Approaching the sprawling grounds of Tapeley Park, I am here to discover what makes notorious protester, Hector Christie, tick. Most widely known for heckling Tony Blair during his key conference speech and single-handedly sabotaging a multi-million pound GM trial at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire, Christie’s eccentric efforts to challenge the status quo have established him as a landmark in Instow, North Devon, where he is based.
Hector Christie arrives at Barnstaple train station wearing a sweater with a Tesco-style logo ‘Terror: Every Little Helps’ emblazoned on the front. From all appearances, Tapeley Park is a typical stately home: Italian terraces frame the lawn, lakes and ancient oaks are dotted about the grounds; only the Permaculture garden and the Highland cows hint at the unconventional, sustainable-living devotees that Tapeley houses.
Uncomfortable with having such a large place to himself, Christie lets the spare rooms to ‘purposeful protesters’ dedicated to transforming Tapeley and the local area into a self-sustaining, chemical free community.
This serene new chapter stands in stark contrast to Christie’s more lively capers. Whether dropping his trousers on BBC Breakfast TV to reveal boxers with ‘Blair: Fool’ on the front, to bringing his pet goose to the table on Come Dine With Me, Christie has an endless stream of stories that set him firmly apart from the typical Eton-educated aristocrat.
G8 Protests, Genoa
Christie received his initiation into the ‘hardcore’ protesting world at the G8 summit, where he dressed as a priest and sung songs at the speechless Italian riot police. But the G8 protest is not for the faint-hearted, as he recalls:
‘You get off the train and can’t open your eyes for tear gas and burning cars. There are stun grenades going off everywhere. When the train goes back, it’s half empty where people are either in hospital having been beaten by the police or are in prison.’
For many, the G8 protests epitomise the violence and anarchy protesters are often associated with.
How does he feel about the violence? ‘Violence hinders and sabotages things enormously. The vast majority of protesters are peaceful. All it takes is for one or two anarchists to go in there with a Molotov cocktail and then the riot police come smashing down and it descends into violence. It’s the easiest thing to orchestrate. The authorities want us to be violent so they can label us as mindless thugs.’
Has Christie always been willing to risk life and limb for a cause? ‘God no, I was your typical Sun-reading, lager lout on a Saturday type. You wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me then I can tell you. I was completely oblivious.’
The eldest son of Sir George Christie and Lady Mary, Christie, now age 52, turned down the option of inheriting ‘Britain’s most influential Opera House’, Glyndebourne, in Sussex, passing the buck on to his younger brother, Gus, who is ‘more of the business man.’
Instead, Christie chose to take on Tapeley Park, the estate left to him by his ‘Aunt Rosamund’ in 1988. Lady Rosamund, was an eccentric social justice dedicatee, friend of artist William Morris and remembered for giving tours of the estate with a live parrot on her head.
Christie tried to turn the place into a New Age hippy commune, which quickly descended into chaos when the New Agers tried to evict Christie from his own home. ‘I’m afraid there are a lot of takers out there,’ he says.
The onset of foot and mouth in 2001 was an important turning point for Christie. After breaking his leg in a farming accident, putting an end to his semi-professional football playing, he ‘felt a strong sense that my life was going to go in a much more important direction’.
Three and a half weeks later, the foot and mouth crisis erupted: ‘It was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment for me.’ Christie, with the help of other local farmers, barricaded his gates, blocked cars and lay in the middle of the road. He still has a ‘Cull MAFF’ [Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food] on his gates. ‘We saved quite a lot of animals actually.’
From there on, his escapades escalated.
‘Do you realise how much your soldiers hate you Blair?’
Christie managed to slip himself into the Labour Party Conference in 2004 where Tony Blair would be giving his most important annual speech.
‘There was one seat left directly facing the podium where Blair would be talking. I said, “Please God let me be there”, and asked if the seat was taken. The guy said: “No, we were wondering who was going to sit here, we thought it was going to be the conference nutter.” At that moment I knew I was in! I said: “You never know your luck mate, there’s always one!’”‘
Christie bided his time before shouting out a scathing condemnation of Blair’s ‘illegal’ Iraq war. ‘Afterwards, the Chief Police Inspector said to me, “So what are you in for?” I said, “I’ve been heckling the Prime Minister.” His reply was: “Good on you. I agree with everything you said. Don’t tell anyone else that though.”‘ Christie was promptly released.
Worth six months in jail
Gordon Brown also fell prey to Christie’s direct style of rebuke at the Scottish Parliament. Again finding himself in prime position, Christie shouted: ‘Brown, this is supposed to be about making poverty history – not once have I heard you say anything about unconditional debt relief –what you’re giving with one hand you’re taking back in the other.’ He was handcuffed and dragged out whilst shouting that the G8 were ‘no more than an illegal club of the eight most corrupt nations of the world’. ‘The whole room erupted up in cheers. I thought that’s worth six months in jail,’ Christie recalls.
