Enter the clean-shaven adventurer hero
the GENEVIEVE FOX interview A 'middle- class git', blacklisted in seven countries for his pursuit of corruption, George Monbiot is the new face of green activism
Tuesday 09 May 1995
George Monbiot, 32, is the acceptable face of green activism. He eats meat, doesn't take to the trees, and won't swear at policemen. He is the founder and spokesperson of the Land Is Ours campaign, a land-rights movement that two weeks ago organised the mass trespass of St George's Hill in Surrey, the site of the Leveller rising in 1649 and now home to a luxury housing development and golf-course. There was no violence, no self-sacrificial throwing of bodies beneath bulldozers, no noise pollution; just the harmless occupation of a disused airbase in nearby Wisley, some communal singing and the planting of a sapling from a machinery-free farming co-operative of which Monbiot is a shareholder.
The aims of the campaign are to give people a say in how the land is used and to open access to the countryside, which Monbiot himself enjoyed as a child brought up in a large country house with a garden that backed on to Peppard Common - one of the country's few remaining public commons - near Henley, south Oxfordshire.
Clean-shaven, with a mop of curly brown hair, he welcomes me into his present house with a smile that could disarm the most resolute bailiffs. You get the feeling that Monbiot has shaken many hands, that his warm spirit, not to mention his nice-boy character, have put all kinds of people at their ease.
He leads me through the living-room, past the futon and the wood-burning stove, the spears and African drums, the abstract paintings and the bookshelves containing editions of Chinese poetry and Oliver Rackham's The History of the Countryside, and out through the unmodernised kitchen, to his own private land, his back garden.
The garden is overhung by a cherry tree and there's a compost heap in the back corner. A rusty old bicycle is turned upside-down, expectantly, on the lawn. Barefoot and wearing weather-worn khaki shorts and a crumpled plum-coloured T-shirt, he talks me through the vegetable patch against the back wall, including the mchichu, a hardy spinach grown from seeds given to him by an ex-nomad member of the Barabaig tribe and "smuggled from Tanzania - a bit naughty". His right foot is scarred after a police attack during a roads protest at Solsbury Hill last year.
"I had a metal spike shoved through the top of my foot by a policeman," he says. "The bone completely exploded." It was not his first clash with the law. "I was beaten up at Wanstead while trying to defend a chestnut tree. I was pulled through police lines and held by the hair while two other policemen hammered into me. They broke my glasses and I had blood streaming down my face. It was very nasty."
Monbiot is blacklisted by seven countries. He has put himself in life- threatening situations in order to expose corruption and human rights abuses in Africa, South America and the Far East. He has been chased at gunpoint, held under house arrest in Indonesia, lived off insects and rats. He doesn't deny that today's direct actions appeal to his adventurer spirit.
Yet by rights, Monbiot should be a home counties vet tending sick spaniels. The son of a Conservative businessman, he was educated at Stowe and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he gained an upper second in zoology.
The Monbiot family, descendants of French aristocracy, fled the Loire valley for England during the French Revolution before changing their name from Beaumont to foil revolutionary spies. Raymond Monbiot, George's father, is a businessman and heads the Conservative Party's trade and industry forum. He was Michael Heseltine's constituency chairman until they fell out over his leadership challenge to Margaret Thatcher. Rosalie Monbiot, George's mother, Tory leader of South Oxford district council for nine years, now serves on various local quangos and committees.
George Monbiot possesses the quiet self-confidence that comes with this upper-middle-class background. Securing a job as a producer of wildlife programmes for BBC Bristol straight after his finals, he was a producer and presenter of current affairs programmes for the World Service by the age of 24. Two years later, he had published Poisoned Arrows, an investigative travel book about the threatened tribes of Indonesia; Amazon Watershed, which exposed the massacre and land dispossessions of thousands of Amazonian peasants, followed shortly. This month, No Man's Land, which charts the destruction of the pastoral nomads of Kenya and Tanzania, is published in paperback by Picador.
His sense of injustice, the driving force behind his books and environmental campaigning, set in young. Pouring herb tea from a chunky blue earthenware teapot into two glass mugs, he recalls his first exploit as an environmental crusader, at the age of six.
"A harmless local man, but who seemed an ogre to me, got the contract to cut down the dead and dying trees on the common. There was one tree where green woodpeckers were nesting. He came to cut it down and I was determined to stop him. I put myself in between him and the tree. It was my first ever direct action," he says proudly.
