Cold comfort of life on the road

The Guardian February 21 1996


From the tree tops to street level, Gibby Zobel helps to spread the word

SATURDAY: «This Is Tree FM 87.7 -- Bypass My Ass!». Deep in the bowels of the Dreadloss Sound Studio (DSS), we are putting together a tape for the new pirate radio station that is to be launched from the woods in Newbury. Time to sod the cold and join the action.

SUNDAY: Four hundred people cram into double-deckers in Brighton heading for the National Rally at Newbury. I manage to meet up with the radio crew and we head off to find our secret transmitting tree-house. Thousands of Barbours and green wellies trunch past at snail's pace. The numbers are overwhelming -- it's like the chattering classes have decided to stop chattering. Two bemused Japanese golfers chug through the throng in their cart on the way to the 18th, gazing up at the hordes piling down from the hill. It's Britain's biggest anti-road protest yet -- 8,000 joins the rally.

MONDAY: 3am. The Visitor's Camp marquee has flooded overnight. It didn't leak, it laked. Soggy troops jump in the van ready for the daily action to stop Reliance Security from getting on site. The day is billed as a mass day of action. Reliance decide to bill it as a training day and don't even attempt work. A meeting is called at Middle Oak camp.

Hundreds of people buzzing with ideas circle a solitary tree. A Bray's Detectives security van films us from a distance. Forty minutes later, we've split into action posses. Our mission is to visit the security employers in Southampton.

We stop off at Tot Hill camp on the bypass route and recover some chopped branches to place on their desks. Driving through Twyford, we can't help making a diversion to occupy the offices of Tarmac. Sitting in the manager's office (he's outside talking to police) you get a prime view of the Twyford Down cutting from the window. It's sickening. Muddy boots zip in and out of the Portakabin offices. The police bundle everyone out. Reliance staff don't seem too impressed with 100 road protesters tearing through their regional HQ and several lash out in the chaos. This time the police choose to stop and search everyone for «stolen documents». They make one arrest.

I've spent the last 17 hours in a van. The irony isn't lost. The idea of climbing 60 feet to go to bed in a tree feels like ascending the north face of the Eiger. It's a year to the day since I first slept in the trees.

TUESDAY: 3pm. I absail down and walk in to Newbury to hail a lift to Brighton for the Valentine's Day street party. Eight miles from the coast, there's a funny feeling we are slowing down. «Err, I think we've run out of petrol,» admits the driver. It's dark, we are stranded on a road. It's very funny. We get there, eventually.

WEDNESDAY: Reclaim The Streets is due to start «somewhere» in town at noon. A man in pink bubble wrap and glittery silver dress hangs out suspiciously by (the wrong) roundabout. As we dash into the North Laines, huge cheers and tribal drums erupt as hundreds spill into North Road. People are dancing, laughing, scaling buildings, hanging banners. The action is called «Snog not Smog!». Candyfloss is passed around. The police line up across the top and bottom end of the street, allowing no one to arrive or leave.

We manage to sneak in a full band kit and, as the lead guitarist of Flannel kicks in, the crowd goes wild and the police look astonished. You can't see the Tarmac for people and pinkness.

At 4.30pm, the police move in. Chaos ensues as the crowd is cut in two and forced against the shops with no way out. A huge plate glass window looks like it's going to break. The whole mood has changed. Later, we find out that «Operation Serum» (and we thought cars were the disease) has involved 400 officers, who've made 43 arrests. It's as predictable as it is depressing.

Steff lost his young kids for half an hour in the melee: «I've never been so terrified in my life,» he says. People are angry, some are confused, and the others are in the cells. Twelve are released on bail.

THURSDAY: Back in Newbury for dark. All talk is of the «Eco-snail» -- found on the route and protected under EC legislation -- which could stop the work all by its little, three millimetre self. No one seriously believes there will be a backdown -- not while the full forces of the state are on the case.

Steve has just spent a week in Bullingdon nick on remand after breaking his bail conditions excluding him from the Newbury site. They've been felling trees at Snelsmore Common today, where he's lived since the summer. He doesn't know whether to scream or cry. «If I break bail again I'll be inside till May.» He's got to sign on three times a week at his local police station, 30 miles away in Wokingham. It's not unusual.

Another of the 300 Newbury protesters nicked under the Criminal Justice Act has just changed his name by deed poll. He's up in court charged with aggravated trespass. I know him as Mr Red Earth, but the court will have to adress him by his new name: Mr Red Hats Green Hats Guard The Trolls Work Of The Chainsaw Gangs Doing Their Little Bit To Build A Wasteland Where Once Was Beauty The Fat Controllers Sit Behind Their Piles Of Money Weaving Their Power Plays In This Dinosaur They Like To Call Democracy Love And Power To The Tribe Of Eco Warriors And Mother Earth.

It seems you can change your name for free if you're on benefit. It might just catch on.