by a seeming premonition of its destruction. In his rickety twigloo in the top branches he was often the camp's sole resident; not fun when vigilantes liked to run around at night with petrol bombs.

Imbolc Ritual (Press Association)
But Jim had allies.

Imbolc 1996 coincided with a full moon, and on that day the British Druid Order descended on Middle Oak. Led by Greywolf and Bobcat they wove their magic around its trunk and blessed the oak and its Guardian. Only one on tree on the route received such unique protection.

Pagan song smith Damh the Bard was there. The experience inspired him to write his first pagan song, The Tomb of the King.
In a Parliament House in London town,
A part of our heritage dies,
The road builder’s plan is blessed by a cheque,
as the blood of the signature dries,
Then the monsters move in with the dawn,
As the circle of people they sing,
And the old oaks are cut from the earth,
As they tear down the Tomb of the King.
Granny Ash 1996 (Martin Porter)
Evictions began the next month, with Granny Ash falling on 6th March, a riot shield in the face failing to stir Balin's calm.

Reddings Copse was taken a few days later. Balin free-climbed the Corsican Pine mid-eviction, but eventually the Pinus was evicted by a cherry picker brought over specially from Holland. In a surreal moment two wild horses turned up.

It looked like Middle Oak would be next.

Peter Bartley, a local resident whose house was nearby, had other ideas though. Initially somewhat hostile to the protesters, who frightened the grouse and relieved themselves in his garden, he eventually became part of the Middle Oak family.

Examining the plans for the bypass he worked out that the tree appeared to be located on an island between the north bound carriageway and the slip road from the A4. It didn't need to be felled at all. The Highways Agency strongly disagreed, but the Under-Sheriff appeared ready to compromise.

If Middle Oak continued to be occupied it was definitely for the chop, but could Blandy be trusted to keep his word if the protesters came down?

Granny Ash today (Martin Porter)
A difficult decision had to be made. Negotiate or fight on?

Jim was still haunted by his dream of the tree's end. He woke one morning to the sound of chainsaws. Another oak, almost Middle Oaks's twin, sited next to the main road and connected by a single strand of rope, like an umbilical cord, had been felled. This had been the tree in Jim's dream, not Middle Oak. There was hope yet.

Jim came down voluntarily from his twigloo and Blandy promised in, front of the press, to spare the tree.

Once all the camps had been cleared he held a press conference under it. However the protesters, hopeless but not defeated, found out and he had to make a quick getaway. And so the Third Battle of Newbury ended with the Sheriff literally being run out of town by the outlaws.

Nine Miles by Jim Hindle
Jim was eventually to write up his adventures in an excellent book.

Newbury wasn't quite the end of the road protests in Britain. In January 1997 Fairmile was taken, making Swampy famous. The last person down from the trees was Craig, a security guard at Newbury who'd defected to the protesters.

In the same month there was a reunion rally at Middle Oak which turned into a digger-torching rampage, with many otherwise level-headed Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace types venting their fury at the machinery.

But it was the end of the Conservative's grand plans to cover the countryside in concrete. Birmingham would get its Northern Relief Road and Bingley its long delayed bypass, but after that road building pretty much ended.

The eco-warriors turned to other targets; Manchester Airport's Second Runway, Newton Abbot's quarry, a proposed holiday village in Lyminge forest and others.

But in fact the seeds of the next set of big direct action protests were on their way, literally, as the Druids blessed Middle Oak, in the form of Britain's first shipload of genetically modified Soya.

Meanwhile Reclaim the Streets was evolving into an annual Anti-Capitalist demonstration and 1996 also marked the creation of the Metropolitan Police's Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) to take them on.

But none of these future actions had the immediacy of the big road protests of the nineties.

We may have trashed GM crops to protect organic farming, but we never camped on the farms themselves. At Newbury what we were fighting for and against was in the same place. When you lost you felt it personally. No wonder it messed our heads up.

So Newbury was a noisy defeat but a silent victory. They set a price on Nature, but we kept raising it until they weren't willing to pay any more.

Middle Oak Easter 2012 (Martin Porter)
But Newbury still got its bypass.

The traffic in the town is back to what it was before, whilst the bypass route itself is still a nine mile scar on the countryside, the damage barely covered by scattered gorse, whilst limbless old growth trees mark the limit of the cut.

