“I’d seen redtop newspaper headlines blazing about how Greenham was a “hotbed of lesbian sex” so I had extremely high hopes…”

Pretending To Protest

Maj Ikle

Desperate to find a new girlfriend and urgent to liberate myself from an authoritarian London lesbian feminist scene, with its expanding rules and dwindling membership, I became preoccupied with visiting Greenham Common women’s peace camp.

Even before I’d left my Mum’s house forever I’d seen redtop newspaper headlines blazing about how Greenham was a “hotbed of lesbian sex” so I had extremely high hopes. I put up posters of the chain letter put out inviting women to a ‘hands around the base’ demo and because I was the women’s officer was able to wrangle borrowing the student union minibus.

Early on that March morning, our breath is snorting from our noses like bulls in a hoar frosted field. Loading up with our tents and stuff it seemed the seats in the minibus were slightly oversubscribed which meant some of the rad fems had to squeeze up against some of the ‘straight’ women in the women’s group. But muttering like bickering owls anytime anyone mentioned a male child or partner meant the journey was tensely quiet until on the M4 to Newbury we caught sight of the actual sign to RAF Greenham Common. 

Someone had sprayed a triple women’s symbol all over the motorway sign, scrawled out RAF and badly painted in USAF instead. It was electrifying, that women were so emboldened that they were happy to spread their dissent and risk arrest even this far away from the base. The bus erupted into shrieks of delight, possibly as much with relief that the journey was approaching its end than with suddenly realising common ground.

The MOD, having diligently signposted directions, helped us find our way to the nuclear missile base very easily – each sign is scrawled on with an increasing amount of peace and women’s symbols till the main entrance comes into view women are all over it. There are ribbons threaded through the fence with the word peace or pictures of doves and CND symbols, so patiently and thoroughly woven in that clearly nobody has the time or inclination to take them down. Even the road is painted in splashy decorating paints proclaiming that women are ‘here to stay til the missiles go away’.  Such is the fun and optimism about the place it seems at first to be a festival site rather than a protest.

As I carry on and drive around the base for a while, there are long stretches of unmarked road beside a chain link fence that seems punctuated by gates we see more clusters of police uniforms and women wearing thick winter coats and bright badly knitted hats. As we approach one such zone, women are literally everywhere, certainly hundreds, it is amazing to see so many friendly faces all smiles and laughter.  From toothless babies to wrinkled crones they spill out of cars and stomp around with top heavy rucksacks, sit picnicking on the grass as well as gathering in groups laughing and hugging each other like lovers. We drive slowly through, watching women fetching and carrying, putting up tents, making fires and tying wool to the fence. Minibuses are still just arriving filled to capacity with women as we pull into a solid grassy parking spot. I’ve had to sign a piece of paper to say I accept responsibility to personally pay for any damage to the minibus so I’m being fussy about where we leave it. Most of the gates have been a complete wreck of mud until we arrive one where the layout seems less chaotic.

It is far from the main road to be self-contained, on a spur track that seems to end abruptly in a dead end at the gate. Because of this there is plenty of space to park safely away from all the action and churned up soft verge. We find out later we have arrived at Orange Gate, each of the nine gates being named after a colour of the rainbow, plus two and only a mile or so away from the main or yellow gate.

As I prepare to enter the throng I realise that the hairs on my neck have stood up vertically, like my body is trying to extract as much information from this moment as it can. I am shivery with adrenal excitement from this unfamiliar feeling of being in the company of so many women. For once it is our voices filling the airwaves, it’s like a theme park for feminists. 

Once we are all out of the bus we agree to meet there again the next evening at six pm as it’s obvious we aren’t planning to make a camp together. I strike out alone determined to keep to my plan of making new friends. I am brought up short though by staring through the chain link fence for a moment and realising that I can actually see nuclear missile tips in the distance it is 1984 and they have only actually been there for 3 month but they look like they have no intention of being ousted.

Like freshly sharpened pencils, red rings painted on sleek white, the ready for business missiles line up efficiently in their silos while the women’s peace camp sprawls in contrast the other side of the fence. New circle of tents blooming colours onto the empty scrubland. I stand stuck in some sort of shocked state. It is as if all my studenty debating about the pros and cons of war suddenly dissolve into asinine soup eclipsed by this chunky cynical reality. Permanently erect, ready at four minutes notice to commence a war of mutually assured destruction for both the Russians and us. Is it mad to even try to object?

