OCCUPYING THE MORAL HIGH GROUND
Sunday 12 May 1996
Oxford academic was calling the shots. Andy Beckett saw George Monbiot in action
THE REBUILDING of Britain began rather slowly in Wandsworth last Sunday: with a small tent. In fact, the first structure erected by the land rights campaigners was barely a tent at all, but a single sheet of canvas, angled like an awning over a couple of poles, making a tiny orange diamond on the south bank of the Thames. Once it was up, perhaps 20 minutes after the campaigners had run from their coaches and on to their promised land (13 Guinness-owned acres of demolished distillery, occupied without consent to embarrass its owners and to demonstrate a new kind of naturally sustainable, dereliction-transforming village), the tent acquired two large speakers. Connections were made, tapes were chosen, and thumping repetitions of the sort made illicit by the Criminal Justice Act began to drift out over the site. But that seemed to be it. Five students from Oxford Green Action sat nibbling sandwiches in the sun, feeling "very tired"; a dreadlocked man called Twig walked up and down the riverbank, blowing a conch shell; inland, 300 people of varying age and dress shuffled around like soldiers waiting for something to happen.
This was not really what George Monbiot had in mind. He had planned this occupation for six months, led a prototype operation in Surrey last year, and made many stirring speeches at campaign meetings. ("It's time to rebuild the world to suit ourselves!") This morning he had been working since dawn, coordinating by mobile phone, sweet-talking the police, shuttling between over-full coaches at the meeting point, smiling and repeating the aims of The Land Is Ours, the organisation that he fronts, to Sky News and the rest: "Derelict sites actually reduce people's sense of community... We want to make one an asset. We've got the energy. We've got the enthusiasm..." Shirt-sleeves rolled up, clean chinos already creasing, eyes boyishly afire, Monbiot raised his eager Oxford graduate's voice in all the right places. "Media star," muttered a sunburnt protest veteran off-camera, waiting for the off. But Monbiot did not hear: "The government's failed us, the business community's failed us. This is DIY Britain at work..."
By lunchtime, however, DIY Britain seemed to be still looking for its tools. The hired trucks and travellers' vehicles were drawn up in a tentative cluster, with a few bundles of wood unloaded; all around, the vast, rubbled site stretched away, thin hard soil apparently defying anyone to dig even a flowerbed. Over by the gates, for want of much else to report, the journalists had met an angry local resident. "If everyone round here broke into places we'd all get nicked," said the man, muscular and reddening. "You won't get away with it. I guarantee it." Then someone called for a meeting. From all corners of the site, people wandered over and formed a rough circle. "I need a poo!" a small boy squealed at his mother.
"Can you wait a minute?" she said (nobody had started on building the organic latrines).
"No," he said. She held him nervously.
Monbiot stepped into the circle to speak. Standing very still, looking like a keen young professor in his glasses and Hush Puppies, he said, "As soon as we got here, I phoned the local police and told them what was going on." His voice was surprisingly loud; everyone listened. "They said, 'You're going to build gardens? That sounds interesting.'" Laughs and cheers ran round the circle. "I have met the police, and they have agreed that this is a civil, not a criminal matter." Another cheer began, not stopping this time. "The land is ours!" shouted Monbiot; but you could hardly hear him.
From this point, the day changed. Half a dozen other people - a furniture- maker, a moonlighting engineer, a permaculture expert - stepped forward to give prepared briefings, announce workshops, set and divide tasks. Suddenly the journalists were the only people standing around. Eager hands dragged pallets of pre-cut wood, boxes of avocados, and bags of soya protein from the trucks; spades scraped up stones for a cooking pit; rakes cleared space for gardens. A reception marquee was pulled up, then showers (a watering-can, a rope, a plastic sheet), then a kitchen tent, then latrines. Banners were hung, leafleters despatched to the council flats across the road. (They came back with donated chairs and two crop-haired converts.)
In one afternoon Monbiot's ideal village spread from a thin spine to an apprentice metropolis. By 5pm, there was even a brick pathway marked out to the latrines. Monbiot himself walked back and forth, reaching constantly to the clever leather pouch at his hip for his phone or notebooks, accepting occasional hugs from middle-aged women in adventurous Indian fabrics. The dozen volunteers he had trained beforehand to guide the press ("Make sure the journalists see what we want them to see... Steer them away from the guy who's just dropped a tab of acid") could do the explaining now. The earlier desolation of the site made the village look miraculous. Channel 4 had decided to give it a daily slot.
Monbiot is growing used to success with the press. "For the second year running George has kicked off the summer protest season with a wicked idea," says Camilla Berens, editor of Pod, a direct action journal. In January, Radio Five were so impressed by his row with the local pro-bypass MP at Newbury that they broadcast it in snippets for an entire day. Christopher Hall, editor of The Countryman, attended his land occupation last year and, he says, "came back and wrote that George Monbiot was a good thing." Meanwhile, Monbiot's own column in the Guardian, which is as calmly didactic as you would expect from a Visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford, provokes frequent calls to the Council for the Protection of Rural England with its lucid polemics against superstores and planning loopholes.
All these contrasting kinds of attention bloom from the vigorous shoots of several careers. At 32, Monbiot is a professional campaigner, an author, an academic, and a journalist. He has written three praised anthropology books, risen fast at the BBC, and, earlier this year, received a UN Global Environmental Award. His academic credentials - he was only the second Fellow at Green College's Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding to have his tenure renewed - have enabled him to become a kind of global doer and thinker, concerned with the River Kennet one day, Kenyan nomads the next. At the same time, his ability to flip from tousled adventurer to that much-valued character of British politics, the moderate, has made Monbiot the link man between establishment environmentalism and grubby direct action. He is banned from seven countries and still bears a scar from an encounter with private security guards at Solsbury Hill, yet he wears suits to represent people up trees. "There is almost no one you can't win over," he maintained cheerily a week before Wandsworth, "with a bit of persuasion."
MONBIOT usually does his persuading from a small terraced house at the poorer end of east Oxford. It seems flawlessly Green: no car in the front, a little home-made wooden porch, sparse furniture inside, expertly tended beds of herbs and vegetables at the back. When I visited, he immediately offered tea, then plucked lemon balm from the garden and dunked it in the kind of glass mug students use.
Barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, he lay easily on his back lawn, as if he had no use for furniture. He was disarmingly warm, using first names, smiles, and "Yeah, that's right" a lot as he waited for me to catch up with his train of thought. Yet his charm was not orderly: one minute, ideas and anecdotes would rush out, his brain too fast for his mouth; the next, he would explain patiently; then, every few paragraphs, he would soundbite like a Newsnight regular.
The Monbiot method is radicalism, mildly stated. The central demands of his land occupation campaign are for public access to all uncultivated land, generous travellers' havens, "reserved" city centre sites for cheap housing, and a complete overturning of the developers' advantages, like the right to appeal, that currently load the planning process. Yet he makes The Land Is Ours sound like a New Labour youth scheme: "The direct action movement is always in danger of sounding negative: 'We don't want this. We don't want that.' It's a lot more fun and exciting to be campaigning for things that you do want. People see young people getting off their arses."
Monbiot is quick to insist that The Land Is Ours has no hierarchy, and that he is not its leader or even its originator. Yet he seems to have a traditional leading role: "The truth is there are a lot of people out there who are good at climbing trees and lying in front of bulldozers, and not so many who've got the office skills and PR skills." His tactical aims, moreover, are those of the lobbyist: "You keep things up in the media... You touch the hearts of people, if not necessarily their heads, and in doing so you're creating political space, into which, for instance, the cautious people at the Treasury could then move..."
