Having just come back from the England and Wales Green Party conference I'm feeling both exhilarated by the time spent with lots of people passionately devoted to saving the human race from itself, and slightly daunted by the thought of the task before us. Ann Pettitt's Walking to Greenham: How the Peace-camp Began and the Cold Way Ended has thus been the perfect reading matter, for it shows that one person – in this case one very humble, self-deprecating woman – can really make a difference.
Pettitt deserves the title of "one of the founders" of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, for she was one of the leaders of the walk out of which this genuine mass movement – hundreds of thousands of protesters were involved there over its 19-year existence. Yet the beginnings were so small. She and her partner had downsized before the term was even invented, swapping an intellectual London life for a smallholding in Wales, where in between raising two small children – struck by the fear that they might not have a chance of adulthood – she got involved in the anti-nuclear movement.
A year later I was trying to help write a leaflet in someone's house in Kidwelly, about nuclear-free zones. I was feeling bored and stuck general with the way we seemed to be creating a re-run of the CND cmapaigns of the Sixties … What was the point of your local town declaring itself a 'nuclear-free zone' when what we were facing was the possibility of a nuclear war 'limited' to Europe. My eye caught an item in a Peace News magazine that was lying open on the floor; about a group of women walking from Copenhagen to Paris to protest about this threat. I no longer felt bored or stuck, I felt terribly excited.
In between childcare, struggling with the family smallholding and the lack of cash and resources – in rural Wales Pettitt couldn't even drive – she organised with three other women (they had six pre-school-age children between them) a walking group that eventually totalled 40. Often they encountered disbelief that they could simply be women who'd decided to act:
"..this march thing, is too big to be just ordinary women, like you say you are, doing it. There must be some organisation begind you – I just don't believe you're acting on your own, that's not possible."
"Well, you're just going to have to find out aren't you? Just tell me one thing – are you going to organise lunch for us or am I going to have to find someone else?"
"Oh all right then. What do you call yourselves?"
"Women for Life on Earth. Thank you. I'll be in touch." Good, I thought, that's another lunch-stop sorted.
But finally, with most of the lunches and sleeping arrangements sorted, forty women set out from Cardiff to walk to Greenham Common on August 26, 1981, to protest at the plans to place American Cruise missiles there. For many it was their first protest of any kind.
Walking to Greenham provides a wonderful account of how this disparate group, of all ages and backgrounds, melded on the march, but then encountered a conundrum on arrival at Greenham. Should they just stop now, or go further? Inevitably there were factions, and here it was that Pettitt's family background — she'd been brought up in a communist family and was well aware of how the old Left could splinter and divide — obviously helped to hold things together. So that finally it was on September 5, four women chained themselves to the gate of the military base. From that grew the camp, eventually.
Pettitt's writing is simple and unpretentious, but highly evocative – definitely not preachy. Sometimes I felt like giving her a little shake and saying "don't do yourself down", but then that's a very English, and very English-woman trait, and her pride in a later, much less publicised effort does shine through. That was a sometimes-Kafkaesque, sometimes utterly inspiring trip to Moscow, behind the Iron Curtain at a time when that really meant something.
She was determined not to go as a "peace tourist" – i.e. a tool for the Communist regime, but nor was she aiming to be an arrested martyr. Typically, Pettit tells the tale that she was tearing up some newspapers for duck bedding when she came across a report of a Scandanavian women's peace group trying to make contact with an independent peace movement there, the "Moscow Group for Trust". So it was that Pettitt, with a Russian speaking colleague and another Greenham representative had some amazing adventures in the Russian capital – at one minute stunning into silence a heavy-handed senior bureaucrat, the next meeting paranoid, quite possibly justifiably paranoid dissidents who simply wanted to form a genuine independent, people's peace movement in Russia. The Greenham account is heartwarming, but this part of the book is simply unputdownable – a highly evocative account of a happily now-lost time. And she may well be right that the Greenham women, and this mission, had something to do with Gorbachev’s first tentative steps back from the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction.
There’s also a third element to the book – one in which Pettitt tries to put the Cold War in a broader context, to show how it was only a few decades after the horrors for Continental Europe of the Second World War through the story of her mother, Solange, who we meet as a refugee in France, fleeing the German advance, in a column of civilians being strafed by a Stuka. It is an interesting tale, if a not unfamiliar one, and I’m not sure that the book entirely gains from it.
But Pettitt also looks forward, to the challenge of climate change today. And she has some advice, advice built on her solid experience, well worth pondering:
Unfortunately for those who would seek the formula, nothing we did can be reproduced. But fortunately the spirit in which we did it is infinitely fertile. An effective response to the present threate we humans have devised for our very habitat itself, our planet, will have to be new. As such, all I can say is that it too will appear amateurish, apparently naïve, and coming from the most unexpected of places, will at first be beneath notice.”