Remembering Greenham Common

Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, recalls her first trip to Greenham Common.

Twenty five years ago this week, on 12th December 1982, I got up very early, and went by coach with other bleary-eyed women, from Islington to Greenham Common. Our intention was to surround the nine mile perimeter fence of the US air force base, where 96 US cruise missiles were to be delivered a year later.

Thirty thousand of us made it there that morning, and we did link arms and embrace the base. I remember it as a chaotic day, much of it seemed spent in darkness, not knowing where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. Above all I remember that enormous fence, decorated with all manner of things – often symbols of life, children’s toys and pictures.

But we all knew why we were there. The US was planning to put a new generation of missiles in Europe. These would be a massive escalation of the arms race, because they would greatly reduce the time it took to hit Soviet cities such as Moscow from bases in western Europe, without also putting state-of-the-art missiles closer to the population centres of the US.

The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for introducing the new missiles, but the SS-20s did not have the capacity to strike the US. This raised the spectre of a "limited nuclear war" in Europe, with western and eastern Europe, and the European parts of the Soviet Union in the battleground. US territory would not be involved. This produced a reaction of extreme alarm, not only from the inhabitants of the countries where the war was likely to take place, but also where the missiles were to be deployed. They would be obvious targets.

Outrage at these plans led to the largest mass protests since the second world war, anti-missiles groups grew up all over the country, and CND, which grew exponentially, organised massive demonstrations.

Other forms of protest developed too. In August 1981, a group of 36 women, called Women for Life on Earth, together with a few men, walked from Cardiff to the base at Greenham Common. When they arrived, they demanded a discussion about nuclear weapons with the government. But it wasn’t forthcoming, so they decided to set up a peace camp at the base.

In 1982, the camp became women only, with a strong feminist emphasis. In the following months and years, thousands of women settled at Greenham at various times, blocked the gates, pulled down parts of the fence, danced on the missile silos, and creatively expressed our opposition to the missiles.

That creativity often left the authorities nonplussed. In February 1983, the first major trial of the women took place at Newbury, and Sarah Benton reported it in the New Statesman at the time:

The magistrates had left the court to consider their decision. Inside, 44 women were on trial; at the back of the room sat a score of women supporters. As the magistrates walked out, 30 police officers unexpectedly filed in and, standing shoulder to shoulder, lined up in front of the supporters, preventing them from seeing the defendants and, presumably, from engaging in one of those wilful and anarchic gestures against authority which have been the women’s hallmark so far. Reacting in unspoken accord, defendants and supporters rose, stood on their chairs and, leaning over the police officers’ heads, held hands. Then they began to sing, and continued to sing after the magistrates had returned, banged their gavels and cried in exasperation "Ladies, please".

Such was the spirit of the Greenham women, which continues to inspire peace activists around the world. The missiles were finally removed in 1991, under the terms of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major disarmament treaty signed in 1987, by Reagan and Gorbachev.

There can be little doubt that the extent of popular opposition to the new missiles helped shape their decision to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. As we remember those struggles and celebrate them, now is the time to make that popular opposition overwhelming once again.

10 December 2007.

Dexter Dalwood's "Greenham Common", shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010. Photo: Getty.
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A night out at the Punderdome 3000

Becca Rothfeld watches Brooklyn’s best punners battle it out with headline writers from the New York Post.

Girls just want to have pun, so last week I headed to Punderdome 3000, an epic pun-making competition at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. The event pitted previous Punderdome winners against headline writers from the US tabloid the New York Post, best known for gems such as “Osama Bin wankin’” (when US officials unearthed Osama Bin Laden’s personal stash of pornography) and “Headless body in topless bar” (self-explanatory).

Broad-shouldered and apparently corporate types nursed overpriced cocktails while women teetered tipsily in heels. The crowd seemed ill-fitted to the proceedings, which wed the raucous atmosphere of a fraternity party with the cringing embarrassment of a high-school talent show. When the hosts, Fred Firestone and “his alleged daughter”, the local comedian Jo Firestone, called on members of the audience to complete a series of terrible puns, I braced myself for an evening of campy spectacle. “When chemists die, we . . .?” they cried, to which the crowd responded in unison, “Barium!”

Gradually the teeterers and I succumbed to the earnest charm of the punners, who competed under pseudonyms such as Daft Pun and Forrest Wittyker. In the first round, reigning Punderdome champions had 90 seconds to come up with two minutes of puns on a given topic. The results were assessed by the Human Clap-O-Meter, a device operated by a blindfolded volunteer who moved a pointer to reflect spectator sentiment. The rankings ranged from “rotten tomato” (near silence) to “punderful” (thunderous applause). Riffing on “the digestive system”, the punner Words Nightmare vowed not to date men without feet, as she’s “lack-toes-intolerant”.

A panel of “celebrity judges” offered input during the elimination rounds. There was Bevy Smith, co-host of the television show Fashion Queens; Pat Kiernan, a morning news anchor of the NY1 news station; and Éric Ripert, a chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bernardin – a Frenchman who speaks English poorly with a thick accent and was an illogical choice of judge (“Between the accent and the not knowing what’s going on it will be hard, but I will romaine calm,” he assured spectators).

In the final round, Ally Spier (Words Nightmare) and Jerry Gwiazdowski (Jargon Slayer) faced two New York Post writers for high-stakes prizes: “New York bragging rights” and the contents of two “mystery boxes”. The teams were asked to come up with pithy headlines for a piece that originally appeared in the Huffington Post under the punless title “Student forgets to plug in his headphones while watching porn”. Clad in matching “Headless Body in Topless Bar” T-shirts, the Post writers held their own with “Oral exam”, “He got a D” and “He studied hard”. But the Punderdomers triumphed with “Audio-erotic”, “Wacks on, wacks off” and “Masterbeats by Dre”.

The event put a face to the anonymous voices behind a local institution. “At work, it’s work, but here, there’s so much enthusiasm that it’s not work, it’s just fun,” Billy Heller, the deputy features editor of the Post and a Punderdome 3000 finalist told me. It was a wonderfully weird and wonderfully shameless way to spend an evening in New York. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism