By the time I was 15 I had binned school off and was floating about looking for my thing. My friends mum was a big peace activist and offered my friend and I the oppurtunity to go and stay at The Greenham Common Peace Camp just outside Newbury in Berkshire.
It was actually quite a pivotal time for me though I genuinely didn’t realise it at the time. We got to stay in an actual caravan because of our age, but there is where the priveliges stopped. We had to use the composting loo, help cook and play a full part in all demonstrations. Am sure that these days we would have been whisked off by social workers and taken home where they would check our food cupboards for adequate nutrition. But this was the early 80s. We were hardcore.
Our cooking skills were fairly basic and we found it hard to eat the communal food as we were after all faddy teenagers, so we spent nearly three months living on tinned pineapple and tinned custard. No cooking required. sorted.
The women at Greenham were diverse. There were lecturers, teachers, hippies, pensioners, mothers…oh and two 15 year old girls from Sheffield who appeared from the caravan each morning fully made up and hair coiffed ready for a day of peaceful protests with the sisterhood.
‘I thought if I was an artist or poet I would have a voice, but all I could do was sit in the mud’
One day, we went into the town centre to lay some stones; each one representing a life lost in Hiroshima. As I stepped forward a woman yelled at me:
‘I’d rather my kids were dead than grew up looking like you!’
Quite a violent reaction but one that was to become very common for us and others at the camp. The American soldiers at Greenham were a huge source of revenue for the small town of Newbury. Whether it was this which caused so much resentment to what we were doing amongst locals I don’t know. There was genuine hatred towards us. We were targeted with threats that our camp would be ambushed and even with rape. It was really scary. Self professed vigilantes would come at night and slash tents and throw rocks and pig manure. We were always on edge at the likelihood of eviction at any time- luckily this didn’t happen when we were there but the baliffs had the powers to take everything you owned if they wanted to. And they did. Many times, but the women of Greenham Common moved on and set up another camp and thus it continued. It makes me glad in retrospect that we were so young and very naive to the situation we were actually in. We had no protection but we were pretty fearless.
Ironically, when we ventured into town in the evening, we often ended up walking back up the long and forboding road to the camp with American soldiers on their way back from pubs and bars. They were kind and looked out for us and never really questioned our stance on the cruise missiles due to be housed within the fences of the airbase. The conversation was far more mundane, music, food, missing family.
I only remember one line from the song we sang as we blockaded the gates.
‘You can’t kill the spirit, it’s like a mountain‘
Greenham Common was seen by some as ineffectual but my thoughts are that those women really knew how to protest! They weren’t sitting at home fearing nuclear war, they were living in a tent, in the mud, with no running water or toilets, because they were mothers,daughters,grandmothers and they were worried about the future for their kids. They were chaining themselves to fences and being dragged away by police. They were abandoning ‘traditional women’s roles’ and not returning home at the end of the day, and they were doing it for future generations. Extraordinairy bravery shown.
I think this form of protest set a precedent. It certainly armed me well for my life. Instilling a real sense of compassion and the importance of always looking beyond what the media and government tell you, questioning everything.
In 1983, my last day was ‘Embrace the Base’. 30,000 people came to join hands around the perimeter fence. It was a pretty good note to leave on: The custard and pineapple diet had taken its toll and it was time to go home.
When we have learned to love our foes
When war is a word that nobody knows
When every nuclear weapon goes