Lynette Edwell lives in Newbury, Berkshire and was closely involved in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp for the entire length of the protest. Lynette kindly allowed me to interview her two times exploring different aspects of the protest. John Walker a student on the MA in Art History and Curating at The University of Birmingham kindly helped to transcribe both talks. Here is my edit.
L – Lynette Edwell
S – Sally Payen
S: Tell me about the watch towers please…
L: They’re horrible – they were like Auschwitz. And nobody ever saw them coming up – and nobody ever saw them going down. They just came and they went. And you thought – where did that go! We had a bus stop opposite yellow gate and that vanished. And someone who woke up in the middle of the night said I thought I was hallucinating. She said, one or two men went, physically picked it up, crossed the road with it and took it inside the base. The whole bus stop. But we never saw the watch towers coming down, Rebecca said one of them fell down. They were horrible. But one of the things is, you see a watch tower you think, argh, that’s where they will be watching you – rubbish! Wherever it’s really brightly lit that’s the best way to go in.
S: Because they’re not watching you?
L: They don’t think you’re going to cross and you can’t watch people all the time. They think if they’re there… it’s the psychology… this is the brightest spot, women will never go. Don’t believe this, look a whole chain of them *Laughs*.
L: A whole load of us went by the watch tower in a sort of tunnel of barbed wire that went on forever. You had to, just make commitment you’d keep going, because if the woman in front of you stopped, you’d be just trapped in the middle.
S: Lots of watch towers?
L: Ooh yeah.
S: What more than 10?
L: No no, I don’t think as many as that, but, I think possibly 4 or 5. You noticed them, and then, you didn’t. You get used to them, and then, they’re gone. They’re supposed to be manned, but you can’t always tell if anyone is up there or not.
L: We had Buddhists from Milton Keynes. That’s as much as I know as I didn’t question people. I had two Buddhists and they slept here. And the children loved them. One didn’t speak a word of English, and had no problem communicating at all. And the children were so impressed because she had no hair, she was so kind. Some of them had a temple in London.
S: I did read in your archive, a group of Buddhist women got rough treated more than anyone else.
L: Because the policemen, thought they were skinheads. Skinheads dress like this? I don’t think so *Laughs*. We had such gentle Buddhists, apart from their irritating habit of playing drums, early morning.
S: They probably thought they were purifying things.
L: Yeah, they were just lovely people. And they cook and they cleared up, including the men. Wherever they’d go they offered to do the cooking, I mean sometimes, we had a big demonstration and they offered to do the cooking. They’re lovely people. I don’t know what their belief is, but the way they treat other people is excellent.
S: With Buddhism there isn’t a god figure out there. It’s more about the space of awareness, it’s about mind not being in your head, mind is everywhere, how things are interconnected and impermanent. So its very kind and non violent.
L: I’ve never met a miserable Buddhist so it must work.
S: What was Greenhams women relationship with nature like? And the landscape around them.
L: Well we did have, an unspoken agreement, that if you went to the toilet, you went in the shit pit and you left it tidy and each gate had one they were responsible for. And you left it as you found it, even so, we would go out and tidy up. You didn’t want mess all over the common. Of course there were times where there was mess, and the locals complained. But, as far as possible we collected up litter. And the fact that bailiffs came so often, so we had an excellent service, just put it out for the bailiffs. Not every woman was considerate. But, if you are living there you keep the place tidy. As much as you possibly can. Also you couldn’t own possessions, you had so many evictions, you put them in a car, you put them somewhere, where you could walk off with them at short notice. I think people were very respectful of nature. I remember after Embrace the Base, some of the women brought flowering bulbs and planted them, so even now when you go across Greenham, you’ll find a tulip or daffodil, that doesn’t quite belong there *Laughs*. And for quite a long time at orange gate… we had a little garden with herbs. But we did notice, that when we planted trees, for dead women, they were nearly always vandalised and ripped out. Although, we always asked what the indigenous tree would be, and we told people we would plant them etc.
S: Do you remember cowslips?
L: I haven’t personally seen cowslips. I mean I know what cowslips are.
S: I read through someone’s account that they broke through to the runway and they was a wave of cowslips everywhere.
L: Ooh I don’t doubt it. My daughter was always discovering snow drops. Even now she says you must go see the snow drops. But you know, the kids had more time to run around than we did. When I was at Greenham I was quite often busy. Since then, I’ve gone with my flower book, and found little things I like and the other thing about Greenham, apparently, some of the ordinary wildflower mutate slightly differently. There were women, and if you look through the newsletters, you’ll see very carefully drawn sketches of flowers on the common. Me personally, I didn’t really notice it at the time. It would have been an ideal place for cowslips I would have thought.