But why choose land as the issue? Most British people live in cities; many don't even bother with a back garden. Monbiot is ready: the countryside, he says, has become a desert of industrial farming, owned by a few and, outside national parks, accessible to even fewer. In cities, meanwhile, land is too expensive to build much-needed social housing, so it lies derelict or gains yet more road-choking superstores. (The Wandsworth site was to become a Safeway before the council rejected Guinness and Safeway's planning application.) Beyond this, Monbiot's zeal for land reform approaches the mystical: "Land use is the most important form of democratic control. It decides how we live. Development determines the national character, the sense of nationhood."
Monbiot's first land occupation took place near St George's Hill, where the Diggers set up their pioneering Civil War commune in 1649. The Wandsworth occupation was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the mass squatting movement by ex-servicemen in 1946, which saw 40,000 people invade unused military bases across the country in search of housing. They broke the law - calmly, without violence - and then got it changed. Monbiot's eyes shine when he talks of it. Yet his crusade has personal roots too. His own ancestors lost their land over 200 years ago. Descended from the French Ducs de Coutard, they fled their estates outside Tours in the Loire Valley in 1789, when the local peasants, stirred by news of Revolution in Paris, began redistributing fields and occupying chateaux. The family slipped across to England and changed their name from Beaumont to Monbiot to evade revolutionary spies.
More recently, the Monbiots have clung on for another ancien regime: George's father Raymond was once Michael Heseltine's constituency chairman; his mother Rosalie was leader of South Oxford's Tory district council for a decade and now serves on quangos. Relations with their son can be strained. "My parents are in their own way moral people," he says, speaking more slowly than usual. "But their concept of morality stops at a pretty early stage."
Monbiot's own idea of righteousness has long been more expansive. Brought up near Henley-on-Thames, right next to Peppard Common, he undertook his first direct action at the age of six. In the spring of 1969, a contract was awarded to chop down the dead and dying trees on the common; Monbiot, however, had spotted a pair of green woodpeckers nesting in one of the condemned trunks. When the woodman came, he hugged the tree and refused to move. It was spared the axe.
"I just had this profound sense - that I was never able to justify or to put into words - that things were deeply wrong, that it was wrong," says Monbiot. "I'd hold my breath when a big lorry went past because I thought I was being poisoned... I hated disturbance to the wildlife."
His parents sent him away from his natural history books to boarding- school. Five formative years of bullying and discipline forced Monbiot into a stammering private world of tadpole-catching and mole-saving. He ran away; he faked illnesses; at 13, he was packed off for another five- year dose, this time at Stowe. There, however, his enthusiasms began to be recognised as more than eccentricities. He won a minor scholarship, became captain of the fishing club, was even appointed deputy head prefect. "He used to show up biology teachers," says Adrian Arbib, a photographer who was a fellow pupil and is still his best friend.
In 1982 Monbiot won another scholarship, to study zoology at Oxford. After university, "I thought, 'Do I go and join Oxfam?' But I saw quite clearly that to do that is immediately to ghettoise what you're doing." In 1985, at the age of 22, Monbiot joined the Natural History Unit at BBC Bristol as a reporter and producer; within two years he was at the World Service, investigating the oppression of East African nomads. Within two more years he had won a Sony award and had decided that journalism was too limiting - "just processing material".
With Arbib, he obtained false documents and stole into the Baliem Valley, a remote region of Indonesia barred to foreigners. For six months Monbiot blundered and charmed his way among the Dani, "the last lost civilisation on earth", near-Stone Age in their arcadian ways and threatened with extinction by the brutal population policies of the Indonesian government. The book that resulted, called Poisoned Arrows, was an engaging mix of enthusiastic anthropology, sharp-eyed travelogue and crisp polemic. On its publication Monbiot was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia by the Indonesian authorities, lauded by the Sunday Telegraph and declared "a modern day green hero" by Green magazine
Then he headed straight off again, this time to the Amazon, to investigate the dispossession of the rainforest peasantry. Again, Monbiot ran into heroic-sounding scrapes; this time he also found a left-wing explanation, tracing the destruction of the rainforest back beyond its inhabitants, who usually got the blame, to the Brazilian economic policies which forced them into mining and forestry and, further still, to the voracious workings of the global market.
