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

Oxford is rebelling. An undergraduate dives naked from Magdalene bridge, the Tories are crushed in the local elections, and in Percy Street, a quiet road of terraced houses and blossoming lilac, a visiting fellow of Green College plots the downfall of landowners and property developers.

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.

Giles Smith is on holiday.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Life and Style
i100

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

    £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Analyst – 2 year fixed term contract – Kent – Circa £55k

    £45000 - £55000 Per Annum 31 days holiday, pension, healthcare, annual bonus: ...

    **SEN Primary Teacher Serf Unit **

    £110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experie...

    Experienced Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £222 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recruiting f...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week