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To celebrate International Women’s Day 2019, we’re publishing an excerpt from ‘The Stars are in the Sky’ by Joanna Quinn, as featured in our anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance, a book celebrating and retelling British protest history.

The collection includes many key moments in British women’s history, such as Joanna’s story which is set during the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a 19-year-long protest against nuclear weaponry.

We asked Joanna to introduce and contextualise the movement behind her story to be read before the extract, and she has kindly contributed the following passage.


 

When Comma Press approached me with the idea of contributing to an anthology about protest, I decided I wanted to write about the women of Greenham Common.

I knew a bit about them, of course. When I thought of Greenham, I could see in my mind images of chanting women, pictures I must have seen on the television as a child. I was about seven years old when Greenham was at its most active.

I had a vague sense the protest was about nuclear weapons, but, to my shame, I didn’t know much more – which was one of the reasons I was keen to write about it.

Once I started researching and talking to people who had been there, that sense of shame increased, as I quickly realised Greenham was a great deal more than I had thought, in terms of size, duration, innovation and impact.

Women protestors stayed camped outside RAF Greenham Common, the Berkshire military base that housed US cruise missiles, for nearly twenty years. Hundreds of thousands took part in demonstrations throughout that time, particularly in the 1980s – both women who lived at the camp, and countless more that came in from outside.

womens peace camp

The camp wasn’t just about protest either: it was a community trying to find a new way of doing things. It was non-hierarchical, non-violent, a deliberately leaderless collective. Every decision was a group decision; every act of protest carefully considered and talked through.

Many of the women who went to the camp said it changed their way of thinking forever – that it expanded their minds, like a university. It’s easy to say that the structures of our society are unfair and should be challenged, but to actively try to live in a different way is very tricky indeed. Particularly when the existing social structures are coming down on you as hard as they possibly can.

That was another aspect of Greenham that I was shocked to discover – the unrelenting viciousness of the response to the women involved, from the press, the police, the armed forces and some of the local residents. They took an absolute battering, both physically and mentally.

However, writing about an emotive twenty-year protest involving thousands of people is pretty challenging within the confines of a single short story. It really should be an epic film or novel (and I hope somebody makes one).

It’s also, quite frankly, nerve-wracking to write about something that is within living memory and extremely important to those that were there. I wanted to do it justice because I had come to admire the Greenham women immensely and felt strongly people should be more aware of them – but I also didn’t want to write a kind of glowing hymn to Greenham, that left out all the tough bits.

I realised I could never write a story that would please everyone, so I decided to focus on one woman and explore her reasons for joining. One aspect of the Greenham story that especially struck me was the fact some protestors left their families to live at the camp. The idea of a mother believing the cause she was fighting for was worth leaving her husband and children behind fascinated me, because it seemed to encapsulate a great deal of what was so powerful and controversial about the camp.

It also made me ask questions of myself: would I have done the same? What would make me leave my home and family and live in a muddy tent for years?

The protestors were often attacked for neglecting their children – journalists invariably started their interviews with: “Shouldn’t you be at home with your families?” The camp was portrayed as a threat to traditional values, with the protestors seen as feckless and sexually selfish, a coven of criminal lesbians. The real reasons for the protest – little things like the possibility of nuclear apocalypse – were often buried beneath condescending sexism.

Women who protest will always face this additional barrier – of not being taken seriously, of being told they have stepped outside their role.

The Greenham women were consistently innovative in their reactions to such stereotyping. They responded with acts to demonstrate that their children, and all children, were the one of the reasons they were protesting. They hung pictures of those they loved on the fence surrounding the base. They dressed up as teddy bears and broke into the camp. They held up mirrors to reflect their accusers back at themselves.

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As I was finishing off my story in January 2017, the Women’s March took place, with millions taking to the streets to assert that women’s rights are human rights. The exuberance and creativity of that incredible global protest – the banners, the pussy hats, the calm assertion of solidarity – reminded me so much of Greenham.

I watched it on the television with my daughter and cried all over both of us. It was such a powerful sight, which is surely one of the most important things about public protest – it makes you want to be a part of it, it shows you that you are not alone.

As Ann, the main character in my story, says: “I never knew there were so many women willing to stand up and be counted. It was like we’d all been hidden away somewhere.”

