Disarming and dangerous

She is the authorities' worst nightmare. Eco-warrior Margaret Jones has spent two weeks living in the rafters of a warehouse. At 50, she's no dreadlocked mucky youth - she's a woman of a certain age who doesn't give a damn
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The Independent Culture
At 7am yesterday the police came for Dr Margaret Jones. For 14 days she had barricaded herself inside a warehouse on a scruffy patch of land called Sisson Common in east Bristol. This all in aid of stopping the last bit of the Avon Ring Road.

Her supporters call her Swampy's Sister, though this seems a fairly fantastical idea. After all, Dr Jones is a 49-year-old academic whose PhD was on California novels of the 1930s. She has been married, paid her taxes and taught at university. Now she has given it all up - the job, the flat, the central heating - for a life of direct action. She may be Dr Jones, eco-warrior, but she is no Swampy. "I hate tunnels!" she says. But she is a woman of a certain age who simply does not give a damn, and that makes her dangerous.

Perhaps that is why some 30 to 40 men were gathered on the Common yesterday morning. There were half a dozen police officers and PCs, all fully kitted out. The sheriff and his men were there, as was a full contingent of security men glowing away in their fluorescent vests. "I'm not going to make it easy for them," Dr Jones had warned. To this end she had built herself an aerie in the warehouse rafters and had taken up residence there. "I'm staying until I'm 103," she announced. In the end, she didn't even make it to 50. Her birthday is tomorrow.

The moment Dr Jones heard the men coming, she rang her aide-de-camp on the outside. His name is Rowland Dye and he was just arriving at the Common when his mobile rang. "Hello, it's Margaret. I'm sorry to disturb you so early in the morning," she said, as you do when you are under siege. Half an hour later she was escorted out. Her fist was raised and she was blowing a whistle. She shouted that the police had been magnificent, real professionals, who managed to get her out much faster than she had thought possible. Then, with a shout of "Stop the Avon Ring Road!" she was bundled off.

Yesterday morning Rowland was handling the media from a call box outside the police station. He apologised because he had to teach in the afternoon and so wouldn't be available. Rowland's PhD is in medical physics. He says that I can call them the PhD eco-warriors. He has been assiduously helpful. During our first conversation, I said I'd like to talk to Margaret. "Do you have her mobile number?" he asked. Margaret has a mobile? Later I discovered that she had not one but two. They had been smuggled to her inside loaves of bread in her daily food packages.

I ring and she describes the situation. The security firm had erected a metal fence some 20 feet from the warehouse, and this area is patrolled at all times by at least six or seven security men. There was no chance of me getting any closer. I would have to stand outside the fence. Margaret would poke her head out of the roof. Then we would shout at each other. "Do you have a whistle?" she asked. I did not. "You will need a whistle because that's the only way I will know you are there." Right. "And wellingtons. It's very, very muddy. You must have wellingtons."

I bought a whistle for pounds 1 off Rowland and, standing outside the fence, ankle deep in mud, blew. Margaret's head poked out. "Do you have the right boots on?" she shouted. I said I was more worried about freezing to death. "Aren't you cold?" I shouted. She wasn't because she had blankets and a sleeping bag and plastic too. Later the photographs showed that she had covered herself in bubble-wrap. She claimed to be really rather comfortable. She had books and writing-paper but was allowed no newspapers. A supporter had brought her a T-shirt yesterday that said "What Traffic Problem?" but she had not been allowed to keep it because it was too political. She was allowed as much food as she wanted, and winched it up in a string bag. She was not bored. She had just finished The White Hotel by DM Thomas and was embarking on Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi. She had a candle to read by. She was writing a novel but didn't want to talk about it. "We'll see how it turns out first."

She seemed incredibly together given the circumstances. "This is so weird but it is also strangely domestic," she shouted. "Before I built this platform I was on the ground and collected rainwater from the holes in the roof to flush the toilet. I could hear the security men wandering about and buckets banging. I felt like I was in some medieval courtyard. Then I would smell their bacon frying. Yes, it is strangely domestic. At night the security light comes on. So we have a little routine."

She says it is odd being an onlooker from the inside. The security men ignored her - and the shouting - completely. The Independent's photographer told me that he felt like we were in the middle of a Play for Today.

There is something resilient about Dr Jones that comes with the fact of her age and her commitment. Like the women at Greenham Common, she is simply not going to be told what to do. Like the housewives at Brightlingsea, she is going to have her say. In America there is a protest group called Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Its founder, a lawyer in her fifties, says that there is nothing like an angry old broad to flummox the authorities. Their newsletter is headed by a quote from Dorothy Sayers: "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."

Margaret Jones grew up in Hertfordshire. She says she was always political and was inspired by her headmistress at grammar school, where they did such things as trek 26 miles for charity. She went to Egypt and got married to a fellow lecturer in literature. In 1983 they went to America, where they stayed for nine years, studying and working at various universities. In 1992 Margaret became a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of the West of England. She published two books, one based on her PhD thesis and another on feminism. She and her husband are now separated. "But we still have a loving relationship, it's just by telephone!" she shouts. She said that he wanted to teach in Egypt and she wanted to do direct action in England. The two are just a bit incompatible.

She gave up her job 18 months ago because she just felt that it was no longer fulfilling to be a part-time radical. She fought the poll tax, trespassed at Stonehenge and led protests against the veal trade. But it wasn't enough. Rowland says that Margaret is a rational and scientific Marxist. I thought this might be the case when she starting shouting about praxis. This is the practical side of theory, the action rather than the talk. "This is the idea of doing things that arise from what you think. I saw the issues. I saw how the police work and how the courts always protect property. You think about that. You think about what that means. You go and write letters about it. After a while, that is no longer enough."

Her head bobbed. It is unnerving talking just to someone's head. The only thing I can really say in terms of description is that she has a centre parting.

She says she came to this rather strange stardom by accident. She is against the ring road because of the development it will bring, more than the traffic per se. In mid-November she founded a camp a mile or so away from the Common and lived there in deep mud for some time. Then they found out the warehouse was due for demolition and she and her friends decided to make it a squat. They snuck in through the roof and then, as the law dictates, after a few days they put up signs saying it was their home. The authorities were furious. The road has already been hideously delayed, mostly by the Stop the Avon Ring Road (STARR) campaign and the ingenious legal tactics of a man named Andrew Nicholson. Now they also had these squatters to deal with. Then everyone but Margaret went out to get some food and the security closed in. She was trapped.

"The thing I really want to say is that anyone can do this," she shouts. "I really think if people feel strongly about issues they should get out there and do what they can. Direct action, if necessary. It doesn't take much. I want to demystify this." But, I shout, there is a big difference between believing in something at weekends and giving everything up full-time for the cause. "Yes. I see what you mean. It is a mental leap. I had to learn what was possible. I learned, too. I learned how to run a camp. How to have a balanced diet in the middle of a forest. How to keep your feet dry."

She says that her mother always said that if you want to do something then you should do it properly. Margaret Jones has done this thing properly. She knows the laws inside out. Up until yesterday she had not broken any of them. Yesterday, after her release, she rang me on her mobile which, amazingly, is still working. She was at a friend's home. She said a half dozen people had been waiting for her when she was finally released. She was happy for their support. She says she's been charged with resisting an officer. "I'm going to plead guilty because I am. In fact, I wish everyone else was guilty too."

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