Because of them though, here are we. Women attending this weekend to celebrate international women’s day and peace. Creating and consolidating connections with one another, objecting ‘en masse’ to deals done in the corridors of power that gamble with human lives to push political advantage. Us, mere women, weak and only good for soft jobs unless we pretend to be men like Thatcher and war monger with the rest of them have no say. But, like an army of ants our sheer weight of numbers and determination are drawing the eyes of Britain onto the American Airbase and how it is using us as a boxing glove.

Women who, unlike me, have brought cameras, get busy taking pictures or putting up brand new tents but those who live permanently here, it is obvious sleep under sheets of grubby plastic tarpaulin thrown over a pegged down tree. This makes no sense to me and I sit down at a smoky firepit to ask why they don’t just camp comfortably. I’m told in a patient but weary voice that constant evictions by bailiffs mean that they have no camping equipment left at all. Every rain or sunshiny day warrants issued by the local courts are enforced by bailiffs and a team of bin men to commandeer and destroy everything they can find belonging to the women, which they do with apparent relish.

Because of this constant tearing down women have learned to live with only the amount of stuff that can be held in your arms during an eviction. A bit of clear plastic and a sleeping bag being the absolute essentials. This has been their lives for nearly ten years already they say. I stare at the muddy puddles inside the so-called ‘benders’ and know that I wasn’t like them, they must be more robust, built differently to me. I tell myself that somehow these women are better able to withstand cold and misery better than I could.  I try to pin this theory onto the older women who live there but I have to have a very big spliff to make it stick.

Remembering my mission to get a new girlfriend I go walking off road amongst the scrubland filled with tents. Immediately it feels as though I have wandered into an enchanted forest where women have settled into a completely nomadic way of living. Tents surround little fires where smiling women are cooking and talking together. 

By one fireside I come across a curious scene, a young women is sitting on an incongruous school chair having her long blonde beautiful hair completely shaved. The expression of quiet serenity on her face as the hair falls away and the way the other women around her are quietly watching, gives it an atmosphere of ceremony or ritual.

Captivated by this metaphor for how women aren’t going to offer their up long hair to be dragged into caves any longer, I watch, waiting till it is completely finished and she shakes the tiny hairs off her before smiling into a mirror someone offers. Although her hair was long and shining pale blonde in a traditional style of beauty, now she looks ardent and raw, her eyes are now the focus of her face she shines. Women have got serious about their politics.

I continue my journey towards the communal fire nearest the gate, where a women sits suckling a baby who has fallen off asleep but the woman sits un-selfconscious about her breast, drinking tea.  There is happy shouting everywhere often responded to with great cackling retorts coming from all directions, women embrace with one another deeply still as they enjoy the feeling of their bodies connecting together in friendship or sexual love.   

Everywhere I look women seem to be kissing and touching one another. Is it me or has a sexual shiver spread through even the women I would have had down as straight before I saw them like this?  As if they have simultaneously discovered the lesbian part of themselves. Is it simply the freedom that comes from being so many together of us without fearing the punishing obscenities of men?  Does it take this separation for us to raise our eyes and realise how beautiful the women sat next to us really is?

The air itself seems to be a wild aphrodisiac. Women who were talking about campaigning themselves into prison one minute ago, now open their mouths to pleasure one another. Shyly I realise I am between two sets of sexy fondlers wishing I had someone with whom I could try this al fresco gourmandizing.

Instead I study the fire. Blackened kettles balance precarious, displaying melted, barely graspable plastic handles, threatening to topple at the smallest shift of a log. Around us is a blast site, a muddy ring where women arrive, depart and step around the circle. Beyond on the only patch of grass left, someone has made fake shelves out of milk crates, piled plastic boxes storing all kinds of herbal teabags. There is even a melty washing up bowl and drainer filled with mugs, everything is filthy on the outside but reasonably clean where it counts sort of functionally post-apocalyptic.

Thirsty, I wonder when someone who know the ropes will make tea.  It seems only fair after how far we’ve come to support them but no one offers me anything even when they make some for other women around the fire and all of them seem completely fussy about what kind of tea they want and what kind of special milk they need. After an age of arguing it seems everyone else has one but me until, because it contains ‘cow’s milk’ I get offered a filthy mug of something hot that someone else didn’t want.