However thanks to Jim, Peter Bartley, Damh and the Druids, Sarah, Badger, Tami and the rest, and I suppose old Nick Blandy too, Middle Oak still stands.

Its rough bark is still warm to the touch and it's branches still welcome the climber. It had always been a solitary tree, but now its peace is disturbed by the cars and lorries hurrying by on a Euro route from Liverpool to Bruge.

It stands, depending on your perspective, for what we've lost or what we've managed to save, for the brutality of the modern world or the persistence of the natural one, for those who would destroy beauty for profit, or for those who stand their ground on principle.

Long may it remain.

Blessed be. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Private Jets - Lets Take Action!

Note: Since I wrote this a higher rate of passenger duty has been introduced on provate jets. However their users still pay proportionally less than other plane passengers.

Chariots Of The Gods

"They gave me the Gulfstream Four – you know the transatlantic one, with the beds and the shower."

Thus spoke Adam Lang, the crass ex-Prime Minister facing war crimes charges in Robert Harris's biting political satire Ghost.

It was an apt comment, for if I had to pick one object that typified where New Labour went wrong it would be the private jet.

Private jets carrying the Master of High Finance around the world to convince us all that Greed is Good and prosperity is round the corner and private jets taking terror suspects to torture and illegal detention.

When Blair eventually left office he really did get to fly in a $50 million Gulfstream IV, with beds and shower, so he could travel round the world with his message of hope, which included trying to tell the world to take Climate Change seriously.


The Alarmist Factoids

The case against private jets is quite a simple one. If we ignore spaceships, jet fighters and racing cars on the grounds they carry "crew" rather than passengers, they must be the most polluting form of travel on the planet.

A single businessman flying by in a Cessna Citation X (a medium jet - they come a lot bigger) produces 23 times as carbon dioxide as if they'd bought a ticket on a commercial flight and 10 times as much as if they'd driven all the way in a Hummer H3. Even fully loaded the Citation X uses three times as much fuel per passenger as a scheduled flight, . (High Fliers: How private jet travel is straining the system, warming the planet and costing you money. Institute of Policy Studies. 2008)

Put another way a family of four crammed in like sardines on a charter flight would need to fly to Disneyland, Florida, and back at least three times to use the same amount of fuel as a businessman on a one way transatlantic flight.

A Taxing Situation

What's more that family, on their three holidays, would have paid over £1000 in Air Passenger Duty for those flights, whilst the business exec would have paid.......nothing. His plane is currently exempt!

Crisis = Opportunity

But all is not well in private jet land. The Credit Crunch has hit them pretty hard.

Did I hear you say 'Oh dear?' No?

Sales of business jets fell off a cliff after banks went bust, falling from a high of 1315 in 2008 to 703 last year, and we may not have hit the bottom yet. 70% of jet use is commercial travel, and the bean counters are starting to reign in the corporate perks. (The Times. 7 May 2012)

Moral pleading alone may not achieve much, but if money is also talking we may get somewhere.

The Political Bit

It's even possible there may be a bit of political progress here, although don't get too optimistic.

The government announced at the end of last year that it would look at making private jet passengers pay Air Passenger Duty from April 2013. It even had a consultation.

The proposal is that they would pay at twice the normal rate. Not only does this fall short of the increased CO2 emissions from these planes, it also comes with all the current failings of the current system; you pay the same for smokey old planes as (relatively) more efficient new ones and planes flying half empty pay less than those stuffed to the gunnels.

It's a start, but as the government itself admits "The extension of APD to business jet flights is not expected to have a significant effect on overall demand, given that generally APD will account for only a small fraction of the final price of hiring a business jet."

Action Points

So what's to be done?

Well the usual, obviously, write to your MP, write to the papers, write to your mum etc etc. But rather more practically, how do you take the fight to the opposition?

Lets look at how we tackle the growth in road traffic; we opposed new roads, and targeted the users of the most unnecesary and polluting vehicles - the urban four by fours.

Opposing new runways is going well, indeed here in Manchester I think we led the way.

However when it comes to the planes themselves we do tend to treat all as equally bad. I think we should aim our fire squarely at the business jets, the Chelsea Tractors of the skies.

Plane Stupid have already had a crack, but I'm sure there is more we can do.

