Gregory Norminton: The eco-activist provides a portentous warning about our treatment of the planet

In his fourth novel, a gripping story of school bullies and victims becomes a metaphor for our vicious assault on the planet

Murrough O'Brien
Sunday 20 January 2008 01:00 GMT
(Photograph by WATTIE CHEUNG)

In the movement to salvage something from our bruised and bleeding planet, Gregory Norminton, writer and activist, seems anomalous. He is not crusty, nor, for all his learning, fusty. He isn't "worthy" (though American broadcasters found reasons for calling his programme Planet Action "too worthy and intelligent" for the States); he's not earnest. He does not even seem passionate. His voice, whether slicing through facts or loping through jokes, betrays an intimidating velocity of mind and purpose.

Born in 1976, in North Surrey, he went to Wellington, Oxford and LAMDA (drama school). He is already a highly regarded novelist and short fiction writer. He is also, however, a vocal and sometimes controversial warrior in the cause of the environment.

Serious Things, his fourth novel, concerns an unlikely, unhealthy love and its terrible quietus. It is set in an English public school called Kingsley, where Bruno Jackson, tubby and unpopular, falls under the spell of the gorgeous Anthony Blunden, beautiful and scornful, at ease with everything except his own uncorroborated sense of superiority. Bruno is grateful for a companion; Anthony is glad of an audience. A new English teacher, Mr Bridge, arrives at Kingsley; he is not part of the old guard. Mr Bridge tries (in a way now scarcely conceivable) to establish a circle. In these two boys he believes he has recognised kindred spirits. His mission is to awaken a desire among the pupils to protect nature. When Anthony, more impressed by Mr Bridge than he cares to admit, shows the prospective guru his "novel", at once a vicious revenge fantasy and a satire on the school, the idyll is infected. Mr Bridge cannot forgive Anthony for revealing such meanness and triviality of spirit; Anthony cannot forgive Mr Bridge for discouraging him. On a walking tour in Cumbria, just as the mist is rising, Anthony persuades Bruno to help him lure Mr Bridge towards them and away from safety.

The horrible result lives with them both, but only Bruno feels the scratches of conscience. When the two meet, unexpectedly, at the party of a mutual friend, Bruno remembers the secret they both hold and his duty to remind Anthony of it. Anthony is unmoved, and events grope towards a strangely beautiful and uplifting ending.

Bar some occasionally uninspiring dialogue, it's superbly written, with not a superfluous word, and enriched with wonderfully vivid images. Though not the first of Norminton's novels to express his environmental concerns, it is the first in which they are given an advocate. I ask him how the two missions met.

"In a short story, it's reasonably easy to write about your concerns. What excited me about Serious Things was precisely that I found a way of tying my environmental concerns to an accessible psychological drama... I don't want to be schematic about it, because it doesn't work that way, but, in a sense, Serious Things shows what happens when a masochistic nature meets a sadistic nature."

I point out that nature shows itself to be both sadistic and masochistic in the novel, and mention of nature's hostility leads to a bracing aside.

"I remember Jeremy Clarkson wittering about how we shouldn't worry about the polar bear because it's a bloody brute which kills things. I mean, what a witless thing to say! Of course it is, but that's not a reason to allow it to go to its extinction. Nature doesn't care about us; it doesn't belong to us either. We belong to it, whether we like it or not."

He wears his considerable learning lightly, backing his arguments up with always apposite quotations: "Auden said, you can judge how civilised a society is by its attitude to trees. And it must have seemed barking when he said it. But we're starting to realise that it's not."

At boarding school, Bruno suffers from ostracism but little direct bullying – except from Anthony, though he fails to recognise this at the time. In contrast, Gregory Norminton had a difficult first year.

"Every Frenchman needs to know that there's no one above him," Norminton observes (he is half-French). "Every Englishman needs to know that there's someone below him. Well, I had to be the person that was below."