Wondering what other kind of milk there was, I only become aware of the degree of generosity I have received as I watch two women drag a ludicrously heavy plastic container of water two hundred yards from a standpipe set by the gate. It is obvious they have a system. That they must do this many times a day but despite an old ladies shopping trolley that seems to defy engineering to the degree which it continues despite being almost completely submerged beneath the mud, they are covered with mud splatter by the time they return. This is the point at which point I feel guilty for thinking them selfish for not offering a cuppa as soon as I sat down at their firepit.

Next the same couple set about the nearby scrubland collecting gorse branches by the armful. They bring these back to replenish the wood on the fire that has nearly burned away. I wait again sipping whatever it is in my cup, not sure if it is coffee or tea but aware now how grateful I am to have a wet warm drink. Periodically the burning wood shifts, causing the contents of the kettle to spill out and douse the flames. I watch this scene happen twice more before finally, sufficient steam is blasted from the blackened spout for the water to be deemed ‘properly boiling’. 

If it is this hard to make tea, I realise, I’m not going to be moving in and joining the permanent protest community. My romantic utopian vision of a lesbian paradise was, I could see now, out of my league, not all hot chocolate and sex in tents, but a grim determination to meet human basic needs with the prospect only of prison to break the ordeal.

Meanwhile everyone around me is snogging and or fondling with fervent desire. I look around to see if anything could extricate myself from the fevered snog fest. From out of an old brown kitchen tent that had seen many healthier days, a woman calls for ‘volunteers to chop veg?’ Up shoots my ‘eager to escape’ hand.  After a sort of snort, she motions towards a sack of carrots and I gush “happy to help.” 

I sit staring at a filthy carrot, hoping someone will join me in this going-to-take-all-day job, I seem to have signed myself up to. Then realise that I am being seen as a genuine ‘Greenham Woman’ by others walking by.  Photos are being taken of me beside the mountain of carrots and women have begun to ask me questions about the location of the shit pits and what time lunch will be ready.  At first, I motion towards the real ‘Greenham women’ inside but after realising this is winding them up I just relay the instructions I’ve heard and start to imagine that this is my calling. I should leave my stupid sociology degree to move down here, join in with this attempt to stop nuclear proliferation. I am already noticing women I want to get to know better.

From my peeling advantage point I am able to see women as they pass by. I realise some are giving me admiring glances, when I say me what I mean is the real Greenham woman that they think I am. The one who manages to live through the daily evictions and then peel a whole sack of carrots without even breaking a sweat.  From inside the tent though I can also hear anxious raised voices about how many of the visitors were going to “stay here with us?”

Finally, after what is at least two hours, I am relieved of carrot peeling duties, it is over and my carrots are added to the stew. I am encouraged to take my food by jumping to the front of the enormous queue but once this is done I become a mere weekender all over again. I keep my head down in case anyone is witnessing my demotion. All that glorious attention has now been transferred to those serving to the queue.  Unable to stand that and the everyone kissing but me thing  I skulk away to my tent for the earliest of nights.  Far from getting a new gf I’m actually hiding away hoping nobody has noticed me pretending to be a ‘real’ Greenham woman.

The next day is Sunday and the time of the big action for which we had all come.  Women have dressed up and many of them have peace symbols painted on their faces and bright hedge flowers in their hair.

Some hold up mirrors to reflect to the soldiers what they look like to us and try to entreat them to act peacefully, they don’t engage. There are many more of us than them. Women tie threads of wool to the wire fence in the shape of webs while the rest of us sing easy chants and rounds.

After about an hour  women start sitting down on the ground facing the eight-foot high, chain-link gate singing; “all we are saying; is give peace a chance.”

It is only four years since Lennon was killed. A spine quivering spirit of peace fills the air, like a choir of thrushes, our high sweet voices rise as American soldiers began to line up inside the fence to face down our ‘terrorist threat’. I suddenly feel totally part of what is going on, I’m not sure if it is the quality of the singing that has taken me to a sort of ecstatic connection, it’s like the feelings I used to get in church when I was a lonely kid but I’m sure I can feel the embryonic buds of my activist bones solidify. Something more important than getting women to fancy me is calling out to me now; stopping the destruction of this beautiful planet.

For a moment, we are all held in a glorious equilibrium. Us, choiring peace solutions. Them dark male opposites preparing to protect, by any means necessary, their weapons of mass destruction.  Then the British police on our side of the fence suddenly begin to drag women away from the gate scrapping them a long way on the floor first as if we were bags of rubbish.

