Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
TRENTON OLDFIELD (# 23)
Born in Sydney, Australia
Father & Mother both born in Australia
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Unknown (Australia)
One of three sons, Trenton was born into a professional family in the affluent and conservative northern suburbs of Sydney: his mother was a teacher and his father, a civil engineer. With their base in Sydney, the family also accompanied Father when his various work projects took him abroad - they lived in Papua New Guinea, in Switzerland, and in a number of other places. It was a happy, if somewhat unsettled childhood, filled with all the excitement and the upheavals associated with living in different countries and adapting to different cultures. Trenton went to a local primary school in Sydney.
“After that, for a while, I attended a private boarding school which I felt was a ridiculous place - an attempt at emulating in late 20th century Australia a particularly distasteful facet of nineteenth-century British life, complete with anachronistic values, uniforms and rules. I did not fit in and, of course, had no wish to fit in. I felt the outsider in every sense: the environment was stifling, I found people’s attitudes revolting, especially their racism and sexism, and everything seemed to be imbued with an all-embracing, mean-spirited conservatism, shot through with small-minded grievances and vindictiveness.”
“From my early childhood,” says Trenton, “I felt that we were all living in another people’s country, the country of the Aborigines, the First Nations of pre-European occupation. This feeling was not shared by my own parents, nor indeed by most Australians at that time. I felt that this kind of entrenched, universal denial had engendered something which is quite peculiar in Australians.” Trenton felt that almost everyone’s wealth had been built upon the exploitation of natural resources that didn’t belong to them - even some of his own family’s modest wealth had been derived from forestry. He felt strongly that their prosperity, and that of most others too, was rooted in the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s lives and property. “In Sydney, I frequently had the feeling that when I was walking along the streets, I was actually walking on other people’s land.”
Trenton deliberately decided to flee from the Sydney he perceived as “stifling and mainstream” and went to study Social Sciences, specialising in Urbanism, at the University of Newcastle, a town that was a two-hour drive north-east of Sydney. “It took me six years to finish my degree because I combined my studies with periods of environmental and political voluntary work, including anti-racist campaigns, mostly related to the Aborigines.”
Trenton took the view that the core of Australian racism rested on imported theories of so-called ‘social Darwinism’ which the Europeans had exported around the world as a convenient justification for the exploitation of the indigenous peoples living in their colonies, even for undertaking genocide. The theory assumed that conflict between social groups leads to society’s progress, as ‘superior’ groups outstrip ‘inferior’ ones. Trenton was 24 when he finally graduated and while he worked for a time at the University of Sydney, he found the Australian political climate quite oppressive and disturbing. In March 2001, feeling that the time was ripe for a radical change in his life, he decided to leave Sydney and his Australian homeland and to come to London.
“Within 3 hours of my arrival, I was head-over-heals in love with London. I fell in love with practically everything. I could never have imagined that such a range of different polarities could survive in such close proximity, all coexisting in this amazing city. For example: being physically able to walk within just a few minutes from the Bank of England, and everything it represents, to the headquarters of Amnesty International, where once such an utterly different mindset prevailed, was very inspiring to someone like me. The spectrum of ideas, possibilities and cultural influences was simply overwhelming.” Perhaps for the first time in his life, Trenton saw that nonconformity prevailed and he saw this as one of the capital’s essential and most admirable qualities. “I grew intellectually very quickly as the result of being here,” he says.
Trenton’s first London job was with the Natural History Museum but he moved quite quickly to a rather more fulfilling post as a Community Development Worker, and later, as a Senior Project Manager in a not-for-profit Urban Regeneration organisation in North Kensington. Trenton’s second post as a Senior Project Manager was in the most impoverished of the London boroughs, Tower Hamlets, in an organisation called Cityside Regeneration. By that time, Trenton had begun to recognise that there were truly disturbing forces at play in those organisations involved with the task of urban regeneration. Poverty and the causes of poverty were tackled only in a peripheral way, while the ‘gentrification’ of deprived areas was prioritised, even though this was often achieved at the cost of relocating the poor residents somewhere else and building gated communities for the nouveau riche. At the same time, Trenton also undertook a considerable amount of voluntary work: through the Red Cross, he worked to help asylum seekers, but he also sat on the boards of a number of other not-for-profit organisations. “This was the time when I began to realise that there were significant corrupting forces at play within these Redevelopment Agencies, forces I had earlier failed to notice simply because of my initial naivety; this was a realisation that I found deeply troubling.” This unwelcome awareness motivated Trenton to move on and, in 2004, he joined another not-for-profit organisation, this time the Thames Strategy - Kew to Chelsea. This body had oversight of the Thames from Kew to Chelsea, and was tasked with bringing together a number of diverse, sometimes competing interests (the Port of London Authority, English Heritage, the relevant London Boroughs, and other environmental agencies) in order to develop a more holistic approach to the rehabilitation of the river and contiguous areas. The coordination of the ideas, approach and work of such diverse groups, interests and individuals, many with entrenched influence and power, was a challenging commission indeed.