To prove this, Monbiot pretended to be a Western timber buyer and followed a shipment of mahogany, illegally cut from an Amazonian Indian reserve, all the way to Britain, where some of it even ended up - its origin disguised - in furniture for Buckingham Palace. "I was telling these stories through deceit, cheating, dishonesty, bluffing," Monbiot rushes to admit. "But those are the tools of the trade... I've never had any qualms, as long as I can feel that I'm on the right side and for a right end." He pauses. "And there is evil in this world."
For all this righteousness - and barely hidden delight at the trickery and danger - Monbiot was tiring of exploits abroad. But when he got back from Brazil in 1991 he did not want just to sit at home, in the house in Oxford that his book advances had bought, writing and digging his garden. Yet when he took his evidence about the mahogany trade to the usual environmental pressure groups, he was told to await further research. Frustrated, he tried the first English branch of an American direct action organisation, Earth First, who had set up in Oxford.
At first, he says, "They were a bit too hot for me, with this whole idea of lying down in front of things. But when I went to them it was so refreshing... They said, 'Let's do something now. Here's the evidence. Here's what needs to happen and here's how we're going to do it.'" Finding the second-largest mahogany supplier in the country just outside Oxford, Earth First surrounded the yard and temporarily halted all work. Monbiot took part, and saw the potential in such actions: within weeks Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund and the rest shed their caution and called for a ban. Suddenly Monbiot saw British causes everywhere. "Because I'd been abroad for so long, I almost saw Britain through the eyes of a foreigner... I sometimes feel as if I am a foreigner." In the summer of 1992, some friends persuaded him to come to Twyford Down to try to stop a road being built. Amid the camp fires and painted bodies and harassed bulldozers, he found a new protest-driven Britain whose emergence he had been too busy abroad to notice. "I thought it was all fantastic. Here were all these creative people... some of the things I had found most attractive amongst the cultures where I'd travelled. I found myself going completely wild: running around, and whooping and dancing and leaping. I hadn't done any of these things since I was about 12..."
Even so, the road was built. The direct action calendar was slowing down for the winter, and Monbiot flew off to Kenya to study the dispossession of the Maasai. But he was beginning to have doubts about investigative travel books: "I was close to bankruptcy. I had argued with most of my friends, lost one girlfriend after another, and spent every moment I possessed learning languages, reading papers on obscure subjects... I found it hard to see what I had gained."
He came back to England for good in the spring of 1993. Green College in Oxford offered him the platform of a Visiting Fellowship for his writing and campaigning. For a time, however, he shot off on yet another tangent, intending to write a novel about a civil engineer falling in love with an anti-roads protester. Looking for material, he went to Solsbury Hill near Bath, where the next big confrontation was brewing. This time, he finally threw in his lot with protest: "I found the campaign in complete disarray, and I just couldn't stand by... This road was going to be built, all sorts of horrible things were going to be happening, and no one was going to hear about them because everyone was just saying, 'Well, we hope the press are going to come down.'"
Monbiot and his cousin Thomas Harding, who helps run an Oxford video magazine recording direct actions, sat down and read all the material they could find on the proposed road. Then they wrote personal letters to every journalist they knew: "We sent off 10 letters in the first batch, and nine of those journalists were there within three days," says Monbiot.
PR was not his only contribution. One day Monbiot "was running across the site, trying to get to a bulldozer, and I was caught by two security guards. As soon as they landed on top of me I said, 'I'm not fighting. Just escort me off the site.' And they just started laying into me. Then they picked me up, with their hands under my armpits and just ran me across the ground. I could see it coming: there was this huge pile of rubble with all this metal fencing material with spikes lying on top of it... They just hurled me... and this spike went through the top of my foot - I was very lucky it was my foot - and smashed the middle bone." With his Oxford title and Guardian column he made a usefully public martyr. "Using the old boy network to subvert the state is something which I find sort of uncomfortable," he says, "but quite exciting."
