Sunday, 23 March 2014


Greenham women gather at the base in 1982.
Photo: Ceridwen

I found out about the Bomb when I was about seven, when my primary school teacher informed us, in a slightly panicky way, that it didn't matter that the Russians had their 'rockets,' as we had our 'rockets' and if they fired theirs at us they might kill all of us, but we would also kill all of them. I failed to find this reassuring, and in any case, it seemed so ghastly that I went home and begged my parents to tell me it wasn't true. 'I'm afraid,' my father said, 'it is.'
For anyone too young to remember these things, from the end of the war onwards, between the end of World War 2 and the end of the 1980s, so-called Communism dominated Russia and Eastern Europe. In fact it was an empire of territories taken over by Soviet Russia after the Second World War; Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, etc, and ruled by state terror. What was called the Iron Curtain was a border which the citizens of these countries were not permitted to cross, and across the Curtain the West and the East looked mistrustfully at each other, armed to the teeth. I have to remember that a child born on the day the Berlin Wall fell is now twenty-two years old. (Oh, dear, that makes me feel old.)
Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. 'We're waiting for the Americans to attack Russia with their rockets,' a classmate said, 'and then we'll send our rockets to them, and that will be the end of the world.'
Letter from John F Kennedy to the
Soviet Union's Mr Khruschev about
Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba
Source: Wikimedia Commons
 When my parents rather unwisely took me with them to see 'Dr Strangelove', when I was about twelve, I wouldn't stay in the cinema, I found the film too terrifying. And yet, as I went into my teen years, the balance of terror faded into the background and seemed almost liveable with.
Forward to 1978, when I had just put my first baby back for a sleep after feeding her, and heard someone say on the radio that a nuclear war was inevitable and we would have to learn to cope with one. I thought of my little, helpless sleeping child, and found myself in frightened, angry tears.
I had my second baby in December 1980, by which time the decision to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe had been taken, and the SS20s, the Soviet equivalent, were being deployed on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The policy of a balance of terror (Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD) had been replaced by a new policy: the Cruise missiles could get beneath radar defences and fly undetected to Moscow. This was called 'a limited nuclear war in Europe.' How you could call it limited was hard for some of us to understand, when the firepower of each Cruise missile was equal to ten Hiroshima bombs, and there were sixteen missiles in every convoy.
Endangered species?
Photo: David Wilson

The day after my younger daughter was born, I stared out at the trees outside the John Radcliffe Hospital and saw instead enormous engines of destruction rolling, threatening my children. Within six months the Government's 'Protect and Survive' leaflet had been issued to households. Mrs Thatcher was proclaiming that we must fight the Evil Empire of the East, and telling us that we could survive a nuclear strike by making a Fall-Out Room and hiding in there when the bomb fell. Of course, that would only be useful to those living well away from Ground Zero (the point of impact). 'Better dead than red,' we were told. However, my mother, who had experienced conquest by the Red Army, did not agree. If the Russians scared Mrs Thatcher, she scared me. Badly.

I never worried about telling my kids about sex, but I worried about telling them about the bomb. I tried to keep it from them for as long as possible, but my elder daughter heard things at school, so I had to tell them, though I tried to soften the bad news. Kathy, who was then about six, said: 'Children shouldn't have to hear something like that!' I knew exactly how she felt.
In September 1981, while I and the other people in our village were shoving through doors leaflets called 'The effect of a one-megaton bomb on Carfax,' a group called 'Women for Life on Earth' marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common, where the Cruise missiles were to be stationed. I remember someone telling me that some women had chained themselves to the fence and said they would stay there as long as the Cruise missiles were there. I was, frankly, sceptical.

In 1985, the missiles were already at Greenham, and we moved to live in Berkshire. I was so naïve I didn't realise I was moving into the heart of nuclear country. The initial wave of protest had damped down a bit, but then Chernobyl happened, and I was worrying because the children had walked home with me, in the rain. Human beings keep going in the comfortable hope that the worst won't happen. Chernobyl was an uncomfortable reminder that it sometimes does. And a leaflet for the local peace group came through the door of our new home, and I rang the number on it and joined. I became more and more active in the local CND; doing something helped enormously with the fear. I also took part in two pieces of civil disobedience and was arrested. The first was at the Burghfield nuclear bomb factory near Reading, and was part of the Snowball campaign - you cut a piece of MOD fence and were arrested and then went to court and argued that you had committed a crime to prevent the greater crime of nuclear war.
Being arrested at Burghfield, 1987. The white suits
were meant to be radiation suits. I am on the left. My arresting
officer was quite rough - I saw him later, at another demo,
and pointed out that he hadn't needed to be, and he apologized.