At the same time, Trenton met Deepa Naik, his wife to be, and together, in 2007, they set up an organisation called, This is Not a Gateway, with the aim of creating platforms for critical projects and ideas related to cities. The organisation is sometimes described as, ‘The street meets the community centre, meets the academy’. They hold annual conferences, publish books, articles and essays, and curate related photographic and art exhibitions. It is a small-scale organisation with deliberately low overheads, offering a platform to the most extraordinary range of organisations, professionals, academics and interested individuals, all of whom are involved in developing new ideas and strategies relating to the major conurbations of the world.
Then, on 7th April 2012, Trenton gave effect to his decision to disrupt the 158th Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race and suddenly his name was on everyone’s lips, tweets and blogs. Having spoken for years in different forums against growing inequality, the corruption of politics, and the elitism which permeates every aspect of our lives, Trenton was inflamed by three more or less concurrent events: during one week, the Queen gave Royal Assent to the Health and Social Care Act 2012, effectively ‘privatising’ the NHS; the Data and Communications Bill was introduced which, if passed into law, would have legalised the surveillance of all UK citizens’ digital and telephone data; and, a Government Minister, Hugh Robertson, urged members of the public to report to the authorities any of their neighbours whom they suspected of planning to disrupt the Olympics. “That was kind of the final straw,” says Trenton, “and the next day I went out and bought the wetsuit.”
Swimming into the path of the competing boats, Trenton succeeded in temporarily disrupting the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race but he had always conceived his protest as entirely non-violent and peaceful; while it was his admitted intention to interrupt the race and to cause delay, thus bringing attention to his cause, he could not have imagined what the consequences of his protest might be or what serious repercussions there would be for his personal life and the life of his family (by this time, he was married to Deepa who was away at the time, teaching). The race was re-started after 40 minutes’ delay, Trenton was fished out of the water and arrested, and in a public statement (also promulgated online) he explained that his action was a protest, aimed at highlighting elitism and the deep inequality which is so damaging to the fabric of the society we live in. “My reason for selecting this particular sporting event,” said Trenton, “was precisely because it epitomises the very essence of elitism in action and also because of its symbolism: it is archaic; it is an attempt at false tradition; and it reminds us that over 70% of the current Cabinet, who are creating such inequality, went to Oxbridge colleges. The truly national rowing event, the ‘River Race’, with 400+ boats competing, takes place three weeks before the Oxbridge Boat Race, but it is an event relegated to obscurity and hardly mentioned on our television screens.”
In line with his peaceful protest, Trenton was initially charged with, and was willing to plead guilty to, an offence under the Public Order Act (1986) which is punishable by a fine. However, following the intervention of Michael Ellis, a Conservative MP, who challenged Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, about this charge during a meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the charge was transmuted: Trenton was now faced with the charge of ‘public nuisance’, a nebulous and rarely used piece of law dating back to the 12th century but, despite its arcane origins, this was an offence which carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In the event, despite the jury’s recommendation for leniency, and the Probation Officer’s recommendation for community service, the judge sentenced Trenton to six months’ imprisonment, two months of which he served in the High Security Wing of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs - his experience of prison life is exquisitely documented in his book, The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield: A Prison Diary. He was then tagged for a further two months.
“I have studied and observed the British establishment and I was well aware of what its members were capable of inflicting upon their opponents, and how vindictive their retaliation could sometimes be, but never did I imagine that what was essentially a peaceful protest could have had such devastating repercussions. When it would have been more usual to hand down no more than a suspended sentence or a short period of community service, my six-month prison sentence was seen as draconian, even in the conservative press.” Of course, a great many people, including some major political commentators, spoke and wrote extensively about what they described as the state’s overreaction to a relatively minor event. On the other hand, there was vitriol from many other quarters, including some particularly nasty, anonymous online blogging. The fact that the ‘Oxbridge Boat Race protester’ was an Aussie appeared to add the fuel of jingoism to the flames of intolerance.
