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?

There are plenty of others like us, at any rate. It’s cheering to see how many people have turned out – abandoning their responsibilities, or at any rate their leisure. Cars mill about us, speeding up and down the main road, swinging around the roundabout from both directions, occasionally stopping to ask us what we know and tell us what they know themselves – which is equally little. Also, coming down the road at intervals, there are bigger and brighter headlamps, towards which we strain our gaze, but which all turn out to be the lights of commercial lorries. (We later realised how naive we were to think that any of them, even the car transporter, might be the convoy. That was a different animal altogether.) One car does stop at ‘our’ roundabout, and parks on the opposite side from us, in an oddly decorous division of territory. Occasionally, one of the occupants of this other car comes to talk to us, or one of us goes over to them; but we don’t yet mingle.

A momentary excitement: lights flash at the main gate. The fire service, no less, has been called by the Police to extinguish the women’s fires. The malice of this seems pointless. Another stir: a police car circles the roundabout and we see the driver’s companion noting down our number plates. We are almost too sluggish to be indignant, and too late we say to ourselves that we should have blocked their view, forced them to get out of the car and challenge us, been more ‘positively’ obstructive. At the same time there is something disturbing about this small event. Pat is the registered owner: now she’s on the computer. Do they have the right to do this? What use can they make of the information? How long can they hold on to it, and to whom can they pass it on? None of us knows; we don’t live at the edge where such things matter daily, we’re not criminals, blacks or pickets.

Things quieten down, gradually; the flow of cars becomes a trickle, then virtually ceases. The night is warm, still and clear. The stars are visible, but not pointed and glittering as they would be in winter. (Standing by the ring-road three nights before, Pat and I had seen the sun come up, all the way from pitch dark to broad daylight, for the first time ever in Oxford.) We begin to grow weary; Pat and I worry about our exam papers, Polly about her mother, who is on a visit and whom Polly told she would be back by midnight. Gaimond is restless. Eventually we decide to drive around the perimeter and see what’s going on at the other gates. Our neighbours, as we now think of them, agree to stay on watch until we get back. We drive for what seems a long time, for nine miles, and I get a sense of how large the place is, what a tract of country has been enclosed; the meaning of ‘security’ comes home. The barbed wire fences and guard towers, begging the terrible likeness. This is a concentration camp turned inside out. Death is concentrated in the silos; the millions of victims are outside. On the great day, the very atmosphere of the world will be our oven.

Orange Gate, Blue Gate; parked cars, crowds of watchers, but everything quiet and no police. At Orange Gate they have barricaded the road with cars, three deep, and dug a deep ditch to prevent the convoy swerving around it onto the verge. It looks good. At the tiny Violet Gate, we stop just to say hello, to show support; Pat and Polly get out and talk to the two women there, while Gaimond and I sit in the car. A solitary police patrol car, with only the driver in it, comes up the road, then back. One of the women at the gate has the shits; she borrows the torch from Pat and goes off into the woods. (Why doesn ‘t she have one of her own? Do they get confiscated? The Police confiscate flares.) We have to wait for her to return. They are very glad, however, that someone stopped.

Eventually we circle back to our original spot. Our neighbours are still there; nothing has happened. Pat and Polly decide to build a small fire on the mound in the middle of the roundabout. It’s something to do. We struggle into the undergrowth at the edge of the common and pull out twigs for kindling and larger pieces of dead wood. The others are more energetic; I’m tired, and go about it desultorily. But I feel a lot better when, with Polly’s lighter and our stale copy of the Guardian, the blaze gets going. It’s surprisingly effective, and the warmth is pleasant; the air has been chilling a little. Pat makes a neat woodpile at the side of the fire; only at such times can you shamelessly announce that you were in the Girl Guides. A man from the car across the way joins us. The fire is burning steadily when a police car turns off the main road and draws up beside us. A man and a woman get out. They don’t speak to us, or to each other; they just get on with it. The woman opens the boot and hands a foam extinguisher to the man. He comes across to our fire and smothers it with foam. There are protests, but they are timidly muttered; we’re caught off guard by the speed, the crushing silence of the procedure. The two officers act as though we weren’t there, as though they’d been called to a fire that had started by itself.

