The Guardian, 31 January 1996, Society, page 4


The Newbury protesters are ragged, tired but defiant. Jay Griffiths hails the eco-heroes

Throwing down a mitt in the mud

Heroism looks silly in suburbia. The polite and polished surface of modern life offers little purchase for the boot of a hero. There are acts of moral or emotional heroism in all walks of life, that there are few better places to see heroism of mind combined with physical heroism than at the Road protests, and especially at Newbury.

Simply living in the camps demands a heroic stamina, particularly in these past weeks as temperatures have fallen to 10 below.frost bites, clothes don’t dry, darkness depresses. Protesters sometimes live for hours under security guard coaches in freezing puddles, clamped on with D locks around their necks.

One protester, to save one tree, stands on one foot for seven hours on a branch too slender to take his second foot. "Trolley" spends eight hours up a tripod, and she comes down with threatened hypothermia. Chris and a handful of office staff work to the point of physical and mental exhaustion doing 30-hour shifts followed by seven hours sleep, before beginning again. Balin has been staying, day and night, up a tripod since January 8 on part of the bypass route. He is exposed, both to the weather and to the hostility of "viggies", as the protesters called the local vigilantes who have shot at him – with blanks for a start a pistol – and have threatened to kill him.

Heroism can not be bought, or commanded.all the Newbury protesters are self-appointed and their "tasks" are self-set, like those of mediaeval chivalry; there is something of the knight errant in their quest for adventure. One passerby tells Balin he is a modern Don Quixote, wasting his time tilting at proverbials.but the angle of tilt matters; the point where the angle is most acute between the line of heroism and the line of utility is exactly the point where symbols are created.and it is symbols which inspire people, and grand gestures which can persuade people to another way of seeing.

A protest site has the right physical scale for heroism; the human body matters in this tree scape. The action of an individual is visible, and the reward – the recognition of one’s peers – is perceptible and immediate. But this visibility makes them vulnerable. The Newbury protesters are repeatedly and intimidatingly photographed by detectives from Bray’s agency who compile identifying dossiers on them, and the protesters do not know how, or when, this information may be used against them. It is intended to be daunting, and it takes a particular courage merely to be on site.

To risk hostility, or pain, for your beliefs is an act of heroism. To court them is an act of martyrdom, and this charge has been occasionally levelled at the protesters, as have other mixed motives; being there out of boredom or a general social disaffection, or merely following a fashion. The motives do not have to be wholly pure or to be good, and the moral imperative is what drives the protesters most fiercely. They are criminalised and their actions are classed as illegal, but they have a steadfast belief that Right and Wrong are not coterminous with Legality and Illegality. The law of the land, in this instance, is wrong, they argue. "The law of nature is the law everyone should respect," says Balin.

Acting according to their consciences, the protesters are apt to see everything from their own angle of tilt. "Maybe Don Quixote was right," says Doug. "Maybe windmills were the problem. Windmills invented the Miller and that was the first mono-job and look at the mess that’s got us into." It is a remark both playful and telling.

Daring to see things differently is one thing (maybe cars are a curse) but to translate this into physical action brings the protesters into direct confrontation with forces far more powerful than they are. They choose, with Don Quixote, to "engage in fierce and unequal combat." Ranged against them are the government, the police, security guards, Bray’s and a ravenous Criminal Justice Act.

The important thing is not necessarily to win, but to take the heroic stance and to throw down the gauntlet—in this case the tatty little fingerless mitt thrown down in the mud of Pen Wood.

An elderly man watches them with pride. He says he fought in the Second World War for a country and the countryside he loved and to him, the protesters are heroes, protecting their land just as he did. In this "combat situation" it takes a hero of yesterday to recognise the heroes of tomorrow.

In most cultures it is the past, not the present, that is cited as being the "time of heroes".the Newbury protesters, vilified today as pesky criminals, have to ignore the judgment of the present and look to the judgment of the future for their reward; as profits are unhonoured in their own country, so heroes are often unsung in their own times.

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