What the press completely missed was that Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp could be fun!
I have only one regret, and that is that I didn’t go to Greenham earlier, 1982 and stay until 1985 rather than just for 1984 & 85. I had no idea how original Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was going to be. There was no leadership at all; everyone did what they wanted to, banding together for actions that could be as big as “Embrace the base” – involving enough women to encircle the nine-mile perimeter fence, or as small as a couple of very respectable-looking women, on night watch, cutting their way through a whole section of fence, because they thought it was the right thing to do and they felt like it. The media and authorities couldn’t handle the numbers involved and the fact that there were no leaders to pick off. They had no frame of reference; the last time women took direct action, on such a scale without men, was to get the vote. At first, the press regarded us as well-meaning but naïve; when we didn’t leave, the hatred started.
Sarah, the friend I went down with, drove us around the perimeter fence 9 times, so that’s ninety miles before we felt brave enough to stop, get out, and speak to anyone; so great was the anti-Greenham sentiment at the time. We stopped at that smallest encampment, Indigo Gate – a few women camping on the side of the road opposite the golf course. All the camps had adopted colours of the rainbow for names: Yellow – main gate, Blue another main entrance, Indigo, the smallest camp next to an unused gate, Violet on a bank, by an unused gate with room for parking by it, Orange on a piece of pebbly open common land, facing the base but to one side, Green off the main road and in woodland. I mainly stayed at Indigo and Violet. Other small camps opened and closed around the base depending on who was where.
Greenham represented a recovery from my car crash of a school career – no, my life didn’t have to be the way my teachers or anyone else predicted. It was my life to live by my rules – within 10 years of leaving Greenham; I’d achieved everything I’d ever dreamt of at school – alma mater Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp! Due to the confidence I’d gained there, including defending myself in Reading Crown Court, I had the nerve to try for the career I wanted in TV Drama Production.
The greatest misconception about Greenham was that it was all very serious. Not true; it was the most creative chaos I’ve ever been part of – it could be very clever, very witty, very resourceful, very generous, very kind, and very silly.
Tents got damaged during evictions, so women designed benders – like plastic tepees – easy to pick up in a hurry. One woman created a bender rolled on to the side of a tree; it was a thing of beauty – every possession had its place, and the bailiffs and police never found it. At Indigo gate Canadian Liz solved the daily inconvenience of being evicted by building a mobile bender called Pearl out of pallets and repurposed wheels with a light blue plastic roof. It looked like a small gypsy Canavan. During early morning evictions, she just filled it with our stuff and wheeled it off; the police threatened to seize it as unroadworthy, so Liz et al. wheeled into a churchyard, rang Lambeth palace to ask for sanctuary, and got it! Meanwhile, back at Indigo gate, I was left with nothing, couldn’t follow as my boots had been evicted. So I was sat next to the empty fire pit on the verge of the road, very hungry, when a red Volvo, and it was a Volvo, pulled up, and a guy stuck his head out, “Would you like some veggie stew?” To this day, I can’t remember a meal I enjoyed more!
The press was vitriolic about children living at Greenham. I couldn’t think of a better place for them – usually, they were at Green or Orange gates – more room to run around, they always had someone to play with, they always had multiple women watching over them – for children, Greenham was like one long camping holiday. Plus, they were exposed to the widest cross-section of women: academics, members of a punk rock band, miner’s wives, politicians, journalists, students, lawyers – you name it, Greenham had them.
There was, at times, fierce but always respectful debates. A typical one involved Annie Butcher – a heroine of mine. Annie was the type of anarchist who’d never eat more than her share of the food in the fridge or rather a fridge pit. She was one of the most straight-talking, clear-sighted people I’ve ever met. Judy and Annie at indigo gate used to write the Greenham Newspaper – I wish I’d kept more than one copy. The calligraphy was beautiful. They just wrote it together and went into Newbury to get photocopies. During a debate about decorating the fence with pictures of children – of all those at risk from nuclear arms, Annie said why put photos of those you love on something so ugly? Were you Jewish would you decorate the fences at Auschwitz? Women still decorated the fence as the missiles were about what could happen not about what has happened, but I thought the point well made.
One group of women sent to Holloway Prison were left standing in a courtyard waiting to be strip-searched. The older women twigged that their younger sisters were feeling intimidated by being strip-searched, so while singing “The Stripper Tune,” they started stripping in the courtyard; the prison guards said, “Ok, ok, we won’t strip search you.” Problem solved!
One woman said she could get into the base through the gates! She got herself dolled up as a ‘normal’ woman drove to main gate, telling the squaddies she’d lost her invite to the disco inside. “No problem Love.” Later while dancing with a GI, he asked her where she lived, “Oh, inside one of the benders outside main gate,” she replied.
Sometimes Greenham was a place of refuge for those escaping domestic violence and those who were having issues with their mental health; all were given protection and treated with tolerance and kindness.
Some of the visitors were a big surprise – we had women visit who’d been in the French Resistance.
Women at Green Gate (affectionately dubbed a holiday camp as they got the least flack being in woodland away from the main road) decided to protest against eviction by all stripping off and jumping into bed together. On discovery, the bailiffs ran away, leaving the police to persuade women to pack up. One PC was left in the police van with the backdoors unlocked. So Greengate women decided to occupy the police van!
There were a few women with ‘eccentric’ beliefs, one woman who wore loads of metal all over her – she said that she was going to talk to the convey, that night the primary vehicle in the convoy broke down on its way out! The following day they drove it up and down the runway checking for problems.
There were constant complaints in the press about it being a women-only peace camp. Let me illustrate why. It was not unheard of for men to come during the day. Unfortunately, it was not unusual for them to tell us what we were doing wrong – I rest my case.
Greenham didn’t end: women took away with them what they learned and used it: after making friends in Holloway women’s prison, some went on to work for prison reform, some trained as lawyers to represent other protesters during other campaigns, my irradiated friend Steph went on to work in publishing, and for Medicine Without Borders, my friend Sarah trained as a teacher, a social worker and currently works for a Charity Helping families in crisis. I might have let the side down a bit by choosing a career in TV Drama! However, the trade union movement got me back on track in terms of a career that directly contributes.
Sadly, Annie Butcher, the truest anarchist I ever met, died in a swimming accident in Scotland in 1996.
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