The second was part of a Christian CND peace protest on Ash Wednesday; we were to 'ash' the MOD building in Whitehall in token of repentance, as Catholics have ash put on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. As it happened, on that day (February 6th, I think, 1988), the MOD decided to stop us, having been ashed the previous year, and surrounded the building with crowd barriers and a line of police. However, monks and nuns grabbed the media attention by leaping over the barriers (I found a weak spot in the defences and nipped in there without having to hurdle). 62 of us were arrested; we made the front pages of most national newspapers, and when I rang up the local papers about it the next day they were delighted. 'Mum in demo charge,' their headline went. Incidentally, being locked up in a cell, and then prosecuted, made me wonder what it must have been like to risk far worse things in Nazi Germany - and that was crucial for my later writing career.
 My actions shocked a lot of people, but others were impressed, because I was so obviously not an extremist, just a local mother-of-two, and it made them think how important the issue was. I must stress that I was taking less risks than others in carrying out these two actions, being self-employed. When I subsequently became co-ordinator for the Burghfield Snowball, I dissuaded several sixth-formers from getting arrested, because of the possible impact on their future careers. I hope they haven't held it against me, but that came back to me when I wrote my story in the DAUGHTERS OF TIME anthology, about the girl who runs away to Greenham.
From about 1986 onwards, I also went regularly to Greenham, for the women were still there, year after year, in spite of evictions, vigilante action, and police brutality. At first, I took them a lot of wood that I'd found piled up at the back of our garden: in fact it wasn't much use for the Greenham fire, and would have been better left to support beneficial organisms in the garden, but the women graciously took it anyway, and my car was used, subsequently, to go and load up more useful wood and bring it to the camp. I was never arrested at Greenham, nor did I take part in big demos there (apart from turning out in the middle of the night to demonstrate against the Cruise convoy when it came in). But every few weeks I got restless and would head off there, bearing vegan food. One night, too, a friend and I went to do a night watch, so that the women could sleep. It was the birthday of one of the women, a very young woman called Lynne, and she got a lot of spray paints for a present. I heard a woman say that one day she got fed up with spraying noble slogans and just painted 'Nerdy, nerdy, noo-noo.' There was a very cold winter and a lot of snow. I used to wonder if I'd find a lot of frozen corpses sitting round a cold fire, but the women survived, thanks to Gore-tex survival bags.
I never took photographs when I went there, but if you want to see some amazing photos of the Cruise convoy as I saw it, and described it in the DAUGHTERS OF TIME story, you can go to 
The paint on the launchers, if you scroll down on that site, was quite likely put there by my friend Lynette Edwell, a redoubtable lady from Newbury (she appears, with her permission, at the end of the story) who would put a bin bag full of rubbish in the path of the convoy, which then had to stop to make sure it wasn't an explosive: she would profit by the halt to throw paint. Once, the entire convoy was stopped by a potato in the exhaust pipe of the lead vehicle. The potato was subsequently displayed in the US forces mess, thus showing that they did have a sense of humour!
The missile silos today. Photo: David Wilson
There was conflict at the camp, and abrasiveness too, but for me, and for the Peace Movement as a whole, Greenham was quite vital, a source of energy and insight. It made it impossible for women to be regarded as secondary, because they had demonstrated courage, resourcefulness, surviveability and sheer toughness. If, as Joan Ruddock asserted, the Cruise convoy was never able to melt into the countryside (which was the idea, thus evading a Soviet first strike in times of tension) it was due to the Cruisewatch organisation which the Greenham women participated in and which tracked it on its war-preparation exercises on Salisbury Plain ('they do survival games,' I was told, 'but we're better at it than they are.') Well, I knew they were.They also knew, by watching the base, when it was likely to go out. Of course, in a time of war, the women would have all been interned, but all along the route every time it went out posters and placards went up, thus keeping it in public consciousness.
The women weren't just woolly-hatted idealists keeping the watch outside the base; they were clued-up in international law, in strategic, military, and policy issues. They went to Russia and challenged the 'official' peace groups who wanted to co-opt them as part of their propaganda campaign. They made contact with dissident, real peace groups, and protested if anything happened to them. They fought the issue of the enclosure of the Common tooth and nail, and were vindicated in the end when it was shown that the US occupation was in fact illegal and thus most of the convictions of women for criminal trespass were invalid.
The other crucial thing was that Greenham women 'made the links.' Single-issue campaigning it wasn't, really. We all learned about the military-industrial complex, about the connection between the threat to life on earth, and dispossessed populations in the South Pacific; about the conditions of uranium miners; about sexism in daily life, domestic violence and racism, and the link to the violence of the nuclear stand-off.
And it truly changed my ideas about myself as a woman. It demolished frontiers in my mind, and made it possible to think outrageous things. Ultimately, I believe it made it possible for me really to become a writer.
Decorating the fence 1982
 Writing the story about Greenham Common, in DAUGHTERS OF TIME, brought so much back, especially when I wrote the opening, where the young heroine watches the convoy come in as I once stood, confronting the very engines of death whose phantoms had rolled towards the hospital as I stood there with little Jo in my arms. When I'd written it, I realised that it reads like dystopic fiction - but it was real.
The nuclear brinkmanship of the Eighties is often credited with bringing the end of the Cold War, and those people who assert this dismiss anti-nuclear protest as pointless and counter-productive.
However, during that period, there was an episode when the Russians thought they saw the Cruise missiles coming over, and almost launched the SS20s in response. The world escaped by a hairs-breadth. We were incredibly lucky. But to say that the lucky escape validates the policy is like saying that a person who drives their car along a crowded motorway at 130 mph has done the right thing, because they were lucky enough not to get involved in an accident. I still believe that the governments of the time took enormous and criminal risks. I believe all of us were right to protest; and perhaps, without that protest, even more hideous risks might have been taken. I honour and respect the gallant and dedicated women who stayed all those years at Greenham, and am proud that I was able (both figuratively and literally) to help keep the fire burning,
The Common restored, with silos in background. It is now
a nature reserve. Photo: David Wilson.