The ingenious women of Greenham showed us that women-led protests are possible, powerful and life-changing. Long may they continue.May we always see woman stepping outside their roles – and may we have the courage to step outside and join them.

 


 

from ‘The Stars are in the Sky’…

The following Saturday, Stephen dropped me off at Leigh Delamere services, saying, ‘I thought your bra-burning days were behind you,’ with a smile so I couldn’t take offence.

‘So you don’t think nuclear war is something to worry about?’

‘Course I bloody do. It’s just all this – it’s not helping.’ His ‘all this’ was an airy wave at a coachload of women heading into the service station. Their coach had signs propped up in the windows saying, ‘WE SAY NO TO CRUISE MISSILES’ and ‘WOMEN FOR LIFE ON EARTH’ and ‘GRANDMOTHERS AGAINST THE BOMB’.

‘I’ve done a casserole,’ I said. ‘There’s loads of food in the freezer for the kids. You won’t need to go to the chippy.’

‘I know how to feed them.’

Two young women with shaved heads walked past then, arms round each other’s waists, hands tucked into each other’s back pockets, strides perfectly matched.

Stephen laughed, shook his head. ‘That sort of stuff isn’t going to help the cause, is it?’

‘You’re quite right. We should keep the lesbians inside.’

‘Don’t be facetious, Ann. I’m trying to discuss this with you. You’re always saying we should talk about politics more.’

‘I am discussing it.’

‘Just makes it an easy target for the tabloids.’

‘But it’s not their fault, is it? What the press do.’

‘The problem is, Ann, when they banned men from Greenham, they made it all about themselves.’

‘What do you mean “they”?’

‘You can’t cut yourself off from the real world. I can see you’re going to get upset again. Let’s leave it there.’ He leaned into the dashboard, peered at the clock, tapped the petrol gauge, twisted the heating knob right then left – a little litany of empty checks.

‘I’ll say hi to Nic for you,’ I said, opening the car door, and he laughed again. I thought of the few times they’ve been in a room together. How much I wanted them to like each other, my oldest friend and my husband, and the awful strain of it – a tight skin of awkwardness pulling across everything, like I couldn’t find a way to be myself enough for either of them. The echoing, audible gulps of wine. The pained smiles.

‘She doesn’t like me,’ he said, and there’s a little pleasure in how he says it, as if he’s been proved right in something. ‘She never has.’

‘You’re very different people,’ I said, getting out of the car. I didn’t want to hear him go on about Nic again. He always talks about her in a sort of wry, knowing way, as if she were a problem student at his school. Says she’s a hopeless idealist. For Stephen, the words ‘hopeless’ and ‘idealist’ are inextricably linked. There isn’t any other kind.

‘Kiss Fi and Danny for me,’ I said, as he reached across to pull the passenger door shut, drove away.

Standing there in my wellies, holding a rucksack and a sleeping bag, it was like I’d been dropped off by my parents at Guide Camp. I felt weirdly nervous. Nic had instructed me to meet a friend of hers in the Little Chef. Kathleen. Sixty-something in a wool coat with grey hair frizzing out from under a crocheted beret. ‘Ann?’ she said, in a loud laughing voice, with a thick Scouse accent. ‘Nic’s friend, Ann? This way, pet. I’ve got seats saved for us.’

‘You’re from Liverpool,’ I said. ‘Nic and I were at university there. We loved it.’

‘Why would you go anywhere else? God’s own city,’ she said, shepherding me to one of the coaches with pats from her wide veined hands. Two seats left at the front for us and the passengers were already singing as we climbed on board, a song about spirits and mountains that went cheerfully round and round like a carousel.

Kathleen sat next to me, her comfortable bulk resting against my side. She opened a Tupperware box to offer tuna paste sandwiches to me and the two older women sitting across the aisle, both with tight perms battened down beneath headscarves and pale eyes smiling behind thick glasses. ‘We’re from the same church,’ explained Kathleen. ‘We do as many of these as we comfortably can. Most of us lost people we loved in the last war. Don’t want another one, do we?’

A punky teenager with a pierced nose suddenly loomed over our seats: ‘Got a light?’

