I had an unhappy time at university, and I now regret having gone to Oxford, even though the zoology course I took – taught, among others, by Richard Dawkins, Bill Hamilton and John Krebs – was excellent. The culture did not suit me, and when I tried to join in I fell flat on my face, sometimes in a drunken stupor. I enjoyed the holidays more: I worked on farms and as a waterkeeper on the River Kennet. I spent much of the last two years planning my escape. There was only one job I wanted, and it did not yet exist: to make investigative environmental programmes for the BBC.
After hammering on its doors for a year, I received a phone call from the head of the BBC’s natural history unit during my final exams. He told me: “you’re so fucking persistent you’ve got the job.” They took me on, in 1985, as a radio producer, to make wildlife programmes. Thanks to a supportive boss, I was soon able to make the programmes I had wanted to produce. We broke some major stories. Our documentary on the sinking of a bulk carrier off the coast of Cork, uncovering evidence that suggested it had been deliberately scuppered, won a Sony award.
Just as it began to work out as I’d hoped, Margaret Thatcher and Marmaduke Hussey launched their attack on the independence of the BBC. They forced the resignation of the director-general, Alasdair Milne, in January 1987, and this brave, dynamic organisation became a cow’rin, tim’rous beastie almost overnight. A few weeks later my boss told me that it was all over: we would no longer be making investigative programmes.
I moved to the World Service, to work as a current affairs producer, but I was already planning to leave the BBC. While I was working for the natural history unit, I had come across the story of Suharto’s transmigration programme in Indonesia. Backed by the World Bank and Western governments, he was moving hundreds of thousands of people from the inner islands to the outer islands, with terrible consequences for both the migrants and the indigenous people in whose lands they were dumped. I had wanted to make a series about it: instead I took the idea to Penguin and persuaded them to give me the money to write a book. Towards the end of 1987 I travelled to Indonesia with the photographer Adrian Arbib. After forging a travel pass, we spent the next six months in West Papua.
We were as reckless and foolish as only young men can be – this is why wars get fought. We threw ourselves into and out of a great deal of trouble. At one point we had to walk and canoe for four weeks from the central highlands to the south coast. We became lost in the forest for several days and ate insects and rats to stay alive. I was stung almost to death by hornets. We also had some close brushes with the occupying Indonesian army. The story we uncovered – and our adventures along the way – are related in my first book Poisoned Arrows.
It did quite well, earning me enough of an advance on the next book to live in the Amazon for two years. I was 26 when I arrived in Brazil (in 1989), but I see this period as the beginning of my education. It was there that I had my first contact with extensive social movements: the resistance networks established by peasants and indigenous people defending their land from the people trying to seize it. I became closely involved with a peasant movement in Maranhão, which led to a beating by gunmen working with the military police.
I then followed the evicted peasants across the Amazon to the gold mines of Roraima, where I saw the devastating impacts of their attempts at survival, on both the forests and the Yanomami people. Masquerading as a shipping agent, I traced mahogany being stolen from indigenous and biological reserves to Britain for the first time: in one case to the furniture restoration department at Buckingham Palace. The story of these investigations is told in my book Amazon Watershed. I returned to Brazil some time later, to make a Radio 4 programme called Going Back, during which I managed to track down the police sergeant responsible for torturing and killing peasant activists in Maranhão. The episode was used for several years on the BBC’s health and safety training course as an example of what not to do.
Working once more with Adrian Arbib, I then moved to East Africa, in 1992, to investigate assaults on the lives of the nomadic peoples of Kenya and Tanzania. Living with the Turkana people in northern Kenya, I contracted cerebral malaria, failed to recognise it and very nearly died in Lodwar district hospital. The experience was a shattering one. During my recovery, I suffered, as cerebral malaria patients often do, from psychosis for several days. It was the most frightening time of my life. It took me some months to get my health back, and more than a year to regain my confidence. The episode cast a shadow over the rest of my work there, and for several years I was unable to talk or write about it. The story we uncovered is told in my book No Man’s Land.
After six years working in the tropics, I decided to return to Britain. There I became involved in the direct action movement: first against timber companies importing mahogany from the Amazon, then against the government’s road-building programme. In the summer of 1994, while contesting the road being built through the flank of Solsbury Hill, I was hospitalised by two thugs in yellow tabards, who impaled my foot on a fencing spike, smashing the middle bone. I was one of 11 people admitted to accident and emergency in the local hospital that day as a result of beatings by the security guards.
I saw the road-building programme as an example of the kind of enclosure the peasant movements in Brazil were fighting. Reading histories of land alienation and resistance movements in Britain, I began to see that these forces had played a major role in our politics, but were now largely forgotten. I co-founded a group called The Land is Ours, whose purpose was to try to revitalise public engagement in decisions about how the land is used. We occupied a number of sites, including 13 acres of prime real estate beside Wandsworth Bridge in London, which was destined for yet another supermarket. We held it for six months, beating the owners, Guinness, in court, and built a village there, which was eventually destroyed in the eviction.
After writing a few op-eds for the Guardian, I was offered a regular column in 1996. Thanks to the tolerant and open-minded editors I have been blessed with ever since, I have been able to explore the issues that interest me, however obscure they may be. I cannot think of any work I would rather do, except perhaps tracking wolves, but there’s not much call for that in Britain.
As a result of some of the things I learnt while researching my columns, I began the investigations which culminated in my next book, Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain, published in 2000. The discoveries it made, I felt, shone new light on politics in this country. But while the books I had written about other countries were reviewed in most of the papers, Captive State was reviewed hardly anywhere, at least when it was first published. The deathly silence with which the book was received suggested to me that some issues are treated by the media as too impolite to discuss.
After identifying what I felt were some of the problems curtailing democratic politics, I set out to propose some solutions, in my next book, The Age of Consent. Like Captive State, this sold well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been little progress towards the solutions it proposed. Since then I have published four more books: two collections of essays (Bring on the Apocalypse and How Did We Get into this Mess?); Heat: how to stop the planet burning, which shows how we can cut carbon emissions by 90% without destroying our quality of life; and Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, the book I have enjoyed writing more than any other.
One of the outcomes of Feral was the charity Rewilding Britain, that I helped to found. It’s been amazing to witness the traction that rewilding has begun to gain in this country: I hope to see big changes within my lifetime.
My latest finished project is the concept album I’ve written with the remarkable musician Ewan McLennan, called Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, that was released in autumn 2016. We have been touring it around Britain, turning the gigs into parties that bring strangers into contact with each other. It has worked out better than I could have imagined. The astonishing people we’ve met and their willingness to take social risks have restored my faith in humankind, and point to possible solutions to some of our crises.
I’m now working on two new projects: a book about how we get out of the mess we’re in, and a dark and depraved novel about … well, that would be telling.
My work is more sedentary than it used to be, so I temper it with plenty of physical activity: sea kayaking, ultimate frisbee, running and some heavy duty gardening: growing my own vegetables and much of my own fruit.
Here are some of the things I love: my family and friends, kayaking among dolphins, otters, salt marshes, fishing, arguments, chalk streams, Russian literature, thunderstorms, circus tumblers, the exuberance of life, rockpools, heritage apples, woods, swimming in the sea, ponds and ditches, insects, pruning, forgotten corners, fossils, goldfinches, etymology, Bill Hicks, ruins, palaeoecology, landscape history, Gavin and Stacey and Father Ted.
Here are some of the things I try to fight: environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.
Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.
I still see my life as a slightly unhinged adventure whose perpetuation is something of a mystery. I have no idea where it will take me, and no ambitions other than to keep doing what I do. So far it’s been gripping.