When they are gone, we stand for a while glum and humiliated. Then Polly notices that they haven’t been very effective: the embers are still glowing. There is some of the Guardian left, and we re-light the fire. It’s our morale, really; we mustn’t be defeated. An hour later, we are sitting around the fire, half-dozing. A second police car comes round, this time with two men in it. They’ve been making the rounds, and their extinguisher is nearly empty. Our neighbours have gone off on a wild goose chase towards a place near Salisbury where there is a report of heavy police activity. Apparently they have been turfing people out of public telephone boxes – to prevent them giving warning of the convoy’s movements. I hesitate to believe this rumour. Surely they don’t have the right to do that? ‘Why not?’ says Pat. ‘It’s a free country.’ We’ve decided to stay put for the time being, but shortly after the police put our fire out for the second time, we start to think of leaving. It’s past two o’clock; wherever the convoy was when we left Oxford, it’s holed up somewhere now; perhaps the Police weren’t prepared for the scale of the response; perhaps they’re not going to bring it in tonight, or they’ll wait until first light when everyone’s dog-tired. We can’t hang on that long.

Avan comes down the road from the direction of Orange Gate, and turns into the main road, where it parks on the verge. People spill out of it. They’re from Leicester; this is the third night of the week they’ve come to Greenham, and they’re still full of bounce. They’re delighted that the convoy hasn’t showed up; they congratulate us as though it were our doing, and are quite willing to take our place. We feel better about going. Polly says: ‘Hang on while I finish my cigarette.’

As she stubs it out, a car comes fast down the road from the south. There are two women in it; one of them shouts that the convoy is coming, that it’s fifteen minutes away at most, and they’re gone, hurrying off to alert the people at Orange Gate, while Gaimond dashes off towards the main gate to tell the women there. But he needn’t have bothered. Almost at once two police cars (the big ones, the Rovers – the patrol cars were Escorts), blue lights whirling, sweep up from the same direction as the warning came from, screech around the turn, and halt at the sides of the road leading up to Orange Gate. They form a kind of channel through which a stream of white unmarked vans full of uniformed police officers rushes; when the last van is through, they close up the gap and block the road. The vans come around the bend and roar off towards the main gate. Fifteen, twenty perhaps; hard to tell, with time so speeded up. Where have they come from? Where were they waiting? They appeared as though by magic. An absurd image fills my head: the space-suited technicians who invade the decent suburban household in E.T., their mirror-masked helmets appearing monstrous and impersonal at every door and window, their power terrifyingly sudden, purposeful and complete. I remember feeling a sneaking sympathy with them, because of the glutinous sentiment invested in their victims; not the same now.

We barely have time to register the cries from the women at the main gate as the police deploy, when our attention fastens on a winking, rustling stream of lights coming up the road. Now we know what the convoy looks like, at any rate in this last, public stage of its progress; we’ll never mistake a lorry for it again. There must be thirty vehicles in all, cars, vans, motor-cycle outriders, not to mention the jam of civilians stuck behind. It moves at a steady pace; it ’ll be here in a minute or less. We have no time; we never had any time. We have no plan, our resources seem cruelly shown up, diminished, worthless.

The scene which had been so quiet is blaring: sirens, shouts and catcalls, and then the rumble of the convoy itself, which seems to vacuum up all other noise.

There are a dozen police covering our group. As the head of the convoy draws level, several members of the Leicester group attempt to rush out in front of it. One is tackled by a policeman and brought to the ground, another is hauled off by the scruff of the neck, a third, for all the world like Ossie Ardiles, dodges his marker and bursts through, climbs on the first launcher as it rolls by, is pulled off and dragged to the side of the road and roughly restrained. Neither Pat nor Polly nor I have the nerve to do anything like that. All of us are yelling obscenities at the tops of our voices. We curse the American airmen, the crew of the launchers. We use the most basic and unimaginative language – cunts, pricks, fuckers, bastards, murderers, shits. In between bouts of invective Pat takes pictures.

