Sunday, October 31, 1982

Passport poems

Despite baulking at the drudgery of having to wake up early, Lindsey, Shelley and I went to Greenham Common with sixteen others from Watermouth CND.

I felt ill on the coach and nearly threw up. It took us three hours to get there and when we did we felt excited, feeling the vague thrill of illicit adventure as we clambered down off the coach. The road to the peace camp snaked up through withered brown woods, eventually emerging in full view of the gates of the cruise missile base. To the right, green balloons announced the entrance to the camp, a muddy path choked with cars and vehicles of all shapes and sizes that headed back between tall trees. As we wandered in, a group of straggle-haired hippies peered at us from a green canvas tent, their faces wreathed in blue campfire smoke. They gave us a desultory cheer.

The camp itself was a miniature village huddled in a small overgrown clearing in-between the dark trees. A few of the tents were brightly painted with clouds splashed on a blue background or a shining sun, but the entire scene was one of mud, squalour and disorganisation. We negotiated a rickety bridge of wooden planks and sheets of rusting metal, avoided a conical heap of tires, bedsteads and scrap, and finally reached a marquee in front of which tea and food was being served.

Our delegation straggled down toward the trestle tables for refreshment and congregated in a big awkward group to drink tea. A few sat down and broke out booze and sandwiches and a cameraman from TVW filmed us as we ate. There were a lot of campfires flickering around us in pits in the ground each of which was surrounded by rugs and mats on which sprawled laughing groups of people who smoked or drank from cans. It was a very dark, even depressing place, hemmed in as it was by towering trees and the folds of the land.

After a while, a few of us wandered up to walk around the perimeter fence of the base. I really was quite amazed. The base is surrounded by perhaps as many as five huge barbed wire fences separated by sandy strips of no-man’s land and punctuated by strategically placed watchtowers, which looked unmanned but were menacing all the same. It was like something out of Eastern Europe. Who says the West has no Berlin Walls?

We walked the muddy track around the fence, thick woodland to our left, ahead of us the multiple lines of barbed wire and concrete snaking sinuously away through the trees. Inside the compound we could see piles of building materials and occasionally, a Land Rover or a black police car glided silently by.

We got back to the camp and Shelley met a friend of hers who’s just returned from Berlin. Lindsey seemed subdued. We were promised an organised ‘tour’ around the perimeter fence but that didn't happen until two so until then we sat about drinking and eating. It felt good, a kind of solidarity, a warm knowledge of collective protest, and as we massed fifty-strong near the main gate, we were watched coldly by black-clad policemen. At the gate one stone-faced group of silent and impassive officers were being harangued by a group of protestors who questioned them about their ethics: “we’re doing this for your children as well as ours . . .”

Finally we streamed out along the fence-path, a soldier in camouflage with a menacing shaggy Alsatian shadowing us inside the compound for quite a ways until he was replaced by a black security pick-up truck which stationed itself at a discreet yet obvious distance, near enough to be seen, yet too far away for us to see the driver. It looked evil like a large black shiny beetle.

We reached an area of open heathland, scrubby trees and hard crackly heather; two people out in front seemed to be looking for something while we trailed after them like sheep (as Lindsey put it). At last we stopped at a clearing where there was turf and, after being arranged in a large circle, we linked hands. For a moment I was puzzled. What strange rite was this? Some symbolic clichéd gesture of CND solidarity perhaps? A few people dropped out of the circle to form the familiar central spokes of a peace sign and we were given a handful of tulip bulbs and set to digging holes and planting them, and after half-an-hour were done; we'd completed a large and potentially effective looking symbol for next spring. I felt like such a hippy standing there hand-in-hand once more in the giant circle for a minute’s silence, while behind us on the weedy tarmac, behind the multiple fences perhaps ¼ mile away, a black police car sat silent and watchful. Then we all trooped back to camp.

As dusk drew in we huddled together around the campfires, drinking vodka and orange or smoking the occasional joint. The sky turned a deep ultramarine blue and the trees loomed dark and unknown. There were some really amazing looking people in the camp, wearing almost medieval outfits, their faces painted with splashes and dots; one man wore a long nineteenth-century-style coat black to his knees, jackboots, his lank hair straggly beneath a wide brimmed hat. A six-piece band (violin, acoustic guitar, flute) was playing nearby, the musicians dressed loosely in flowing rustic garb, accompanied by hippy women who bounced babies and sang joyfully. Then we watched a mini-play about witches and the women waved blankets. Finally, a crummy “postcard poet” read a few poems, whose only remembered immortal line was: “I will not vote until post-card poems become passports.”

A few policemen came down through the trees to hang around and everyone surreptitiously dragged on their joints.

By the time we left at six to meet the coach it had come in cold, and the biting and occasionally blustery wind made me hug myself tighter and closer still.

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