You’re very conscious of nature, because you are not living with electric light. So you are much more conscious of day, night and the heavens. And you are conscious of weather. And obviously, if you are sitting on a little flower you have never seen before, you are encouraged to go find out what it is. But it was very beautiful, it really was. And I’ve never spent so much time looking at the night sky. It was just lovely. And nature was interested in us, the rats used to come, you’d put all your food away at night. We had rats, badgers, foxes and occasionally deer. We never unfortunately came across any snakes. Never ever saw a grass snake. There were also nightingales… I heard, but didn’t see, there were lots of lovely wildlife, and if you knew some one who knew about it they’d tell you what it was.
L: Didn’t you want to know things Greenham women used for protesting?
L: They used banners, boards or plaque arts, they used any piece of paper that was available or cardboard. On one occasion they dumped a load of stones at blue gate. And women decorated them and wrote slogans on them. Women used posters, newsletters, embroideries, hand knitted sweaters with slogans and singing at Greenham. Poems, short stories, there was dancing. Dancing on the blockades. And there was a sort of dancing where you had the blockade where everyone was siting, and there’s a blockade where you are in a chain… join in the circle and go back in, that was very successful. Then there was the slogans on the dump stones, and then there were things like using the wires off the fence, you could decorate the fence, and we also used bits of wire from the fence as cooking grids. The fence is like a tapestry. You could weave around, attach things through it and weave things, there was a beautiful rainbow at orange gate, I don’t know if you’ve come across it. And when ordered to take it down, one of the children in the camp started crying because he didn’t like to do it. That was a bugger to take down – so clever.
S: What was that made of?
L: I think it was wool. It looked like wool. Could have been string, It looked to me like coloured wool and it looked absolutely beautiful – it was clever, you couldn’t just slash through it, you had to actually pick it off. That was a great delight.
S: You said some amazing things about the atmosphere, you know, when the watch towers were up, and it was really weird lighting. They’re watching you and you’re watching them.
L: It got so unsafe, that each gate had a night watch. So one woman would stay up all night just so that other women could sleep. Women would come in to do the night watch.
I have to stop now and tell you how cruise watch was organised. So what they did… if you can think of the 9 mile fence… it goes in and out… but there are roads all around it with the gates. So, you’d usually get 2 people at cruise watch, either a man or a woman or 2 men. They are asked not to go to the gates. But they are on the roads, sort of keeping watch. We had to communicate either by ship to shore, or women would roughly know where the cruise watch cars were or cruise watch cars called in at a distance. So you knew that cruise watch cars were in the area… most days of the week. Weekends are not so bad, because you get the women who came down for the weekend. Also, in the week, especially when it was dark, you got meals on wheels. Which is hot dinners delivered. And they’d take wet bedding and bring it back. So that was the communication. Between all this you had a network of people who came down to do night watch. And these would often be working women. Who would do night watch and go off to work. So that’s what we did for security. So orange gate would have night watch, green gate, blue gate, and if you were at a gate with 2 or 3 women it was just as well to go to the next gate to sleep, women were quite sensible about these things, on the other hand if you were somewhere like emerald, you could go sleep in the trees. Or near the trees and just be quiet. So you had to assess your situation. Blue gate, which is the one that had either a very religious group, then the artists, but mainly the very young women who couldn’t put up with the rest of the camp, they would tend to get a bit boisterous in the early hours. The neighbouring people would quite rightly get fed up with them. And they’re the ones who came under a lot of threat, because people walking their dogs would walk through there tents, defecate in the tents, steal their property. Bad neighbours rather than threat. On the other hand, blue gate then became a focus for people, the taxi drivers in the town who were very pro American. We had sort of little anti-women, they were pro military, they used to meet at the pub near the station, called the railway, because we were tipped off about it, they dressed in black and they were one lot of vigilantes and they used to go around the camps at night, they were very threatening. And they used to fire air guns, throw stones etc. They didn’t attack the women, the attacks came from the military on the whole, but the vigilantes were just nasty. So if you had a night watch and they didn’t want to be seen, that was the main threat. There were just so many threats, and sometimes they were all full on.
S: Could you describe like the colours and sensations around you when you were there at night?
L: Well I was always aware of the heavens really and the stars.
S: So it was always clear sky?
