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Persons Unknown: Q&A with Simon CrumpSally O'Reilly

Simon Crump
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Simon Crump was born in Loughborough and lived in Sheffield for forty years. He now lives in Hebden Bridge. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and he is the author of My Elvis Blackout and Monkey’s Birthday, Twilight Time and Neverland. His new novel, Mental Hospital Hair will be published later this year by Wrecking Ball Press.



In 2012 Sheffield City Council and the Department of Transport signed a 25-year contract with Amey plc to renew the city’s highways in a programme called ‘Streets Ahead’, at a cost to the taxpayer of £2.2 billion. As part of this contract, some 17,500 trees were due to be felled, most of them healthy. There was an immediate public outcry, and for three years residents took non-violent action to prevent the destruction of their much-loved street trees. A David-and-Goliath struggle ensued, with activists across the city racing to the site of the latest proposed felling and protecting the trees by standing underneath them and refusing to move. Dozens of police officers and private security guards were deployed to support Amey’s employees, and the conflict made national headlines. 

Simon Crump and Calvin Payne were part of the protest, and have now written a book Persons Unknown: The battle for Sheffield’s street trees (Wrecking Ball, 2022) which captures the experiences of more than 50 of these activists – ordinary people doing extraordinary things. (The phrase ‘persons unknown’ references a High Court injunction term, which means anyone not named in an injunction, but instructed by a judge not to do something.) Each chapter of the book focuses on a different street, and the protest that took place there, and consists of verbatim interviews with the Sheffield tree protestors.   

‘Standing under a tree’ became their modus operandi. When the council made it illegal for them to stand within the zones which had been closed off with barriers around a condemned tree, the protestors studied the court documents and found it was not illegal for them to stand close to threatened trees if they were outside the barrier. Dauntless, they then stood against house walls with the council barriers hemming them in.

Tree felling was suspended indefinitely in early 2018 when some of the terms of the contract between Sheffield Council and Amey were made public, revealing that there was an agreement to fell 200 trees a year. This made it possible that a felling licence may have been required, and the Forestry Commission began an assessment of alleged illegal felling. In October 2020, a report by the Local Government Ombudsman ruled the local authority had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a ‘lack of honesty’ during the saga. Writers Rebel’s Sally O’Reilly talks to Simon Crump about how the book came into being.

Sally O’Reilly: How did you first get involved in the tree campaign? Had you been engaged with climate activism before?  

Simon Crump: I’d been on a few marches as a student, mostly anti-nuclear marches, and I’d been involved with the fracking protests at Preston Road, but I wasn’t a climate activist of any kind. I got involved in this because my partner at the time was part of the protest, and she was in the shower, and she called out: “Go and stand under that tree and when I’m out I’ll come and join you”, but by the time she did, I had been arrested!

Before the nonviolent action, there had been lots of sterling work, lots of letters written and lots of meetings. But it didn’t stop the felling, and what worked was people standing under the trees. That was the way to make an impact.  Usually, the protesting was fine: I had no idea I was such a show off. Until one day I was knocked out cold – pushed by a security guy. It was a bit like panto – ‘Look behind you’!


SOR: You collaborated on the book with Calvin Payne and Julie Stribley. How did this work and how did the book come together? Did you conduct interviews for it, and were they group interviews? 

SC: The book was Calvin’s idea. We were protesting at the time. I was a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, and I think I am the only member of staff to have been arrested twice during their sabbatical. Some interviews were carried out during the campaign, when we didn’t know what the outcome would be, and some were done afterwards. Some were one-to-one, and there were some group interviews, either in someone’s house, where of course no alcohol was consumed, or on Zoom. 


SOR: The content of the book is presented in a verbatim style, with the voices of more than 50 protesters. Was this how you planned to write the book from the start? 

SC: We didn’t want to be commentators or have an ‘authorial’ role. I would describe the book as a composite. Both Calvin and I had already written non-fiction, but this was a new departure for both of us.

