Although we would prefer our articles to reflect the many ways the water helps us, physically and emotionally, we must also acknowledge that we swim through the scene of a crime.
The Red Rebel’s visually striking protest in the Thames at Port Meadow in May focused attention on this crime.
Crime – do we exaggerate?
At last (for the moment) the newspapers are full of news about the business of our water companies – although not as full of this news as the rivers and seas are full of sewage after moderate to heavy rainfall. From these papers, we discover that: as we obediently put away our hosepipes this summer, the water companies allow 3 billion litres of treated water to leak out of their ageing pipes every day.
We’re told it would take £20 billion to repair the leaks in the water systems, a figure presented to sound shockingly impossible – but consider that water companies have handed £72 billion in dividends to their shareholders since they were privatised.
Between the leaks and the pollution caused by the creaking unattended infrastructure, you have to wonder what the criteria are for water company executives to earn the bonuses they give themselves every year – Liv Garfield of Severn Water took home £3.9 million last year. Is there no one regulating this? Not really. It looks a lot like the fines imposed on the companies by the Environment Agency are tucked onto the water companies’ spreadsheets as a cost of doing business – so, effectively, paid for by the customer. And the Environment Agency, increasingly deprived of funds by the government, is ever more powerless – they have called for water company bosses to be jailed, which sounds fair, but it’s unlikely to happen. Last year, an amendment to the Environment Bill would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers but it was voted down by 265 Tory MPs so it appears there is little support for regulation from government.
There’s more, so much more, but suffice to say that this level of corruption must class as a crime, so the very calm protest of Red Rebel Brigade is admirable.
The Red Rebel Brigade describe themselves on their website:
'We are an international performance artivist troupe dedicated to illuminating the global environmental crisis and supporting groups and organisations fighting to save humanity and all species from mass extinction.'
Three of the Rebels have written for us about their experience of protesting the environmental crisis in our rivers. We have channelled those three voices to flow as one recount, a single body of text – just as they protest as one body. After their poetic group monologue, we acknowledge some of the activists we are aware of who are campaigning to save our rivers and seas.
We move peacefully through volatile situations, between rebels and the police, and our presence in difficult situations always has calming and de-escalating effect. Red Rebels move slowly, silently, as one.
We ask people to see the familiar differently, to see into the heart of things, to remember that we are part of this world – not separate from it – and any harm we do, it is to ourselves.
One day, the image of Reds floating in the water surfaced in my mind; to silently give voice to the gratitude for what the river gives, and express grief for what humanity takes – for what our system destroys by sacrificing all that is beautiful in our world at the altar of money.
Our presence in Oxford in May 2022 was to bear witness to the state of our rivers.
We dress and put on our makeup in the Natural History Museum, where great voices have discussed scientific discoveries for centuries. We move slowly around the ranks of skeletons and mourn before the case of the Dodo... past the Moa, under the dinosaurs and round the jawbone of a whale out into Oxford, through the streets and down to Port Meadow.
At the river, we separate. In single file, five of us cross the narrow iron bridge to Fiddler’s Island. Our fellow rebels walk in parallel to us, on the other side of the river – Father Thames, Mother Isis – while we walk to our raft, which carries the coffin of Life on Earth. Our beautiful faery figurehead climbs aboard the raft and sets sail, while we bear witness to the beauty all around us – the water, the land, the sky, the birds and the beasts – a beauty that humanity is destroying.
The river calls to me, reminding me that I am supposed to lead us into the water. I walk slowly forward, following the raft, knowing that the others will follow, knowing that Red Rebels are one: we move together or not at all. The water reaches up to me, cooling my feet and calves. We stand motionless witnessing this moment, we are Red Rebels of common blood; we are here to witness.
The river welcomes me, inching itself up my over-heated body to drive the heat out from under my wetsuit. Then water-crowsfoot reaches out to grab me – I must not fall – I must not break the stillness of the Red Rebel mystic. But I am calm – this is just the river’s way of reminding me that we do this on her terms or not at all. I slow, and the weeds part before my feet, allowing me deeper into the river. Almost at chest height now, I want to let myself go but I am tense.
I surrender. Although I cannot see them, I know others are with me and their presence gives me courage. The water creeps up my spine and suddenly I am floating.
Faces to the sky, heads downstream, the cool water takes our weight.
I can only see sky. And it is so beautiful. I surrender and lie suspended, I could float like this forever. Ophelia comes to mind, but my mind is not her mind. I am not drowning. I am floating for the life of this river.