What was to happen next was even more extraordinary. Having completed his sentence, Trenton found that his application for a ‘spousal visa’ (Trenton’s wife, Deepa, is a British citizen) was refused. The Home Office decided that Trenton’s presence in Britain would not be “conducive to the public good” and, despite his many years of positive contribution to this country, that he should be deported, despite the fact that by then, he and his wife had a new baby daughter. The Home Office letter further stated that Trenton was perceived as “undesirable, has unacceptable associations, and could be considered a threat to national security.” Currently, there is an appeal under way which aims to persuade the Home Office that their action is disproportionate and in direct breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing the right to family life. After 12 years, London is now Trenton’s home, the home he shares with his wife, who is a British Citizen, and with their baby daughter; they have no wish to live in Australia nor want to raise their child anywhere other than London.
Trenton comments: “If you are a foreigner living in Britain, you are expected to be some sort of ‘half citizen’, and we know that this is an impossibility. Even when a person is naturalised, it is not reasonable to expect of him or her to have total and absolute allegiance to everything beloved of the British Establishment.”
On being asked what he achieved by his protest, Trenton says: “Well, my thesis has been proven - that elitism leads to tyranny. What has happened to me is a clear indication that the state is aiming to criminalise protest, any protest, a process which undermines all British people’s human rights.” On 29th September 2012, Trenton made the following statement before Isleworth Crown Court, in London, after being found guilty of committing the crime of ‘Public Nuisance’: “As inequalities increase in Britain and across much of the world, so does the criminalisation of protest; my solidarity is with everyone everywhere working towards a more equitable society.” For voicing such apparently ‘heretical’ views in a country which lectures the world about democracy and the promotion of human rights, Trenton Oldfield has not only been pronounced a convict but is also now labelled as a potential threat to national security - a real outsider.
Britain has long flattered itself as ‘the land of free’ (you’re certainly free to leave if you don’t like it) where you are free to speak out and to protest peacefully against real or perceived injustice. Over the last two decades, these historic freedoms have been systematically eroded. Post-9/11 and in the context of the concomitant ‘War on Terror’, draconian anti-terrorism legislation has been increasingly misused so as to arrest, intimidate and vilify many innocent people; the criminalisation of protest is now tolerated and has almost become respectable. There are now determined and powerful forces preparing us for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, a convention which Britain itself was instrumental in drafting in the first place. It might almost seem that our rulers have a longing for absolute power, the power to do whatsoever they wish, all under the cloak of a still much vaunted democracy. Britain would appear to be gradually losing sight of the importance, in a democracy, of social and political protest, and how it can serve as a vital bellwether, indicating what the people are feeling, especially at times or in circumstances when more formal channels have become compromised.
Interview Date: 16th August 2013
Updated: 29th August 2013
Trenton Oldfield’s book, The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield: A Prison Diary, was published in 2013 by the Myrdle Court Press.
To learn more about, This is Not a Gateway, established by Trenton Oldfield and Deepa Naik, follow this link:
Update (Christmas Eve 2013)
On 9th December 2013, Trenton Oldfield won his appeal against the decision of the Home Office to deport him from the UK. In his subsequent written judgement, Judge Kevin Moore concluded: “I am not satisfied that there is a public interest or that it is conducive to the public good in refusing [Oldfield’s] appeal and in removing him from the United Kingdom.“ In an interview for The Guardian, Trenton said that he and his family could now “get on with our work and our lives. My daughter’s entire life has been lived in the shadow of this.“
Trenton Oldfield disrupted the 2012 Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race for 40 minutes, wanting his non-violent, peaceful protest to highlight elitism and the social damage caused by increasing inequality. For this, Trenton was imprisoned for six months and his ‘spousal visa’ was refused. To the Home Office, he was “undesirable, has unacceptable associations, and could be considered a threat to national security”; he was not “conducive to the public good.” Despite years of service to London’s communities, and the fact that his British wife had recently borne their first child, Trenton was to be deported. His sole conclusion from this: “My thesis has been proven - elitism leads to tyranny. My case demonstrates the state’s intention to criminalise … any protest, thus undermining the human rights of all British people.”
Photography: London 16th August 2013