The wetsuit has dried out and the prison overalls returned, but the man himself is unrepentant.
“I would have felt less of a man if I hadn’t done it, if I hadn’t made that rupture into these issues,” explains Trenton Oldfield, sat on a cold day in a warm corner of a Pret-A-Manger restaurant in the heart of the city of London. It is almost a year since he front-crawled his way into the national conscience, as a stubble-covered blob, bobbing between the blades of the Oxford rowers, ruining what had become an enthralling Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Many of the giant men he so enraged that day will be back on the river this Sunday, and when exhaustion starts to overwhelm them (usually somewhere around Chiswick) it may just be thoughts of the little Australian activist that summons forth the rage to fight on.
Oldfield, 36, has sympathy for the thousands who reacted with vitriol to his actions when he rather spoilt their fun that rainy afternoon. “It is a reflection of British society,” he explains. “Instead of taking hurt and oppression out on their oppressor they take it out on each other. The pain that people are feeling is coming out sideways, and they’re doing it to each other because they can’t do it in the direction they want to be able to do it.”
Precisely what he was protesting about was difficult to decipher from the lengthy sociological tract he had published online in advance. “Transatlantic slavery, imperialism and colonialism, fascism, holocausts, genocides and dictatorships and migrant labour camps,” were involved, as were the “transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class (invisible).”
He has since more concisely claimed that it was over Coalition cuts, the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism within British Society. But it earned him a six month sentence at Wormwood Scrubs, of which he served two, and was released in December. It is not altogether surprising that he should have some alternative views on time spent at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
“I was lucky, I had both the solidarity and support of the prisoners and the screws. I got extra clothes, extra food. Lots of slaps on the back. People saying ‘well done, you did a good thing.
“Because prison is articulated in people’s imaginations through television, and mostly American television, people have this terrible perception of it. It is an incredibly calm, warm, supportive environment. Every prisoner helps every other prisoner. I saw no violence. I saw people helping each other.”
Even he was surprised by the events that followed his brief swim. “I had no idea of the scale it would reach,” he says. “I thought maybe it would be a small brief thing on the evening news. I know there are certain things in Britain that are sacred cows. Oxford and Cambridge are almost like James Bond films are now, or the Olympics opening ceremony. You don’t ever really critique them.”
Contrary to relatively widespread opinion, sporting events are legitimate targets for protest. “I believe that sporting events are becoming increasingly determined to be somehow beyond everyday life. Somehow pure. The people who’ve had a problem with what I’ve done are sportspeople. They believe that sport shouldn’t be interrupted because it’s separate from politics, and it’s very clearly not. We’ve seen the corruption. We’ve seen the cyclist who’s taken all those drugs to make lots of money. We’ve seen how the Olympics cost £23bn, and all the new laws that were brought in because of it.
“You can’t just separate packages of life and say ‘that’s somehow different.’ Canary Wharf, the City of London, and the Olympics, they form a triangle with unbelievable amounts money poured into them. For the people [that live inside that triangle], one of two children are living in poverty. People are hurting. Deeply hurting, and they’re surrounded by it. Those images of the Olympics: you can’t get in because there’s a gate. You have to build this massive fence around it. People feel hurt. They don’t feel this massive euphoria of the running race. They feel hurt that their homes have been demolished.”
His sympathy extends also to the rowers in last year’s race, but only up to a point. “Most people I spend time with are really facing very serious issues in their lives, around poverty and inequality, and the results of colonialism. It’s very difficult to be able to equate getting up early in the morning and rowing, with losing your home or losing your job. I don’t understand that. I’ve always said I have sympathy for [the rowers’] situation, but the level of trauma doesn’t compare. I don’t dislike these people at all. I really have sympathy for them. They’re people, they’re human beings.”
Oldfield won’t be anywhere near the Thames this Sunday, he says. He will be too busy working. Since his release he has been “in the country first nations people call Canada”, protesting against new laws that constitute a “land and resource grab” from the native people. “Lots of fundraising, lots of films,” as well as protesting at the British museum where “stolen artefacts from colonial expeditions” are kept.
He has also published a diary of his time in prison, The Queen Versus Trenton Oldfield, which he hopes will “demystify” the institution, for those, like him, who just can’t understand why they were there. “No one can answer what prison is for. This reflex action of sending people to prison. It is the continuation of a behaviour that is out of date. We don’t punish in society anymore. Punishment as an idea went on a policy level a long time ago.” Perhaps it did, but there are one or two people out there who will still feel he got off lightly, and they’re quite big, and they wear blue lycra.
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