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Greenham Common

A wild pony ambles through the summer haze. Dogs and walkers pile out of cars, joggers set off along the track then silence returns, broken only by the wheels of my bike scattering pebbles on the path. After a few minutes, I come to a seat hewn out of a tree trunk. From it, across the rough terrain, there is a view of the six silos which once housed the Cruise missile mobile launchers for this is Greenham Common home, for 20 years, to thousands of women who engaged in non-violent action against the siting there of 96 nuclear weapons which, they said, threatened not only their own families but also those at whom the missiles were pointed.

For this, they were arrested, imprisoned, characterised as both unclean and sexually deviant, had eggs thrown at them and urine poured over them, stood accused of supporting Gaddafi, the USSR and more recently, by implication, Hizbullah for, when it comes to dishing the dirt on Greenham women, one size fits all.

Next Saturday, September 2nd, Sarah Hipperson (75) arrested 20 times for her peace activities, is organising a picnic at Greenham Common to mark the 25th anniversary of the arrival there of a group of mainly women, led by Ann Pettitt, who completed the 120 mile walk from Cardiff to the US base in protest at NATO’s nuclear weapons.

Helen John was among them. “ When we arrived,” she says, “ the US military advised us to leave. ” It was hospitality night at the base, the men would be drunk, rape and pillage would undoubtedly follow. Unmoved, the women were finally addressed by the base commander. “ His knuckles were clenched white with anger and he spoke the words that were to change my life,” said John. As far as he was concerned, he said, they could stay there as long as they liked. And so they did, in various combinations, until the removal of Cruise missiles was finally completed in 1991 and the last camp, at Yellow Gate, was closed, in 2000. John has twice stood for election against Tony Blair, once from a prison cell, and is now waiting to hear if she is to be prosecuted for entering the US base at Mildenhall in Yorkshire.

“ What made Cruise missiles different,” she says, “ was that they were to be ground-launched from British soil. Our presence brought the whole debate out into the open though I don’t hold the view that Greenham women were totally responsible for the end of Cruise. ”

Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University agrees with this assessment: “ The women’s main achievement was to hugely increase the public profile of Cruise, making it politically useful for the Americans to move to the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty in 1987 when Gorbachev opened things up so much. In one sense, Greenham and other movements made Cruise "a bad thing" rather than acceptable - which it could have been. My own view is that this was significant, although the real change was with the start of the Gorbachev era. Greenham would have had very little effect if it hadn't been for Gorbachev, but the combination was relevant.”

The Greenham years were tumultuous ones, marked by the resilient good humour of the women who sought always to debunk bureaucratic and legal pomposity. “ There was one woman,” says Nuala Young, Greenham veteran and now an Oxford City Councillor, “ who always brought her knitting in to court with her. Just let me finish this row, she’d say, when the clerk called out her name.”

When the missiles were taken out of the base on their monthly nocturnal run to a secret destination, the women cheered when the hapless US military drivers lost their way in the English countryside or ended up going the wrong way round a roundabout.

Sometimes, the “secret” destination was Salisbury Plain where the ponderous convoy would be met by women already there with their banners. The message was clear: if Greenham women, without benefit of cellphones or radios, knew where Cruise was being deployed, then the enemy i.e. Russia must surely know as well.

But tumultuous though they were, these were also troubled times for not only was the anti-Cruise struggle on-going there was trouble from within. “ We’d always been a democratic group,” says Jean Kaye, now eighty and a mother of four sons. “ We’d do things by consensus. Everyone had the right to be heard but then new people arrived wanting a committee and a spokesperson. Discussions were tape-recorded.” The police became more violent. (“ Madam, are you going to let go your friend’s arm or am I going to have to apply pressure to your neck? ”) Two Greenham women were attacked, one of them hospitalised. 22-year-old Helen Thomas died following a collision with a police vehicle.

“ I was away in the States,” says Nuala Young, “ and when I got back, I found we were being accused of being racist because we were white.” Distrust evolved as dissent fractured the democratic circle. Some women were suspected of being pro-Soviet, of being CIA agents, of being agents provocateurs.

Many remained steadfastly focussed on the removal of Cruise while others wanted to broaden the struggle to involve black women and to link the Wages for Housework campaign to the military budget. “ That divided Greenham women,” says Helen John, “in a way the Ministry of Defence never managed.”

Angie Zelter joined the Yellow Gate at Greenham but because no men were tolerated there at any time, moved to Orange Gate: “ We were a family. I didn’t want husbands and sons denigrated.” Zelter, now a full-time environmental campaigner, was recently arrested while checking out US military planes at Prestwick Airport and expects to be charged soon. With what? “ Some law to do with being on a military aircraft without reasonable excuse.” It has happened so many times, she is offhand about the details. Now, like many other Greenham women, she is engaged in organising a blockade at Faslane in Scotland where Trident crews live and their submarines are serviced.

Earlier this month, at the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp, Di Macdonald, formerly part of the Cruise Watch network, recalled her early work: “ There was always that terrible call in the middle of the night that the convoy was moving off. While you were pulling on your knickers you’d run through the checklist – full tank of petrol, flask of hot tea, map.” Now she is involved in monitoring the Trident warheads made at Aldermaston which are moved to nearby Burghfield for assembly before being transported to Scotland for loading onto nuclear submarines.

“ Greenham is done and dusted,” says MacDonald. “ The next generation of Tridents is due to be upgraded or replaced and although the government hasn’t made a pronouncement, cranes are already in place here at Aldermaston suggesting they’ve started work on the buildings which will house the new lasers they’ll need for research. That’s why the action is now centred on Faslane. ”

So has Greenham any resonance for younger women today or will the upcoming picnic be no more than a nostalgia trip for those who lived through it all? Camping at Aldermaston, Louise Smith - at 32 too young to have been there - listens to the talk of mud-fever and sleeping in bin liners when the bailiffs had carted away tents and bedding. “ I have to be careful,” she says, “ not to romanticise what the women did.” She thinks that the days when young women camped out at Greenham for years on end have gone: “ For one thing, if you’re unemployed, you have to sign on for the job seeker’s allowance and you can’t do that from a tent at Aldermaston.” Jenny Brown, 27, would definitely have gone to Greenham and now supports any organisation that challenges the dominance of big businesses.

16-year-old Oriole Bacon, awaiting her GCSE results knows all about Greenham women: “ I read about them in books and stuff. They were peaceful but they did what they could to disrupt things. I wouldn’t have supported them though as I’m totally opposed to unilateral disarmament. ”

The nightjar, the bee orchid and the bell heather have all returned to Greenham and a man, passing me on my bike warns me to watch out for cows. There are no ghosts here for the women have moved on. Ann Pettitt, who started it all, is working full-time as a ceramicist: “ If we’re looking for a world without nuclear weapons,” she says, “ that’s 50 years away. A world without war is a thousand years away.”

“Greenham” by Sarah Hipperson, is available from sarah.hipperson@
Ann Pettitt’s “ Walking to Greenham” is published by Honno on September 5th.

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