Kathleen reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a lighter. ‘I don’t smoke meself, but these youngsters are always losing theirs,’ she said, leaning on me confidingly. The teenager shuffled her pack of fags to offer me one, and I was reaching up to take it when I glanced out of the coach window and saw that another coach full of women and banners was over-taking us and they were all waving at us like they knew us. It made me laugh out loud. And behind them, a few cars back, there was another one gaining on us, all full of waving arms and grinning open faces behind the glass, and behind that, another one, and another, and another. And it suddenly felt that there were hundreds of us, a phalanx of coaches coasting down the motorway, all full of women waving at each other across the oblivious car drivers, high up and silent and delighted and on our way.

Nic was waiting for me when I got off the coach at Greenham. We’d had the odd phone call but I hadn’t actually seen her for over a year. She was always travelling to exciting places, campaigning about things, doing stuff with Greenpeace; I was always stuck with the kids. She rushed towards me, looking a bit mad in a poncho and muddy jeans with plastic bags tied over her shoes, and hugged me in a rolling side to side way, hissing in my ear: ‘You came. I bloody knew you would.’ Her hair was shaved up the sides, there was a new crinkling of lines around her eyes, and she had a walkie-talkie shoved in her pocket, but she was still Nic. Nic who sat beside me on our first day at secondary school in 1962 and was my best friend before the bell rang at the end of class.

A steady stream of women wove around us as we hugged, hundreds pouring out of coaches and cars, while press photographers snapped away, helicopters buzzed overhead, and a moustachioed policeman in a helmet and long coat shouted: ‘Keep moving, ladies – save the romance for your dirty little tents.’

I looked up over Nic’s shoulder and saw the fence that surrounded RAF Greenham Common: thick wire mesh, ten foot high, held up by cement pylons and topped with rolled barbed wire. Beyond that, the banality of a carpark. Empty roads. Hedges. And then a blank treeless area made up of concrete runways and small bunker-like buildings – those mysterious locked-up structures you only ever see at military places. Windowless. Anonymous. No clear purpose. Which, of course, means they must have a very specific purpose.

The women’s camp, or what I could see of it, was ramshackle and improvised: a cluster of tents squished onto a narrow strip of grass between the fence and a busy main road. There were bits of plastic sheeting propped up on sticks to create shelters; stacks of wooden pallets covered by grubby sleeping bags; decrepit floral armchairs; a couple of deck chairs; buckets of sand filled with fag-ends, and an old-fashioned pram now used as a flower bed for delicate snowdrops. Middle-aged women in bobble hats were sitting on hay bales sharing a hipflask, while teenage anarchists with loud-hailers boiled a kettle over an open fire. It was like the bomb had already been dropped and this was the ad-hoc world afterwards; people making a place from a flat nothing.

‘How long have these women been here?’ I asked, my chin still resting on Nic’s shoulder.

‘Some have been here for more than a year. When the first protesters arrived, the camp guards thought they were cleaners. Can you imagine? Walking all the way here from Wales and, when you arrive, there’s a soldier handing you a mop and bucket.’

‘I didn’t know it was like this.’

‘You’re here now too,’ and she pulled away to look at me. ‘Great to see you, my oldest and bestest.’

‘It’s been ages, hasn’t it? I’m sorry I haven’t seen you for so long.’

‘Did Kathleen tell you what we’re doing? We’re calling it “Embrace the Base”. We’re going to surround the base – a massive chain of women holding hands.’

‘Holding hands?’

‘In the best spirit of passive resistance. We’re meeting violence with love, baby. You remember Ghandi?’

‘I’ve forgotten most things. Having kids turns your brain to porridge.’

Nic pointed at two women passing with waddling toddlers in snowsuits: ‘They managed to find their way here, even with their porridge brains.’

‘Do you think I should have brought Fi and Danny?’ I asked and felt again the guilt of having them – which was also the guilt of having left them behind.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said, pulling me forward. ‘Let’s find a place on the fence.’

Protest


 

Blog by Joanna Quinn

(@joannabquinn on Twitter and Instagram)

‘The Stars are in the Sky’ is a story by Joanna Quinn taken from Comma’s Protest anthology .

Protest: Stories of Resistance is published by Comma Press and available from our website and all good retailers: http://www.commapress.co.uk/books/protest-stories-of-resistance-1

 

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