Swampy goes to ground

News that Swampy has retired from public life after an all too brief spell in the spotlight is a sad commentary on our times.

For here was a celebrity worthy of our admiration. Not for him the meretricious glitz wrought by a Liz Brewer nor the media manipulation of a Mandelson; Swampy found fame for himself, in his own way, doing what he did best, tunnelling below ground while, 30ft above, police, bailiffs, lords lieutenant of the county, and bulldozer drivers gnashed their teeth and waved their arms in furious impotence.

And when at last he surfaced from his home-made subterranean labyrinth beneath the re-routed site of the A30 in Devon, to be frog-marched into the waiting flashgun glare, he emerged not as villain, but hero. Swampy had caught that most fragile of gossamer threads, the public imagination. Of course, his name helped. Had he clambered out of his burrow under the baptismal tag of Daniel Hooper, he might have been considered a smelly wretch. But to be blessed with a monomial is to win acclaim. Swampy was immediately admitted to an exclusive coterie that includes Twiggy, Sting, Cher, Bono, Lulu, and Leonardo.

But he was more than a name. Swampy was the Alexander of eco-warfare, bestriding the protest arena like a colossus. Wherever like-minded people gathered to frustrate the base and destructive ambition of politician and planner, whenever there were subways to be dug and elms to be swung through, the cry went up, “Where’s Swampy?” And it is said that if you put your ear to the ground and listened very carefully, you could hear, far beneath your trembling lobe, the answering cry, “Here”.

Now he is to give it all up. Rumour has it that 24-year-old Swampy has had his dreadlocks lopped and wishes to be known as plain Dan. His father, Peter, says, “He has definitely dropped out of the high-profile business, though he is still working for what he believes in.”

What a loss. To have gained celebrity only to forfeit it twelve brief months later is such a waste. Just think what lay before him. All those appearances, grinning, winking, and mugging at the camera on Call My Bluff, Through the Keyhole, What’s My Line? Blankety Blank, Ready Steady Cook, and Going for a Song. All those opportunities to squirm alongside interrogating blondes on the breakfast sofas of television. Those riveting no-holds-barred confrontations with Paxman. Those guest slots on Blue Peter.

There’s no doubt that Swampy had what it takes to get right to the top, to that dizzy pinnacle where you are invited to write your own cookbook, host your own chat show, switch on the Christmas Illuminations in Regent Street, and press the Lottery button. It was all there in the palm of his hand: the invitations to meet Cherie and Tony at Number Ten; the requests to patronise charities; the civic centre and scout huts to be renamed in his honour. There would have been something inevitable in his eventually standing alongside Jimmy Saville, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, and Bob Geldof – arise, Sir Swampy. And then, the ultimate recognition: “It’s midnight, we are 20ft below the planned site of the fifth Heathrow Terminal. Way ahead of us in this muddy, dimly-lit cavern, is someone we are soon going to meet. He is squatting in a damp corner eating a cheese sandwich. He thinks we’re here to sharpen his shovel. Yes, Swampy Hooper, eco-warrior, public benefactor, writer, wit, and broadcaster, This is Your Life.”

On the other hand, perhaps Swampy knows exactly what he’s doing. He is not retiring from public life to spend more time with his family, for, as far as we know, he has no family other than his Mum and Dad. And who wants to spend more time with them?

One day, however, perhaps not so very far off, there might be a Mrs Swampy, or, more likely, a Partner Swampy. And then celebrity can exact a bitter price. One has only to look at the plight of Geoffrey Boycott to see the awful snares and traps that fame can spring. It’s useless for him to call a press conference and, with telling plausibility, explain that, while at a hotel in the South of France, his partner expressed a desire to marry him and that, faced with such stark evidence of insanity on her part, his mind went a perplexed blank from which she emerged bruised. No one believes him. The damage is done. His radio and TV contracts are suspended.

At times like that it is better never to have tasted the fruit of fame nor succumbed to the seductive call of Richard and Judy, Esther Rantzen, and the billowing Feltz woman. Who, faced with the certainty that they put you up the better to knock you down, can blame Swampy for choosing a life mute and inglorious? Sadly, we shall not look upon his like again. And more’s the pity.

He did it his way, and if only others had followed his example. Would not the world be a better place had Edwina Currie, Robin Cook, Liam Gallagher, Ian Wright, Noel Edmonds, Ruby Wax, and the cast of Men Behaving Badly, to mention just a few, chosen to seek fame buried out of sight for ever and ever, amen.

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