Guardian Unlimited
6th March 2006

Original article at:,,1724152,00.html

The Essex Poplar front

By day, he commutes to work as an engineer. By night, he returns to his treehouse. Kirsten Downer on an unlikely eco-warrior

Monday March 6, 2006
The Guardian

Six am: an alarm clock goes off and Shaun Qureshi leans out of bed to silence it. Within half an hour, the Essex engineer will be washed, dressed and on his way to work. So far, so normal. Except that he commutes to work from a 15-foot treehouse, which sways in high winds and is accessible only by rope ladder.

Qureshi has been living a double life since last September, when he first occupied his poplar tree. By day, the 34-year-old dons smart-casual work clothes, ties his hair back and gets on with being a diligent employee. By night and at weekends, he transmutes into a protest eco-warrior - unkempt, muddy, impassioned.

"Camp Bling", the Southend road protest camp he helped set up and named after the Saxon "King of Bling" grave site it seeks to protect, has mushroomed in the past five months. A colourful cluster of treehouses, raised wooden structures and a visitors' centre now occupy the triangular acre of land squashed between a railway line and a busy main road. In the centre, a fenced-off circular area denotes the grave site where, in 2004, archaeologists uncovered a treasure trove of Saxon artefacts untouched for over a thousand years. The camp accommodates between 10 and 20 full- and part-time adult residents, children, dogs and a fluctuating band of visitors.

Instead of unwinding in front of the television after work, Qureshi comes home and rolls up his sleeves, helping construct one of the temporary wooden homes for newcomers or discussing the latest campaign strategy.

But he says he doesn't miss his old life, despite the fact winter temperatures have plummeted below freezing. "This is home now," he says. "My old flat is just a dropping-off point. OK, so I have to wash in cold water but what a trade-off - I'm living with 20 really good friends, knowing I'm contributing to something meaningful. And there's an energy running through this place - I'm sure it's not just the beer!"

Qureshi describes a team spirit most office managers would kill for. The chores - cleaning, cooking, fetching water and wood - don't feel like chores because they're part of something bigger. And the enforced self-reliance has been empowering, he says. "We thought we'd only last a week. But you quickly get used to life without central heating. We're all much more mentally and physically adaptable than we think."

Don't the hardships affect his concentration at work? "Sometimes I might be a bit achy if I've been doing some heavy physical work, but on the whole I have it easy because a lot of the jobs are done by the time I'm home. At times I've had to step back and ensure that I don't go too far. It would be easy not to sleep or eat enough. I want to do both - my job and this camp - but that means I have to have boundaries."

Perhaps eco-protestors don't live so differently from the rest of us. Not only does Qureshi come home to dinner most nights, his treehouse is cosy and carpeted. It makes a snug retreat after a stressful day, when he pulls up the trapdoor, cracks open a beer and switches on the radio.

And even keeping warm at night isn't rocket-science, he says. "Haven't you ever slept in a hat?"

He and the other camp members are desperate to foil Southend council's £20.5m road widening scheme, recently attacked in the Commons as "the most expensive road scheme ever devised".

"It's insane - destroying 111 trees and the most important grave site since Sutton Hoo in order to save at best a very questionable three minutes' journey time. This is public land, but the majority of Southend people are against the road and have been ignored repeatedly. That's why I decided to take direct action," he explains.

Some might brand him a hypocrite for still working within the system - especially as he worked for car manufacturer Ford until late last year. How can a road protestor justify helping produce more cars? Qureshi has no time for ivory-tower idealism. "Is change about being perfect or about making an impact? It's not about a few people giving up their jobs, flats, lives. It's about everyone taking small steps."

He sees himself as a kind of double agent, outwardly playing along with the system but influencing it from within. "It does feel a bit like being undercover, when I'm on the train with all the pinstriped executives reading the Sun. But I think people are more likely to listen to your arguments if they can see you're like them, not preaching from some mud hut in the wilderness."

Unlike some environmental campaigners, Qureshi doesn't equate "corporate" with "evil". "I left school at 15 with no specific aspirations. I'm grateful to Ford - that company has done as much for me as anything. They gave me an education and skills like professionalism, logic and discipline."

He now brings those skills to the road protest. "Campaigning is about being passionate and emotive. This is how it should be, but campaigning can become compromised if you're overwhelmed by emotive reasoning. Thanks to my engineering training I can be more objective."

That combination of skills has also helped Qureshi pull off a dramatic career change. On handing in his notice at Ford, he started working for Greenpeace, line managing volunteers from across the south of England.

His expectations have changed, too. "When we started, we were nervous that we'd be arrested, that it wouldn't work. Everybody's so scared of crossing that line - but each time you do, you find it's just a line in your own head."

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