Sarah Sands: Thugs killed my favourite tree. But a new one is growing

Sunday 12 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Compared with the desecration of the Cenotaph, the chopping down of an old hawthorn tree in Glastonbury is low on the emotional Richter scale. There are no statements from the Prime Minister, no counter-reproaches from youthful revolutionaries. It is just a tree of no great beauty, which was significant to people of no interest to the famous or the fashionable.

But I loved the Glastonbury Thorn, and always stopped by it after weekend walks to the Tor. According to legend, the tree sprouted from the staff owned by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus's uncle. It was visited by Christians from all over the world.

Can one link the WikiLeak freedom-of-information fighter Julian Assange and protests over student fees with the lopping of a hawthorn tree tree in Glastonbury? Was it a literal form of hacktivism?

Maybe the youths of Glastonbury felt left out watching the flames lapping round the Houses of Parliament. They could not take out their frustration or boredom on MPs or the Met or Topshop. They lacked headquarters of institutions, but not landmarks. The tree gets it.

If the Christian legend were not strange and lovely enough, there is the additional poetic quirk of the tree's flowering at Christmas. The Thorn has been destroyed once already by Cromwell's Puritans, but has grown again through cuttings. A sibling plant shelters in the ground of Glastonbury Abbey, otherwise known as Avalon.

If you are seeking solace and reflection, Glastonbury Abbey is about as good as it gets. Even if you do not believe in its holiness, you will respect the harmony of the surroundings and the preservation of values as well as stone. It is pitifully lacking in the glamour of protest, although it has faced greater peril during the dissolution of the monasteries than students need fear from Nick Clegg.

You choose in the end, order or dissonance. On Thursday night, I went to listen to Latin carols at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, sung by the The Sixteen. You can imagine the culture clash, as the audience left the hall, humming, and encountered lines of riot police and the ecstatically violent protesters.

The following day, Facebook and Twitter burned with excitement – it has been the rave of the new century. The clean-up the next day looked like a civil version of the Yellow Pages advertisement. Sorry mum. I don't think that the adrenaline of idealism and violence on display in London amounts to a new world order. Year Zero doesn't suit a country such as Britain. History reasserts itself like cuttings from the hawthorn tree.

There are many theories about the vandalism of Joseph of Arimathea's tree. Is it a mild symptom of the grave persecution of Christians taking place in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa? Or does the contempt for authority among the young extend from Westminster to an ancient and peaceful tree near the Glastonbury Tor?

There is another theory that it is not part of global movement, or generational uprising, but more to do with a local dispute with a landowner. Vandalism is not usually strategic.

As John Coles, the mayor of Glastonbury, said, the stricken tree is "a sad, sad sight". But as a metaphor for Christianity and social order, it is comforting to know that trees from cuttings will flower again, if not exactly here, then somewhere close. Anger and disorder are not the natural way of the world.

Sarah Sands is the deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in