Swampy Fever Sweeps England

From the tabloids to the Times, the British press is swooning for a long-haired, lovable eco-protester bearing a boggy moniker.

Published June 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a scruffy 23-year-old anti-roads protester known as Swampy is England's newest folk hero. Swampy (not his real name) entered the national consciousness in the last week of January when, with four others, he hid out in a series of interconnecting burrows dug deep under the path of a controversial motorway extension. It took the authorities more than a week -- with the assistance of cavers, climbers, tunneling specialists, carpenters, police negotiators, ground radar and remote video cameras -- to shore up the makeshift tunnels, navigate the homemade barricades and find and evict all five. Swampy was the last to come out.

When he finally did surface, the story had been headline news for days and people were curious about the man with the endearingly wacky name. What they saw when they turned on the television news that evening was a slight, smiling, long-haired young man emerging from his underground maze into a horde of shouting, jostling journalists and cameramen. "Swampy, Swampy, why did you do it," shouted the reporters. Swampy smiled beatifically at the crowd and with a Jimmy Stewart shrug said, "If I had written a letter to my MP, would you all be here now? I think not." With that, a star was born.

Swampy, it transpired, was really Daniel Hooper, the son of middle-class parents and, according to his old schoolmaster, a bright student. Looking for clues to his character, the Daily Telegraph dispatched a reporter to interview his mother. Under the headline "Swampy the tunnel master has a soft spot for mother," the staunchly conservative paper revealed that he was not simply a "human mole" and "the doyen of the burrowing road protesters," but "a loving son who telephoned his mother regularly to tell her he was all right." His good manners ("If I burp, I say excuse me. I don't put my elbows on the table," he told one reporter, with just a hint of exasperation) and his laid-back style (when tunnelers finally reached him, he said, "I was lying down reading my book and eating bourbon creams") took the sting out of his rebellious activities. Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times ran an article comparing Swampy and the other roads protesters to Robin Hood and saying that in their struggle against the obliteration of the English countryside, they were acting as "freeborn Englishmen" and keeping alive England's "romantic vision of ourselves as a greenwood people."

The tabloids were not to be left behind in the Swampy sweepstakes. As one tabloid editor put it, "He's great copy. He's called Swampy. He digs in the earth. He doesn't say very much because it's actions not words. He doesn't go out to harm people. His hairstyle is like nothing on earth and he has that slightly bemused but inoffensive look. He could open a supermarket and we'd be there. That would be a big photograph for us. If he had a child it would be Son of Swampy on the front page." The Sunday Mirror offered him a weekly column in which to put forward his views on life. The Daily Express wanted to cut his hair and put him on its front page wearing Armani. A producer asked him to cut a version of that old standard "I am a mole and I live in a hole," with a backup group to be known as the Swamp Girls. He took on the column, which became one of the Mirror's most popular features (all proceeds to the cause), and he tried on the Armani (though he was never again seen in a suit), but he turned down his opportunity for pop stardom.

The word "swampy" began to signify more than a certain type of wetland. Everyone knew what you meant if you said, "Well I'm not super swampy, but I do try to recycle." The actress Emmanuelle Beart was said to be in danger of losing her cosmetics contract with Dior due to her refusal to wear make-up and her tendency to dress in "swampy-style" clothes.

In the months after the end of the tunnel siege, the country continued in the grip of Swampy fever. His move to a protest camp in the path of a proposed second runway for Manchester airport was faithfully reported, as were his various court appearances. The discovery that he had a girlfriend, a fellow protester who shared a treehouse with him at the Manchester runway site, was national news. (The Daily Mail's full-page story, accompanied by photos of the lucky lass, was headlined "Swampy's girl: she's got the scraggly hair and sloppy jumpers that will warm the heart of an eco-warrior.") It was front page news when he announced he was standing for Parliament under the slogan "Dig for Victory," and front page news again the next day when the papers had to acknowledge that they had been taken in by an April Fools joke. Meanwhile he had succeeded in publicizing a 10-point "Don't Fly, Don't Drive" manifesto. If he had run, he might not have done badly: An election poll found that he was twice as well known as the Transport Secretary, Sir George Young. Perhaps it was this fact that drove one of Young's junior ministers to say he'd like to see Swampy "buried in concrete."

What is really noteworthy about the Swampy story is that, thanks to him, direct action protesters are no longer seen as filthy, drug-abusing welfare scroungers and eco-terrorists, but as idealistic young people who have put their lives on hold to defend the endangered English landscape on behalf of the entire nation. Many middle-class, Tory-voting parents seem to see their own youthful idealism, and their children's, reflected in Swampy. He has sparked what the Times calls "the rediscovery of rebelliousness among Britain's bourgeoisie." Volvo wives, the British equivalent of soccer moms, have come out in force to help the Manchester airport protesters, bringing them food, recharging their portable phones, baby-sitting their pets and, in the words of journalist Stephen Farrell, "drawing on years of experience preparing school lunchboxes" to give each protester a sealed "eviction box" packed with food and puzzles for when they are arrested.

Even government ministers are beginning to be swamped. In March, Steven Norris, the Tory transport minister in charge of a controversial road scheme at Newbury (Swampy's hometown), came out in public against the road, saying that he had always felt that the protesters were right to oppose it. The applause Norris received for his courageous public recantation was somewhat diminished by the fact that it came more than a year after he had ordered the protesters evicted and the road-building begun -- and just a few weeks before his planned retirement from Parliament. The new Labor government has promised a more restrained approach to road-building. Swampy will be watching.

By Catherine Caufield

Catherine Caufield's latest book is "Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations" (Henry Holt).

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