A Night at Greenham

Danny Karlin

The phone rings at 10.15. It’s Mary, from Campaign Atom: the Cruise convoy’s been sighted, fifteen miles from Greenham. It’s on its way back. Everyone on the network who wants to go down, go now.

My heart sinks. So does Pat’s, when I tell her. We both have exam papers to mark, and meetings the next day; and the memory of a fruitless watch for the convoy three nights ago, at a roundabout on the Oxford ring-road, sours the prospect. Moreover, if the convoy is that close to Greenham, we’ll almost certainly miss it. Still, we decide to go. We take warm clothes, flasks of coffee and bars of chocolate, a torch. Pat takes her camera.

The Campaign Atom ‘office’ is the back room of a terraced house on the Cowley Road, near The Plain, the roundabout beyond which lies Magdalen Bridge – Checkpoint Charlie for the ‘real’ Oxford, where a notice invites the tourist, for 10p a shot, to ‘Tea in a Real Undergraduate’s Room’. At the office we meet two other people: Polly, whom we know from the Labour Party, and someone called Gaimond (he repeats it carefully – he’s used to it). We agree to go in one car, and choose ours; Pat was out at the pub with a friend earlier in the evening, so I drive, and the others, in a fine display of collective talent, navigate. I’ve never been to Greenham before. Shortly after we set off, Polly announces that she has left behind all her lovely detailed maps.

It’s a longish drive – twenty miles down the A34 – but straightforward enough. Once we emerge from the built-up areas on the edge of town, the landscape on either side is vague in the dark. I lapse into silence, already rather tired, already rather bored; or a little scared? Pat sustains a conversation with Polly about cuts and shortages in the education system. Gaimond tells us a little about himself; a week later, I have forgotten it all. I remember his drawly voice, and his sharp, humorous face.

We reach the outskirts of Newbury, and I’m guided towards the base. As we turn into the approach road, we see the first signs of activity: cars and vans parked on the verge, and little groups of people standing around, in anoraks and duffle coats; they must look aimless to passers-by. We stop by one group and ask them for news; they have none, except that the convoy is still out; they suggest we carry on to the main gate and ask the women there what to do. They don’t think we’ll be wanted at the main gate itself, because there are plenty of women already there and they don’t much welcome men. Our informants are a mixed group; I look curiously at the males, wondering how they cope with such exclusions. It feels difficult to me.

We drive to the main gate. Bonfires on the roadside, and on the tarmac space outside the gate; the women are gathered round them. One of them tells us to drive down to the Orange Gate turn-off and watch to see if the convoy turns there or continues up to the main gate. While she is speaking, I hurriedly scan the famous scene. (I don’t know what I saw. My view, as I write, is clouded by pictures I’ve seen before in the press and on television.) We are all a bit more excited now; the convoy is expected at any moment, and we’re glad not to have come for nothing. But where are the hordes of police? There is one patrol car parked by the main gate, that’s all. Its blue light is not flashing.

Three hundred yards down the road, we stop at a roundabout and debate whether this is the one we’re meant to monitor. I don’t know, of course; the others can’t make up their minds. Finally we go back to the main gate and ask again. The same woman patiently tells us that it was the right one, and we turn round and drive back to it, feeling a little inept and foolish. (The savoir-faire of protest.) At the roundabout, we bump the car up onto the verge and climb out.

For the first hour and a half we stand around and talk, speculating on the convoy’s route, wondering why it hasn’t shown up, discussing what to do when it does, drinking coffee (we finish both flasks too soon), and noting, again and again, the absence of Authority. It makes us all uneasy. If they can’t be seen, they must be up to something. This puts us in the parental role (and turned out, by the way, to be true): but supposing we are the children, waiting for parents who don’t respond to our ‘naughty’ behaviour, who don’t pay attention?

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