Monday, March 23, 2009

1984 revisited : Greenham Common

Greenham Common Peace camp
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The last act in an extraordinary year came in September, when word came that the Greenham Common Peace camp were inviting women from all over Britain to come for a day of meetings and action at the Cruise Missile base on the Common. By this time I had returned to full-time teaching, but I still had relative youth on my side and beside ... they had come to our base, and Sheena (from Dunoon CND) and I felt we owed them. All these years later, I can still call up vivid flashbacks ...

It is a fine evening, that Friday in late September, when Sheena and I drive to Glasgow to meet a bus in George Square. We leave around teatime, by which time every seat in the bus is taken. All these women, and one black labrador (gender unknown) I have a rucksack full of strange little bags of food - marmalade rolls and a boiled egg (breakfast), more substantial cheese sandwiches, fruit and so on for lunch, bits and pieces of cake, dried fruit, juice, water - and hope that we will indeed stop at service stations as promised for the missing meals. Our first stop, however, is a traffic jam in the Borders. Most of us take the opportunity for a comfort break by the road in the lee of the bus. It's all very bonding. We drive through the night, sleeping in snatches like Eliot's Magi.

We arrive in Newbury, Berks, at 5.30am. The bus drops us at the main Gate, where we can see tents and signs of not-your-average-camp in the old sofas beside small fires. By this time I feel dreadful as a full day's teaching followed by very little sleep catches up on me. Someone puts up a blue tent and invites me to lie down. When I waken again it is light, and there are voices outside. Sheena brings me a cup of hot water, boiled over a wood fire. It tastes like Lapsang Souchong and I begin to feel better. I crawl out and eat my breakfast sitting on a battered leatherette armchair as the sun slants over the camp.

We spend the morning roaming the narrow paths which follow the perimeter fence. Elizabeth, an elderly Communist lady with dyed red hair (not like mine - hers was orange) becomes incensed when a young soldier berates me and Sheena for a couple of dykes. She shrieks at him about his parentage and we drag her away. This is, after all, a peaceful protest. We are terrified by the sudden appearance of two police people on massive horses which take up the entire path, forcing us into the bushes to avoid broken toes. They laugh at us and go their way. We come to another small camp, and a painted notice telling us:
Wimmyn: don't sh*t on the Common. Sh*it in the pits.
There are no asterisks on the notice, but this is a family blog. We talk to soldiers through the wire, to policemen, to some RAF types. There are things hanging on the wire fence - baby shoes, photos, paper doves.

We are invited to join a group of women for some tea. They show us their 'benders' - tents supported on bent saplings which return to being trees when the canvas is removed. These are easier to dismantle in a hurry when the slurry-spreader comes: apparently one of the more effective means of harassment practised on the camps. We follow the fence round, and come to Blue Gate. There the thought of the Common's pits defeats us, and we trot down the road to a small pub where, alone of all the pubs in the area, the landlord welcomes Peace Women. I realise a long-held ambition and ask for "A pint of your best bitter, please". We discuss the level of stamina required for life at the camps, in the light of the fact that we're ducking out after a morning. We head back up the road.

We meet some women who came to Dunoon for the trials and whom I had last seen eating tomatoes in my back garden. There is a scene of great warmth and rejoicing, and we join them in a circle round the entrance to the base to sing songs together. There must be about 50 women there, and we share stories. By this time it is quite warm, though I realise that I'm in the kind of survival mode which prevents me from removing any layers. I feel very grubby and wonder if I smell.

The bus comes back for us at 6pm, 13 hours after leaving us, and we head off into the evening. I lie on the floor with the black labrador (sign of how desperately tired I am) and sleep all the way to Southwaite Services, where I am sufficiently revived to eat bacon and mushrooms. 4am sees us back in a George Square which is still alive with Saturday night, and we drive round over the Rest and Be Thankful, arriving in Dunoon shortly after 6am.

That evening the BBC carries the brilliant drama-documentary "Threads" and I become aware that I feel better because I've tried to do something. And every time I've viewed that film since - it's been a valuable resource - I remember that day, these women.


  1. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Dearest Mrs B

    I am trying to think what potential affront to my genteel sensibilities is hidden by the decent obscurity of the second asterisk, when the surrounding four letters seem to say it all.
    (The word verification is hearraw!!)

  2. Anonymous5:15 PM

    Memories - I'm also teaching now but in 1984 I was on the other side of the fence wearing a Tam O Shanter with a blue hackle....and wondering where all those ladies had come from!

  3. Anonymous6:09 PM

    You can't kill the Spirit
    She is like a mountain
    She goes on and on.

    Vivid memories from another world.I was there the year before pinning embroideries to the fence and surrounding the base. Friends went to the Pentagon to weave a web of peace round it. By spring '84 I was heavily pregnant and going felt too risky. We sent food parcels instead. Strange days.

  4. This was a truly great moment in the history of my country although I did feel peeved at the time about its sexist nature. There was also the irony that while all these courageous women were proving how much more peaceful they were than those aggressive men, the country was being taken to hell in a handcart by a woman whose aggression made Atilla the Hun look like St Francis of Assisi.