Someone whispers to me how heavy I will become if I ‘go limp,’ so I do as well as pass it on as a whisper to the women sitting next to me. Linking arms, we nod in a promise to one another that we will to stay put whatever happens. 

I watch white knuckled policeman’s hands try to haul up the women sitting alongside me. It is hard to think limp when the anxiety adrenaline kicks in about where and how those hands will grab you. They work in teams and the floppy bodies need to be held in many places and are easily dropped. The indignity of having disrespectful hands pulling at my droopy body doesn’t put me off. For once in my life I am more afraid of the effect of those missiles on my whole world if I do nothing. There is a greater authority than the British police trying to get the missiles moving, our planet. Suddenly the only religion that will ever make sense, calls me daughter.

It is at that very moment with the pleas of peace singing soprano all around while men force women away from trying to stop world destroying weapons that one of the seps, bends over to warn me that I have committed to drive everyone home in the minibus. If I get arrested they will be left stranded, I find myself dragged away.

*

Jo Freemantle was a travelling poet with long dangly arms and such impossibly big eyes that I plunged into love without stopping to inhale.  Jo was bursting with fun politics, writing ‘Lesbians ignite in armed snuggle’ on the walls of toilets with a fat marker pen every chance she got.

I can’t remember where we met but I will never forget dancing in the pyramid shaped rooms of her central London, Bloomsbury squat. The music must have been in our heads because she did not have any electricity connected. 

Dawn through the angled wall of windows struck the polished linoleum tiles with such fierce brightness that we were forced to hide our eyes from its penetrating glare, under the bedclothes. 

Jo had some pills she called ‘Dexy’s’. A kind of stimulant that apparently a band called ‘Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ had named themselves after because of how well they kept you awake. We opened up our lungs to a couple of verses from ‘Come on Eileen’ as a tribute. 

The pills had been prescribed for a condition Jo called narcolepsy where she would fall asleep suddenly if she didn’t take them.  I’d never even heard of it but I loved her black shiny plastic pills, they gave us time off the pesky interruption of sleep to explore what our bodies were capable of. There were no orgasms that I remember but dripping with sweat we would rub and hump in utter ecstasy until we collapsed.  Sex was my newfound religion and I was a zealot.

We made cups of tea on a gas ring and fetched in chips and kebabs whenever we noticed we were hungry.  Jo persuaded me that vegetarianism was a middle class luxury as those of us living hand to mouth had to have meat to stay alive. My dole was now divided between meat, fags, spliff, brandy and cola. 

Jo also taught me about the politics of being gay, about how we all had to stick together against strait society and not just hide away in clubs, fucking and skiving. That, just like a trade union we were powerful united against the white men that ignorantly claimed to be in the majority. How if you properly worked it out, there are more black people than white in the world, more women than men, so in a real democracy, black women should be the ones in charge because they, unlike white men, weren’t an ethnic minority.

A founder member of a Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual youth group, Jo proudly showed me the flyers and newsletter she helped produce.  I wanted to impress her that I had politics too so I told her about my desire to go and live at Greenham; Jo suggested we go right away.

I laughed but she was earnest.  That very moment we started pushing her bedding into bin bags. Splashing our cunty faces with cold water, we counted out our train fare and pulled on our coats. On our way out the door we left a note saying ‘Free squat –enjoy yourselves. (It’s later than you think!) 

Arriving at Newbury railway station in the mid-afternoon of a 1985 June day, Jo immediately hitched us a lift to the camp with two impossibly smelly peace women returning to camp from a shopping expedition.

As we lay in the back of their delightfully spider webbed messy complete little home we fantasised some homeless people coming upon the flat and tentatively pushing at the open door.  We imagined their thrill at finding the little gas cooker, the clean mugs and tea we had left and we hugged each other tight with the sheer joy.

Conscious of leaving a bad impression the last time I had been there, I headed back to orange gate to show off to those women who hadn’t believed I’d come back. As we climbed out of the bus and ambled over to a tiny fire pit, less than half a dozen women sat around it, none of the women I remembered seemed to be there.

Immediately Jo wanted to see the action at the main gate.  I was disappointed with how few women were there, that I asked one of the women who had welcomed us with big hugs and smiles to walk us round to Yellow immediately after our first cup of tea.

Stashing our bin bags under a random plastic tarpaulin we tromped off. The US base had been sort of shoehorned into a section of woodland on the common, so in places the trees were right up against the fence. It was a hot day and we walked slowly, trailing our fingers against the chain link and stopping to admire the peace symbols, love hearts and rainbows women had carefully woven in. 