"George clearly represents the more radical wing," says Sir Crispin Tickell, Warden of Green College and a prominent establishment environmentalist. "But he's a very articulate person... George and I go on expeditions looking for fossils together."
"From his family he understands the thinking of the conservative mind," says Brian Hodgson, an Oxfordshire Labour councillor and close ally. Monbiot used this understanding to devise The Land Is Ours in late 1994. The following spring, a convoy of campaigners slipped out of London, dodged four police forces, and occupied a slice of unused farmland. Their aims were politely pinned to a pole by the entrance to the site, like a planning application. The local police chief was invited, and assured that it would be vacated after a week, "in a better state than we found it." The farmer was even persuaded that tree-planting youngsters were not entirely a bad thing.
MONBIOT had not created a utopia, however. Midway through the week, some travellers turned up with a sound system. "I had people say to me, 'You're presenting this image to the press. You've told them that we don't want a rave here. Well I want a rave here." They were dissuaded - "I hate raves," says Monbiot, "And I knew it would undo so much of the positive PR" - but then drove all over the field, cutting it up. One of them broke into a journalist's car and stole a phone. The police had to be called.
Last Sunday evening, such tensions had yet to disturb the careful balance of interests at Wandsworth. The music remained a modest throb, a backdrop for work. Two officers from CPRE, "in a private capacity", stood admiringly in front of a tall octagon-shaped timber frame which was swiftly becoming the village hall. One of them had brought a pickaxe; the other offered to help saw. Monbiot himself stood on a hillock of rubble, buttoned up against the lowering chill, watching the hippies in hard hats: "I do feel this fantastic sense of triumph... But it's not a personal feeling: it's knowing there's a lot of sorted people... All you need is the access to land and willing people."
He was planning to leave the site to fend for itself at the end of the week. Monbiot always has more things to do - more articles, research for his still-unfinished polemical novel, bits of labouring at Tinker's Bubble, the Somerset cooperative farm he owns along with 24 others. At weekends he goes on trespassing expeditions. Does he ever think of letting up? "Constantly. But after about half an hour you just see some appalling, glaring injustice. Even when I go on holiday, there's this constant feeling that things are getting worse. Me and Zoe go cycling on a tandem and we always find there's nowhere to camp, some unnecessary roads programme..." Monbiot plays the tin whistle to relax; otherwise, "the idea of just sitting still I find very difficult altogether." His interest in nomads is as much imitative as political. When he and Arbib shared a flat, Monbiot would leave the room when Arbib put the television on. "He can't stand doing nothing," says Arbib, "or seeing other people doing nothing."
Like many of his fellow improvisers in the direct action movement Monbiot has much in common - in temperament if not aims - with the workaholic executives and engineers and policeman whose plans he challenges. And he admits it: "Nothing gives me more pleasure than going down to Tinker's Bubble and chopping down trees, building dams - doing battle with nature with a bow saw and an axe. It's seeing a pile of branches on the riverbank where there had been a chaotic tangle before."
It is not clear what will be left at Wandsworth after Monbiot moves on. The village could be a week-long, attractively arranged symbol, a brief hint at what could be made of the eight-year-old void behind Guinness's rotting fences; or, less likely, some kind of permanent settlement. That would need the consent, indeed the enthusiasm, of the rather less middle- class people living across the road from its current inhabitants. On the Bank Holiday, quite a lot of them - tiny boys with shaven heads, grannies in cardigans, teenage girls in flying-jackets - came to have a look. The girls painted a wigwam; the boys built a playhouse out of boxes. Not everyone got the point, though. As the sun sank and the east wind got up, one small boy stood silhouetted, jumping up and down on wooden pallets until they smashed. !
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