Our strong and gentle swimming companions guide us and keep us safe. Knowing this makes it easy for me to merge with the landscape, my ears underwater listening to the river, my eyes full of red kites soaring and swallows arcing through the blue, clouds drifting like my thoughts.
Is my head upstream or downstream? These minutes are magic. There is nothing but me and the river and the sky. But I know there are other Red Rebels doing the same and, though we are separate, we are one, with one purpose.
My beautiful costume is getting wetter and heavier – my body seems to sag in the water and my feet sink down. I use my hands to steer, but have no idea where I am going or where I am supposed to be going. I hear voices giving instructions. To me? I am a Red Rebel and I remain silent.
I am lost! I don’t know where I am or even, really, who I am – and then comes a voice from above the water. I lift my head to hear her words: I need to bring you in to the bank. You may feel dizzy, so be careful. I can’t see her. It feels as if the river is talking to me.
I drop my feet and am facing the shore. The red-sailed ferry has arrived and the rebel who was sailing on it is on the shore. Slowly, I emerge from the water and join her. We stand together our arms held high, holding hands. I feel strong and proud.
At last, our journey done, we walk slowly away from the river that embraced us.
We are passing through. The rivers are forever.
The Red Rebels add themselves to a growing number of people who campaign in a variety of ways for a change to how our rivers are treated. These combined efforts are starting to see some effect so there is hope for change – but it is generated from considerable effort, locally and nationally. We’d like to acknowledge some of these campaigners.
Surfers Against Sewage
Yes, their focus is the sea but it’s worth considering that this group set themselves up in 1990 – this is not a new issue. They’re now a charity with full-time staff and, at least for water-lovers, they’re a household name. It’s their maps we turn to in order to see where sewage outflows tip into the sea so we can identify safe spots to swim or surf. Massive gratitude is owed to them for the information they share with us all and their tireless campaigning. We hope they can find the time and clean waters to enjoy their first passion; surfing.
Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP)
WASP was set up in 2018 by Ashley Smith and Peter Hammond who seem to have given every waking hour of their retirements to investigations that were deemed impossible by the official organisations tasked to monitor river quality and sewage releases. They have pushed hard for their findings to reach the government and the public. Although WASP’s focus is on the river Windrush and sister rivers, their work has been transformative to the discourse about river health. Huge thanks to them for their work and their time.
Campaigns for Bathing water status
In Oxford, we are grateful to Clare Roberston who championed the campaign to get bathing water status for Wolvercote Mill Stream in Port Meadow, succeeding in April 2022. This is only the second stretch of river in the country to achieve this status, after a site on the River Wharf in Ilkley in 2021. Having bathing water status doesn’t mean that the water is always clean but it does mean the water must be tested regularly and its status (excellent, good, sufficient or poor), based on levels of bacteria, made public during the summer months.
Although based near us in Oxford, George Monbiot is a national figure. An environmental activist, he writes for The Guardian newspaper, ensuring that often ignored (and often uncomfortable) issues are alive in public debate. It is George Monbiot who coined the term ‘Rivercide’. His documentary of this title, made in July 2021, was the first ever live documentary. In it he interviews Ashley Smith of WASP (above) Angela Jones (below). His messages are often very hard to hear, and he has to tolerate a lot of abuse in response. There are easier ways to live and we’re grateful for his important work.
Angela Jones AKA ‘The Wye Mermaid’
Angela swam with the Red Rebels at the Rivercide Protest in May. She has recently had made a raft in the shape of a box of eggs which she swims with to draw attention to the industrial poultry farming along the Wye. The run-off from these farms into the Wye has led to dangerously high levels of phosphate in the river, causing algal blooms which reduce oxygen levels, destroy wildlife and biodiversity.
Formerly the lead singer of the Undertones, Feargal Sharkey now makes more noise about the state of our rivers and seas – he comes to the issue as a keen angler. His public profile and high-energy media presence has helped to put and keep some unpleasant truths into the headlines of mainstream media – essential for forcing politicians to address the issues. He’d probably rather be fishing in peace than rallying support for this cause. Thanks, Feargal.
Eynsham Nature Recovery Network
If you swim with SwimOxford you will have started in or swum through Eynsham. The Nature Recovery Network connects local people and groups working from ‘the bottom up’ to support nature – land and water.
Compiled by Fiona Undrill