Richard Downes – The Tree and the Apartment Block

4 minute read

Last year I became involved in a long campaign to save Victorian Villas from demolition and replacement by apartment blocks. I felt networking was important. I soon became aware of a plethora of local issues.

Hornsey Town Hall was to be converted into a boutique hotel and new tower blocks, the Town Hall Square would become a plaza surrounded by coffee shops and the tree planted on the square by a local Amnesty group in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be removed.

As a disabled activist who had been fought for civil rights the removal of the tree, with its precious connection to history, rights and local people seemed particularly alarming to me especially as I had been one of the few campaigners for the villas concerned about conserving local trees. I started to think about these links and started creating poems based on standing around the tree, photographing it and considering the issue of human rights.

Through networking I was invited to become Poet in residence on the Hornsey Town Hall Facebook Group. I am still in this position, still contributing regular poems based on the same idea. I had already been contributing poems to Disability Arts Online based on my experience of activism and advocacy within the Disability Movement. It’s what I know best. Moving over to a conservation issue felt like a challenge to me. The audience would change. I was not sure if I could meet my brief. But as I say I’m still there, still producing, still photographing the tree and its surroundings.

Our first loss was the Villas. Trees will be removed from the street to accommodate redevelopment. This in spite of more than 850 signatures on our petition and the support of important heritage groups; The Victorian Society, The Highgate Society and The Crouch End Neighbourhood Forum.

The poem seen here was developed in this atmosphere of loss. Declaration 5 The Tree And the Apartment Block AKA Cruelty and What It Gets is based on article 5 which avers that; ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. It felt apposite, fitting for both the tree and the residents directly affected by the loss of the Villas. With this in mind I wrote the poem as a duet which should be read ideally by a man and a woman though this last idea need not always stand. I guess my own relationship also directed the structure.

In some ways it feels strange to humanise the feelings of a tree. As much as I love trees I do not think they should be included in any bill of civil rights. Neither do I think they should be granted the same conscious, sentient status as humans. But I do recognise a strong emotional tie to trees within me, a desire to promote better protection from redevelopments, not just in conservation areas like those that this poem comes from. Further I think we need to learn how to appreciate them more, learn to stop sticking tacks in them with posters saying please help find my lost cat. I think we need to appreciate that trees are important, have feelings, give out powerful vibrations and make powerful contributions to our lives.

All campaigns alluded to here are now lost but I am carrying on hoping to prove through poetry that people can learn, change and make good bad decisions. Indeed perhaps that process has already started with all local councillors standing down before the last election in the certain knowledge that local activists would ensure a change of local representation. Conservation became important because we made it important. For myself Disability Arts Online encouraged me to start performing and recently made me both their blogger of the year 2017 and an associate artist. I have started labelling myself as a slowly emerging socially engaged activist poet and am looking forward to reading Declaration 5 soon. Maybe at a supporter group like the Highgate Society.

Trees grow, hopefully even following removal. I will grow too.

Find David here:

The Tree and the Apartment Block 
A.K.A. Cruelty and What It Gets

As explained above, the following poem written by Richard is designed to be read as a duet, each person taking alternate lines, but it works nicely without two, too. 



I live here

We live here

In this square

One storey Up

Embedded in the earth

Floating in concrete

Deep Communal Roots

In love with her

30 years

30 years and more

I live well

It’s been good

I feel strong

We have loved

I dig in

We sleep, we dream

For today they come

For tomorrow they threaten

To chop into my space

To demolish and destroy

To cut into the soil

3 Victorian Villas

Hack away with shovels

Drive in the heavy metal

Today they hurt
 Today our lives are broken

Grab and grasp and grapple

Bulldoze beloved buildings

Tie me up with ropes

Swing the wrecking ball

And pull and yank and tear

Raising dirt and dust and debris

At my lodgings
 Next to where we live

Tearing apart my tendrils

The noise that we are hearing

Scattering my children

The darkness we are facing

Away from the true branch

The light we are forsaking

They lift me away

We need to get away

Into the air without water

To leave our friends and neighbours

Hooded by tarpaulin

Our heads pushed into sand

A rope around my girth

The ties we have to break

Waiting for release

Await a brand new day

Cleaved into a new hole

Another place to live

A new place
 A new town full of strangers

A ghetto of their choosing

A new place full of dangers

And yet I find

And yet we find

I find within

We find within

The will to sustain

Our lives carry on

And carry on

And carry on and on

And wish for those tendrils

And wish for those we knew

Left behind to grow

To always know us well

And burst and rupture through

And find a voice that grows

Concrete covering my former home

To speak up for their homes