Afterwards things got easier, but he remains fascinated by the dynamics of bullying, whether in schoolboys, lovers or gurus. "The sheer, psychological deftness of a 13, 14-year-old bully is extraordinary. They'll give a little favour and then withdraw it – and it's utterly arbitrary."

He sees the fag system as "contained, institutionalised bullying" and is suspicious of those who set themselves up as gurus. He mentions the phenomenon in the context of drama school and, as a former drama student myself, I feel bound to agree.

For him, the figure of Anthony Blunden, with his swagger and his (literally) criminal irresponsibility, is the character who best represents the society we live in. He would rather look away and not get involved. The inference is obvious: again, the environment is mirrored in the drama. But, I wonder, what first prompted Norminton's concern?

"My environmental instincts do come from a sense of nostalgia. I had a very happy childhood in north Surrey, exploring the heathlands and the forests. Now, it's a beautiful beechwood and I can see those beech trees dying as a result of the droughts we had, the flooding. If you know a landscape, you do have a sense of belonging to it, and if you see that landscape changing, shifting, then that has a profound psychic impact on you." In Australia, he says, the process has already begun: people can no longer recognise the places they grew up in.

"As a child I had a sense that the world was ordered and tidy – which is of course an illusion. We have this vast profusion of books that go on about miserable childhoods, and of course no one would want that and I'm not complaining for a minute, not comparing this with the consequences of having had an abusive childhood, but there are small problems that come from having had an idyllic childhood, and the main one is that of nostalgia, of things being knocked out of kilter. I have an intellectual contempt for nostalgia together with an inability to shake it off!"

After this somewhat severe, and quite typical, self-censure, he agrees that there is nothing wrong with allowing the memory of nature's loveliness to spur you to preserve it for others.

Few prospects should enliven the imagination more than global catastrophe, yet the disasters threatening the planet have yet to take the place once occupied by the Cold War. While many are exercised by the war on terror, the war on Terra (as Norminton puts it) is still not seen as museworthy.

"People cease to listen if you're a doom-monger. So I think that writers have an obligation to try to help all of us to imagine how life might be better if we addressed these things. I think there's a sense of satisfaction to be had from trying to live more lightly. It shouldn't be about giving up things that are fun, but things that are actually making us miserable. We flatter ourselves on being very clued up and canny about advertising and its wily ways – but it still has a deep impact, psychically, to be surrounded by these constant messages of dissatisfaction."

Towards the end of Serious Things, Bruno Jackson meets a boatman who is unresponsive to gushings about the "eco-friendly" system they have in the Highlands. The boatman himself would rather have the option of driving. It's a poignant and rather funny exchange and brings to mind a delicate question: do those who live close to nature necessarily care for its conservation?

Gregory Norminton's own experience in southeast Asia and Latin America suggests that they do. He mentions a Native American tribe in Panama that used to kill and eat the leatherback turtle, a species 95 million years old. When an economic alternative presented itself, that of monitoring and preserving the turtle, the people jumped at it. They had always loved the turtle, indeed would praise it in traditional song; the option of saving it, in Norminton's words, "freed that love".

He tells me how he met, in Malaysia, a rubber tapper who had been mauled by a tiger.

"A Westerner, somewhere, would feel vengeful towards this creature. This man did not resent the tiger that had disfigured him. There is an understanding that we're really not special, and I think that is salutary. We're special amongst ourselves, we create meaning for ourselves – and so we must. Human rights do exist, because we create them. But the planet doesn't understand that, nor should it, nor should we expect it to."

The extract

Serious Things, By Gregory Norminton (Sceptre £16.99)

'...He was trying on different personalities. As the mystery that had served him in our first year peeled away, he retreated into a mixture of "Brideshead" snobbery and tousled rebellion. It was an act that bewildered some, alienated many and permitted him to be cruel, even to me... Why then was I so devotedly his friend? Because I had no choice in the matter, and Anthony knew it.'

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