Jo and I were full of plans to stay at the camp until the missiles were returned to the US; it seemed the only logical step.  As the three of us walked, mostly in single file, our guide entertained us with stories of women who had broken into the base. The tales of women entangled into long court battles soon turned from hilarious bravery on the part of the women to ones about druggings, beatings and even rapes by squaddies.

My middle class wimpery shivered inside my head as I started to realise that living at the camp would not be enough. I would be expected to take an active part in the campaign to have the missiles removed; I would have to be prepared to go to prison. 

Prison terrified me. Not the part about being stuck in an institution, after all I was only just out of school.  More it was the fear of sexual violence that clawed my guts with crampons.  All I could imagine was that I would be forced at Stanley knife blade point to do submit to all sorts of terrible sexual acts, flashes of Jerry and two school girl bullies who had mercilessly threatened me every night on the way home from school for years until I’d had a sort of breakdown. 

As Jo negotiated for us to take over a recently abandoned, relatively clean, clear plastic bender, and she started nesting up our new home. I smiled as she put wild flowers into a jam jar but inside blind panic overcame me. I was busy trying to come up with airtight excuses of why we had to leave.

Main gate was awash with press and TV news cameras.  There were more police and journalists than activists and they were filming everything women did from chaining themselves to the gate to rolling cigarettes in fingerless gloves.  Jo immediately joined in with some American activists who were shouting, “stop this genocide in our name.”

All of them were wearing parachute silk tops being handed out by some designer by the name of Katherine Hamnet, with the slogan ‘US GO HOME.’ Using Jo’s trusty marker pen the American women there were changing this to ‘BOYS GO HOME.’ 

I sat by the ubiquitous damp wood fire pit and watched Jo getting more and more enthusiastic with her chanting. At the same time I was wondering how I could get out of this mess.  Finally the action was over so Jo and I got a lift back to Orange but before we could settle down to a cosy meal around the fire Jo was hauling me up to go and pull down the fence. 

It is surprising how easy it is to pull down a chain link fence if it is very long and a group of you spread out to rock it backwards and forwards for long enough.  Singing, “you can’t kill spirit, she is like a mountain” Darkness fell around us as we pushed and pulled in a rhythm that would have powered a ship, or built a pyramid. 

Half an hour later we were laughing triumphantly and hugging each other as the post came down leaving a flat entrance into the base. Immediately Jo ran in, I equivocated saying I wanted to take her picture with her behind the fence.

The group of them were delighted and posed with the silos in the background for ages, long enough in fact for a pair of headlights to appear like predatory cats in the distance.  Knowing it was military a shout went up for everyone to scatter.  Keeping hold of Jo’s camera, me and another women, who didn’t want to get arrested, ran back to the fire. 

It was the start of a long miserable night. I lay curled up on a soaking sofa trying to avoid the lashing rain with a bin bag pulled over me, by the steaming remains of a fire, unable to eat anything but some out of date chocolate biscuits that someone had stashed. 

The images of what was happening to my beautiful girlfriend tore around in my head like bayonets.  Finally, we got word that they had been let out at Indigo gate, but that they wouldn’t be coming back to orange until after they had slept. 

Immediately I begged someone to drive me to where Jo was but when we arrived there we found out that the woman who had brought the message had been wrong and that Jo had been taken to blue gate instead.  But my lift had already gone back to orange.

The women at Indigo were tight around the fire I perched on an upturned plate trying to keep my bum dry and waiting for a break in the singing to start on my story about why I needed a lift.  Just as I was about to cry a women came around and offered to drive me.  I was gratefully led to her car, blubbing about how kind she was. She told me she was on her way to London and would wait around to see if I needed any more lifts.

Blue gate was the ‘party’ gate; the women there were keeping their spirits up with maintaining a boozy relaxed atmosphere that paid little attention to eating and keeping bedding dry.   I was shown to the saturated bender in which Jo was lying naked with three other girls, drinking, giggling and sexing. She enthusiastically welcomed me in, but I couldn’t bring myself to take off my clothes and join her. 

Instead I gave her back her camera and told her I’d been offered a ride back to London.  Jo kissed me goodbye and we cried, possibly from exhaustion, or from lost love I wasn’t sure which. I slept in the back of a smelly van all the way to London and woke up just in time to go to ‘The Bell’ on its first ever women only Saturday night.