The launchers themselves are soon past – outsize lorries, the machinery on their backs swathed in canvas. They make no real impression on me, my reaction to them as carriers of the actual missiles is a little forced. The surrounding display of power is more urgent and frightening. Once the convoy is past, the police block the road with vans and release their grip on the Leicester people who tried to get into the road. No one is arrested. The one who jumped on the launcher is very shaken. The police line up at the roadblock and for five minutes we stand opposite and jeer at them and they (it was idiotic of me to be surprised) jeer back. The Leicester group have a set chant: ‘We’re not political, we’re only doing our job.’ Suddenly the police look not like animated uniforms but like uniformed men – hostile human beings. I notice their physical selves, the one with the beard, the fat one. But when the jeering stops on both sides, they won’t speak to us or look in our faces.

After a while, we all – police and protesters alike – notice that there is something odd about the convoy. It has stopped moving and the tail of it is ten or fifteen yards away; it’s evidently been blocked up ahead. Perhaps the women at the main gate have sprung an ambush, but we hear nothing. We crowd up against the barrier, trying to see what’s going on. The road up to the main gate is lined with Police, stationed at intervals of a few yards to prevent people coming out from the woods at the side of the road. Several women do emerge, and two of them struggle with the Police and are arrested and bundled into the back of a van. A policeman climbs in with them, and other women bang on the sides of the van and shout. ‘We can see what you’re doing, we can see what you’re doing!’ Pat takes two pictures of this event. (They turned out the most blurred and unfocused and poignant of the whole trip; the white van in the distance, the dim figures, the glare of the flashlit dark all around.) We can see nothing of the scene at the main gate.

The BBC arrives, greeted by an ironic cheer; they have rushed round from Orange Gate, where they’d mistakenly thought the convoy would come in. All they can do now is film the police at the roadblock denying them leave to go through and refusing to comment when the reporter suggests that this might be a breach of civil liberties. Pat takes some pictures of the police line, grateful for the strong lighting. Eventually they leave, and miss the night’s most bizarre event. It is Gaimond who comes dancing down the road from the main gate to tell us, laughing and shouting, that the lead launcher has broken down and that the mighty USAF war machine is waiting to be towed the last fifty yards into the base. (The clutch burned out.) We can hardly believe him, at first; we think it’s a joke, but it’s not; the police, too, are incredulous, and then when they get the news from their own colleagues they show a certain contempt for the incompetence of their charges.

When the broken-down launcher has been towed in, the second launcher and the rest of the convoy soon follow, and, with the same disciplined speed as they arrived, the Police disperse. They don’t wait around to see what we’ll do; they know we’ll just go home. Within minutes the scene is as deserted as it was before the convoy came in sight.

Many CND events have a carnival character. It’s right that this should be so, for CND affirms the possibility of a future. On the big marches there are bands and clowns, funny costumes and street theatre, families with children and dogs; the relationship with the police is thoroughly good-humoured. Our night at Greenham reminds me that the ‘issue’ which generates music and speeches and dancing and banners has a less accommodating face. ‘EMBARRASSED AMERICANS AGAINST REAGAN’ got a huge affectionate cheer on the last London march: but the voice of liberal protest, with its comfortable assumption that it can make itself heard in the civilised quarters of power, seems weak and distant at places like Greenham and Upper Heyford, where the State has staked out its ground, on nights when the Police do not benignly regulate your activities but deploy against you in numbers and with resources of which if you thought about them beforehand at all (and mostly you don’t) you would fail to form an adequate conception. There are no stewards here, no hot-dog sellers and distributors of daft pamphlets. There’s no comfort of that kind, and not much of any other. All I can say is, we’ll go again; and we’ll see about courses in direct action and civil disobedience; and we’ll try and learn something about the law, and our rights under it; and next time we’ll worry less about getting back in time for a good night’s sleep, to be fresh at our meetings the following day.