His alienation continued at Elstree, a disciplinarian prep school, where he was "deeply unhappy". More interested in solitary pursuits such as catching tadpoles and saving moles than games, a debilitating stammer made him more of an outsider. "I couldn't really speak at all for a long time," he says. He was very badly bullied from the age of eight to 13. His parents responded to his repeated attempts at truancy by sending him back to school.
"When I was eight or nine, I used to get hold of the medical dictionary and read up the symptoms of various diseases and then fake them," says George, giggling at the recollection. "I never got beyond C. I had anthrax, bubonic plague, cancer. But it never worked."
Yet Monbiot has that very English, blue-blooded propensity for seeing the best in people. This is how he reacted to a recent encounter with his prep school's worst bully: "He is now the most charming and delightful guy. I really got on with him very, very well. It turns out of course that he was as miserable as I was and bullying was his way of coping with it."
Only when he talks of his father is there an air of sadness, a sense of unresolved tension. "My dad is a decent bloke, a moral bloke, but his politics are completely different from my own. He's a really ambitious Conservative. While in some ways," and here his voice falters, "we look at the world, or some aspects of it, in fairly similar terms, we cover it from completely different directions."
Monbiot's education and family connections both help and hinder him in the role he has created for himself as a maker of alliances, a builder of bridges between disparate cultures. Although emotionally engag, one can't help feeling Monbiot approaches his New Age soul-mates with the distance of an anthropologist, the curiosity of an intrigued middle- class liberal. He cites his fellow road protesters, for example, as "almost as distinct a culture from the mainstream as many of the indigenous groups I've worked with elsewhere".
Of other activists, he says: "You see all these people with the most wild appearances: they have great dreadlocks, with rings and metal through every bit of your anatomy you can imagine - and quite a lot you couldn't. There are tattoos all over the place, animal bones hanging around their necks, feathers stuck in their hair. And then you find out they've been in the Army for ten years."
Ex-members of the middle class, in other words, just like him - except that Monbiot, unlike his comrades, is still an active member of the Establishment. He lunches with MPs, keeps his wits sharpened with robust discussions with economists, philosophers, ancient historians and archaeologists, while the direct action movement "suffers because it's not exposed to contrary points of view; it's very cut off".
Whether other activists - many of whom, like the Levellers before them, come from the disenfranchised working classes - get an equal buzz from the social mle is doubtful. "I do get called a middle-class git," admits Monbiot. An outsider at school, he remains an outsider now.
But he is anxious to establish his alternative credentials. He is quick to point out that, prone to being underweight, he eats meat only on the advice of his vegan sister, an alternative diet therapist. He bemoans the fact that telling stories around an open fire has been lost to the "boxed fire"; his own sits in one corner, covered by a tablecloth. He got rid of his car four years ago - "a huge liberation". There's a tube of Body Shop cinnamon-flavoured toothpaste in the bathroom. He points out that while he does own his house - which he shares with his girlfriend Zoe, whom he met on a recent road protest - he bought it from the advances on his books, not from a trust fund.
He condemns the ivory tower of academia, whose professors he dismisses as idiots savants, cut off from the real world. And yet for the past two years he has been visiting fellow of Green College, Oxford. "I don't think you should dismiss any institution wholly. There are some serious things wrong with academia in Oxford today but there are little oases of good sense in the midst of it. Green College is one."
It is to Green College to which he must now hurry for his lunch with Andrew Smith MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He dashes upstairs to change, reappearing seconds later in blue jeans, denim shirt and maroon Doc Marten boots. He says a quick hello to his assistant, Alex, who is working in the spare room which has been turned into an office, where black and white prints from his travels cover the pinboard.
In the cobbled courtyard of Green College, founded in 1984 as a medical college by Dr Cecil Green of Texas Instruments but now home to a green think-tank, Monbiot is greeted enthusiastically by two students; another stops him in his tracks. "I heard you on the radio," he says, "talking about Wisley. I live near there. What's going on? Are they building a road through there?" Although running late for his lunch appointment, Monbiot takes the time to tell him all about the "new Levellers", that there's no planned road, that this, for once, was a positive protest.
The student wanders off, both impressed and reassured. Move over Jonathon Porritt. George Monbiot is the new Green hero today's disillusioned electorate, young and old, have been waiting for.
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