Vandalising GM wheat trials at Rothamsted
Of all the stirs Christie has caused over the years, breaking into Rothamsted Research Centre, Hertfordshire in May 2012 to disrupt the first ever trial of GM wheat in the UK was the biggest. Having gone by himself rather than wait for other protesters, Christie found Rothamsted surrounded by security (‘£750,000 worth of CCTV, guards, an enormous meshed fence.’)
Nonetheless, Christie took a running jump over the 14ft fence. ‘I’m no gymnast, far from it, but I swear to God I felt something lift me from under my arms, I flew over that fence! That’s what I mean about the angels.’
Christie attributes much of his fluke success in activism to what he calls ‘the angels’; whether wiping the police database clean of his loaded criminal record at the Labour Conference to avoiding the full force of police batons at the G8 riots, Christie claims to be convinced that he receives ‘a little help from upstairs.’
‘When you do activism for the good, extraordinary things open up. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea.’
Once inside, Christie proceeded to irreversibly contaminate the GM crop by sprinkling it with his own organic wheat seed. ‘A security guard came running out and I said: ‘‘I’m terribly sorry. Don’t worry you can arrest me now, I can assure you that I’m not a nutter.’ He looked at me and screamed because he didn’t believe me.’
Police rapidly arrived on the scene. Christie has faced two years of court cases, bailiffs, and the possibility of prison, before being eventually convicted of criminal damage. The GM trials were stopped shortly after Christie broke in.
Why did he do it? ‘My major point was that wheat is a grass and could cross-contaminate with non-GM crops. There had been no long term independent testing to find out whether GM was safe for us to eat or safe for the environment.’
‘The people who make GM plants in the Biotech industry test it themselves and don’t have to produce the results due to commercial confidentiality. It’s a no-brainer, it just shouldn’t be like that.’
In 1997-98, government scientist, Dr Arpad Putzai, researched the effects of GM food on rats in Aberdeen. He found that rats fed GM potatoes had immune system and internal organ failures. Similarly, Dr Seralini did the first ‘long-term’ trial of GM in 2013 lasting two years. He found that 80% of the rats fed GM corn developed tumours, compared with the 20% that were not.
‘You would think if the government actually cared about its people it would say, “Look, this guy has come up with something, we should do proper independent testing in the name of humanity.” But the reaction was quite the opposite. Putzai was hounded, he literally fled for his life.’
Christie continues: ‘At the end of the day, it is the corporations who control this country. The government is completely in the pockets of the corporations, who pour money in and out.’
If that bleak picture is true, how does Christie find motivation to do anything about it? ‘It’s a spiritual thing. There is nothing more important than the human spirit. We’re all down here to do an incredibly important job for the earth.’
Whilst seemingly flippant in his talk of ‘the angels’, Christie is serious about urging others to get in touch with their spiritual side. He has written a book about the subject (No Blade of Grass) which sums up the ‘spiritual foundation of it all.’
‘I believe those gentle, subtle spiritual moments happen to everybody but we miss it; we’re not educated to look for it. If people did understand and had some real genuine faith it would change everything. When you make yourself available you will be used, opportunities will come to you.’
If everyone can be ‘used’ why aren’t they? ‘Often people see the path they should go down but don’t want to do it; they get up to the fork in the river – where one route’s nice and slow, meandering; the other is clearly rapids and you don’t know how big the waterfall is going to be round the corner. The majority choose to go down the slow, meandering bend, which is fine, we all have choices, but if you really want to achieve stuff, you go the way of the rapids – it’s almost blind faith but that’s the way most people’s heart is taking them. And it’s not the way the system encourages us to go.’
What if they risk losing their house? ‘Yes. Fine. But something always comes up. At one point, I’d lost my wife (Scottish artist, Kirstey Macdonald, with whom Christie has two children, aged 22 and 20), I was disinherited, chucked out of Tapeley. I lived in a tiny cottage alone for nearly 4 years. I wrote my book. Then suddenly it all changed.’ ‘I will continue to go down this route, and if I die in the process, at least I’ll die a happy chappy.’
So will that involve more death-defying activism? ‘I think I’ve used up my nine lives. There’s no need for me to get arrested again in some big caper. Now it’s time to work on a grass roots level and show a positive alternative.’
What does the future look like for campaigners? ‘TTIP (The Trans Atlantic Trade Agreement) is unifying all the organisations. It is so abhorrent that ordinary people, not just the Lefties, are waking up to it.’
‘The British people are a phenomenal nation. They appear to be apathetic but when they get pushed too far – Boom! No. Enough is enough. Get middle England writing up and the government and corporations won’t stand a chance!’
Christabel works part-time for Speak, a charity of global justice campaigners. She hopes to practise as a barrister abroad focusing on the death penalty and human rights