JO said...

Thank you so much for this.

I live not far away, but had small children and a husband who wouldn't have managed if I'd stayed there, so I visited often with provisions - coffee, tea, biscuits, stuff like that.

I can't light a fire in my garden without it takes me back to the smell of woodsmoke round the fire at Greenham!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for writing about this, here and in Daughters of Time - I think the Cold War is kind of hard to believe/feel/connect with, if you didn't live through it.

P.S. I was there! Didn't get arrested but held hands and decorated the fence. Glad to be able to say that!

Leslie Wilson said...

Maybe we met there sometimes!

Theresa Breslin said...

Terrific post Leslie. As you say - these experiences do change our ideas of ourselves as women. I love your last pic with the label 'Common restored' and look on it as a symbol of hope. Looking fwd to reading your story.

Vicki Woodman said...

Brilliant and interesting post. I am researching the experiences of naval wives and families at the time of the Falklands war and I think the contrast of how they and the Greenham women were portrayed at the time is fascinating.

Clare Mulley said...

Really interesting post, thank you. I never went. I was 16 in 1985, and read all about it, my teenage friends and I did a bit of local CND campaigning and went on marches, but I wish I had gone to Greenham at least once. Full of admiration. Also, have ordered the book.

Leslie Wilson said...

I was in Hong Kong when Embrace the Base happened - sorry I missed that.. yes, it is encouraging to see the Common restored. I have a 'Dogwalkers Against the Bomb' badge, which says 'dogs, not bombs', and that day I returned to Greenham there were loads of dogs, including ours, but no bombs. However, the Crimean situation and the stand-off with Putin is a bit worrying. Apparently it is going to perhaps stall the disarmament process. I have a nasty feeling I may have to start wearing those badges again.
I do hope not.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I did manage to get to Greenham once and enormously admire your actions Leslie. My children were under two when Chernobyl happened. We threw away all the pears from the garden and only bought cheese from Australia. The very air seemed poisoned. As my sister-in-law said, it could happened two or three times in their lifetime. Great post and wonderful story in the anthology, Daughters of Time