There are challenges. These aircraft usually operate from the fringes of big airports, away from the plebs and the operators don't have high street shops. The users tend not to brag about it much either, at least not in front of the servants.

BUT there are things that can be done.

For a start one of the perks of private jetting is that you just turn up and take off. Companies often only tell their customers to turn up ten minutes before take off. The exec in a hurry therefore doesn't really want to stop to chat with you or me. It might make them a bit cross.

If nothing else Ye Olde Banner Drop would provide a pretty picture and help shine a light on another perk of 1%.

Meanwhile over at the main terminal the family of four on the way to Florida may be interested in knowing how much more tax they're paying than Mr. Exec. Usually an airport is hostile territory for environmentalist as everyone there is either getting on or off a plane or working for the airline industry.

However if we go out there suggesting that maybe the 1% should take a bit of a hit before the rest of us give up our cheap package deals we may get somewhere. I can't imagine the airport would be too keen on us hanging around to talk to too many people, but it makes it a tad harder for them to chuck us out if their customers agree with us.

Key points:
  • This is the 1% polluting the planet and paying no tax
  • Most carbon intensive form of passenger travel
  • The Chelsea Tractors of the skies!
  • The government plans to do something but we must make them do more.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Bond or bondage?

Details of the rather unconventional private life of MI6 officer Gareth Williams may have come as a bit of a surprise to people brought up on the image of the spy as straight-up-and-down Alpha Male, but I suspect they were less of a revelation to those of us brought up on the James Bond books.

On screen Bond was usually shaken but not stirred by his adventures, in print he was usually tied up, gagged and beaten bloody at least once along the way.

From the infamous carpet-beater-on-the-knackers-whilst-tied-naked-to-a-chair in Casino Royale to being captured by the KGB and brainwashed in The Man With The Golden Gun, Bond spends so much time being tortured you wonder if he really sees it as an occupational hazard or more a perk of the job.
As far as I can remember, in between he was tied up and dragged over a coral reef (Live And Let Die), given a few blasts of a steam hose (Moonraker), given a 'Brooklyn stomping' by gangsters (Diamonds Are Forever), shot and left for dead by a SMERSH assassin (From Russia With Love), made to negotiate a torture-based obstacle course (Dr No), tied up ready to be sliced in two by a circular saw (Goldfinger), stretched on a medical device called 'the rack' (Thunderball) and finally captured by Blofeld and made to take part in a bizarre duel (You Only Live Twice).

You'd think at some point Bond would have either joined a union or demanded his employers conduct better risk assessments, or failing that ask if there were any vacancies in Q Branch, but no, our hero carried on regardless.

Which makes you wonder what exactly was going through Ian Fleming's head when he wrote this.

Although hardly a year goes by without the press digging up some hero of the Second World War and proclaiming he was the real Bond, it's fairly clear that Fleming basically wrote about himself. His last holiday destination was usually the location of the baddies base and at some point Bond will eat a lavish meal accompanied by a gallon of champagne, which is what Fleming spent the profits of the books on.

I know of no rumours that Fleming himself was fond of what was known at the time as 'a bit of slap and tickle', but as a gentleman of the old school I imagine that psychologically he thought that there must be a price to pay for having too much of a good time, so poor old Bond had to get the carpet beater.

That at least one real MI6 officer was similarly inclined is an interesting example of real life imitating art.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Norman Orcs Who Rule Us Still

Orc, in Old English means demon, and it was a word used by contemporary chroniclers for the Norman invaders who ravaged England after the Battle of Hastings. 

After 1066 only 5% of England south of the Tees remained in English hands. This is what William of Malmesbury had to say about the "1%" of the 11th century:

"The Normans, that I may speak of them also, were at that time, and are even now, exceedingly particular in their dress and delicate in their food, but not so to excess. 


They are a race inured to war, and can hardly live without it; fierce in rushing against the enemy, 

and, where force fails of success, ready to use stratagem or to corrupt by bribery.

As I have said, they live in spacious houses with economy, 


envy their superiors,

 wish to excel their equals,

 and plunder their subjects, 

though they defend them from others;


they are faithful to their lords, 

though a slight offence alienates them.

They weigh treachery by its chance of success,


 and change their sentiments for money."