On Location: Miracle of the cigar and the wing mirrors
Columnist of the Year 2015, Mark Steel, is Commentator and stand-up comedian who has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 13 November 1998
I rang Animal, but his phone had been cut off, so I just went up at midday on Sunday. After all, it is my park.
But where were they all? For half an hour I squelched through the frontier settlement built on mud, crawling through dwellings made of tarpaulin draped over branches or irreparable caravans, finding nobody. Until, through the chickpea-stained plates and juggling sticks, segments of plaited hair protruding from fraying blankets indicated sleeping life.
Then the faint plinking of a guitar played the role of the distant harmonica in Westerns, when a shadowy stranger arrives in a deserted town.
The guitarist was playing in a broken-down bus to an audience of three eco campers staring into space. It was instantly recognisable, because, nearly 20 years earlier, I'd lived in a road of squats in which everyone's hobby was staring into space. It was also normal for someone to knock on your door at 2.30am and ask if they could borrow some peanut butter. One night someone went door to door asking if they could borrow a wardrobe as somewhere to keep his pet owl. The only time a party in that street finished before two in the morning was when a satanist chopped through the mains with an axe.
The difference with the inhabitants of the eco camp in Crystal Palace Park, south London, is that they have an objective beyond their own lifestyle: deterring the developers who are planning to build a 20-screen cinema with parking for 1,000 cars on the site on to which they've moved.
If a judicial review backs Bromley Council, which approved the development despite almost total opposition from the local population, the bulldozers will roll over the tarpaulin and Crystal Palace will have its very own Gaza strip.
The warriors are prepared for their judgement day. Holes have been dug, tree-houses erected and obstacles put in place. But on Sunday their tactic was to stare into space. The main cultural difference, I realised, between their world and that of most people is the approach to time. Someone asks a question, like "Have we got any milk?" and no one answers. The guitarists keep strumming, the others keep staring, and, as an outsider, you feel a desperate need to fill the space with a reply. "I think there's some left in the jug," you feel like saying, with no idea whether they've even got a jug, because for everyone to carry on with no answer at all is just wrong. Then, after about two minutes someone will say "No".
How do they keep up with this? Don't they forget the original question? And what happens if a second question is asked in the time before the answer to the first? Perhaps they get out of sync, so that the sequence could go: "Have we any got any milk?"
"Where's the milk from yesterday?"
"Crashed out in the caravan."
During one unsettling pause, a two-year-old ran through the bus giggling, at which point a woman, who hadn't spoken a word until then, chuckled: "She calls her toy rabbit Acab." There was a long pause, and then: "Acab - All coppers are bastards."
Storm explained the legal side of the campaign, and, when he finished, someone said: "Is it Saturday?" But no one answered. "Right, I'm off then," said Ville. I asked him where he was going. "Finland," he said.
After a few hours you find yourself adjusting to the rhythm of all this, and then it dawns on you that, without any formal invitation, you've wandered into someone else's home and stayed there for the whole of Sunday afternoon.
But then events speeded up. Tony, an ex-smack addict, arrived. He'd been deep into the abyss when he joined the camp. Without the help of the others, who had the time and experience to wean him off his addiction, he'd never have made it, and now he seemed fit, motivated and extremely sociable. So the eco camp is actually the ideal venue for staying off drugs.
Next came Gary. And Gary was angry. So angry that, even when he said to Tony "Let me tell you, you've done brilliant", he said it in a way that made you think: "Blimey, that bloke's angry."
"This society's screwed - in the head - when you can walk past a guy in a cardboard box. Right. Huh. And on the other side of the road there's a Rolls-Royce. And the guy inside's smoking a cigar that could feed the guy in the box."
How do you reply to a magnificent speech like that? You can nod your head and agree, but that seems as pathetic as saying: "Do you know, I've never really thought of it like that before." You could try and top it, with: "And his wing mirror could feed hundreds more!!!!" Or pick him up on the detail: "Well, it depends which brand of cigar."
Instead a woman in her fifties arrived with a bag of shopping. "Sorry I'm late, loves," she said. "Only I waited over an hour for a blooming bus. I took my daughter to Alders you see. Anyway, here you are." And she handed the shopping over.
Despite their lifestyle, they seem to have won the support of almost the whole area. Whereas the councillors, police and architects, all model respectable citizens, have hardly any support at all. How can this be? For one thing, no one's told the council that it isn't good public relations to fly helicopters over the camp one day a week or to issue warrants against pensioners who have been quoted in the local newspapers as wishing the eco warriors luck.
But also because the camp is caught in the dual forces of modern Britain. On the one hand there is more disapproval and contempt for the rich and powerful than for many years, but the parties which would once have expressed that outrage have collapsed in confusion over the fall of Eastern Europe or surrendered to the dubious charms of smiling boy Blair. So the eco warriors earn the "at least they're having a go" sentiment, which is usually supplemented with a wishful "it's a pity more people haven't got their guts".
And they don't even have an image consultant giving them advice like: "I think it might come across better on Newsnight if you left out the two-minute gap before answering Paxman. And if you didn't play the guitar and stare into space while you're debating with John Prescott.
And if you didn't get up halfway through the interview and announce that you are going to Finland."
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