We stepped back from analysing anything. It’s a piece of recent history, and we wanted to preserve that. I’m interested in The Forgotten Voices series of books and obsessed with World War I: my grandfather fought at the Somme, and I’ve read loads of books about it. The best ones are the ones with old guys just talking about what happened to them in a matter-of-fact way. It’s heart-breaking, and this was in the back of my mind when we were compiling the book.


SOR: Robert Macfarlane wrote a poem, ‘Heartwood’ for the protest, and with a linocut illustration by the campaigner Nick Hayes it became a saleable artefact that raised money to pay legal fees for the protesters. There was also a cellist, the performance poet Benoit, and an art group set up in response to the protest. How important were the arts and storytelling to the campaign? 

SC: There were artistic elements, Benoit, Sheffield Tree Arts, and the poem by Robert Macfarlane. Benoit did situationist type stuff, he would take a situation and escalate it, and he was really brave. When he had to sign a pre-court paper, he insisted on having the Koran as well as the Bible, and signed with a quill pen. I would say that the arts weren’t central to the protests, but they helped us get media coverage. 


SOR: How worried were you? Presumably the stakes were much higher for anyone who was arrested? Was there a risk of losing your job or your home? 

SC: I didn’t even know what an injunction was until this protest. I never heard anyone mention fines, it was legal costs that we were faced with. Calvin was the first person to get a suspended sentence, and he should get full credit for that. He could have gone to prison. When my time came I told the University of Huddersfield that I might get three months and they just asked if I would be out by the autumn. They were very cool about it. The court costs were covered by the Heartwood poem, and by fundraising from cakes sales, plant sales, comedy nights, and folk nights. There were lots of things people could do if they didn’t want to get under trees.

Humour was a good way of coping. No matter what treatment we got, we didn’t get arsey or respond with violence. The humour of the protests is one of the things I am most pleased about – we did it all with such good humour. Sometimes they got personal with us, but we never got personal with them. 


SOR: Did taking part in the protests give you a new perspective on the trees? Did you appreciate them differently?

SC: People’s motivations are very different. But once you have stood under a tree and thought – this is from Victorian times – it has an effect upon you. It did make me see the trees differently. I lived in Nether Edge as a student and it was part of my psycho-geography. Like the Joni Mitchell song, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. And the trees across Sheffield have different histories. The trees in Western Road were war memorials, and in some streets the residents had paid for the trees to be planted themselves.


SOR: Is the battle definitely won? 

SC: Not everyone agrees with us. I met a lot of people who said things like ‘trees belong in the jungle!´ One resident came out, and there was a lovely tree outside his house, and said that if Amey didn’t cut it down, he would cut down the tree in his back garden. It was almost as if he was talking about a hostage situation. People say they don’t like cherry blossom on their tarmac drive, or bird shit on their 4×4, or claim that tree roots are cracking the drains, even though tree roots don’t crack drains.

So you have to keep vigilant and make sure there is a proper consultation process. The council haven’t changed their minds: we have just made it difficult for them. We still haven’t seen what was in the contract, because so much is redacted. One thing I am sure of now is that they won’t come out at 4 am and try and cut the trees down.


SOR: What effect would it have had if the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill had been in force at the time of the protests? Would your campaign have been possible?  

SC: I would like to think that we would still have done it. They would have had to arrest so many of us, it would have made an impact. I like to think that we would have been creative, humorous, and intelligent enough to have still done it and demonstrate how ridiculous and draconian the bill is. 

Some people can’t forgive us for saving those trees. But this is the thing I have done in my life which I am most proud of.


Simon Crump was born in Loughborough and lived in Sheffield for forty years. He now lives in Hebden Bridge. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and he is the author of My Elvis Blackout and Monkey’s Birthday, Twilight Time and Neverland. His new novel, Mental Hospital Hair will be published later this year by Wrecking Ball Press.



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