L: No. It always rained *laughs*. But when you’re sitting around the fire, you’re aware of the colours of the fire, that brightness, and then the darkness behind. The lights in the sky, I was mainly orange gate at night, so, not a very threatening gate. But, it’s a good place for vigilantes to park their cars and come up on us and make a quick get away. So we were always on alert for footfalls. We were surrounded by trees, so we were sort of in a little clearing surrounded by trees, then there was a road and the lights from the base dazzling. And behind that there were figures, sort of and occasionally a dog would bark, occasionally a vehicle would come. It was a very strange sensation that you’re here, in the center with a fire, perhaps next to another woman, then you are vaguely aware that women are sleeping around you, and trees are circling you, you can hear things and you’ve got a dazzle of light. Then behind that there are shapes, the shapes are figures, dogs patrolling, vehicles coming, whispers, it was very strange. I never felt unsafe. You could hear people, vaguely, because noise carries, you suddenly realise just how noise carries. Because when I was there once I could hear these donkeys and I realised they had come from the children’s play areas. But when its quiet, its very immediate, so sounds were very deceptive. What was lovely was watching rabbits coming to drink in the pools in the morning, I was never awake for the sunrises, but we had some lovely sunsets, you could really appreciate the sky. And when it was very frosty and I’m not a cold weather person, there was one time someone had taken down about 10 sections of a fence so women could drive in, and the fence was just beautiful with frost. And the trees were beautiful.
L: The black Cardigan.
S: That’s the bolt cutters.
L: Yes. And I have to explain it in context. Women were going around doing talks and collecting money for bolt cutters. There were about 180, they were all in my cellar. It was very strange because at this time, someone said to us, your phones are tapped, don’t use bolt cutters use the term black cardigans. Now I can’t think of any other context, except on the phones because we thought they were tapped. So we used the expression, then suddenly it was in the press. The Daily Mail, if you look in the archives, they’ve got a feature, in which a bloke is going on about black cardigans. So I thought someone has been listening into our phone calls, I thought good luck to them. But they couldn’t understand why it was so important for Greenham women to have black cardigans.
S: I went thought the strip searching archives.
L: I was strip searched, but I didn’t get further than my underwear. Then they left me, I got dressed, nobody was around, so I wondered into the American command unit where they were all sitting and I was reading their messages. I said “why are you strip searching me sir I haven’t got anything on me, and then you let me loose to wonder in”. They were like “what are you doing mam?” – Very polite. “I’m reading your messages” *laughs*. So they threw me out, but very nicely.
J: What could you possibly say to a group of 12, 13, 14 or 15 year old’s?
L: Well first thing I found, when I was with the very young ones at blue gate, 15 and 16 year old’s… please take this on board… that’s where I heard for the first time about incest, violence to teenagers – teenagers can get a rotten deal, not just working class, but they had to run away. And they run away for good reason. Once they’re 16 and they left… I can think of 2 young girls who came to Greenham with really horrendous past. They’ve just done so well. I learnt more from them than I ever taught them. I think what Greenham provided, is a forum where they could tell us what was going on. They might not know what’s going on in the news, but they certainly know what’s going on in their neighbourhood and their families.
S: So its very much about the safe circle of talking?
L: Yes. Although we were a mixed section. Anybody could come. Especially in blue gate where the young women were. Who had left home just to come and be independent. They were very resourceful. And their stories were very interesting. I’d heard about things like incest and domestic abuse. But when you hear about them, and you hear about the help they have sought and how awful it has been… because don’t forget in the 80’s… we are hearing now about the abuse in the orphanages and care homes. Those people came to Greenham, they couldn’t all be making it up to be dramatic. Its not a big audience, its just a sympathetic audience. I don’t think we allow children in care enough space to tell us what’s wrong with their lives. They have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. I had always taken the attitude that they should just get into the system and just wait until you can and then be independent. But those kids didn’t have a choice, they had to get out. They were in dangerous homes. And the magnitude of it. It just surprised me. They were utterly cynical about the support services. About any help you could get from the police. They had no time at all for social workers. Quite often, social workers that I’d dealt with when some of the camp children went to school were excellent, even for providing necessary clothes or taxis so that they could go to school. I realized that it was possible to be 16, to be abused and neglected, and no one helped or believed you. I began to realise that the system didn’t work for everybody. The more articulate you were, the more help you got, but if weren’t very good at talking, or explaining, it was very easy to be ignored. And being poor really didn’t help at all. So if you’re asking what I taught them, I don’t think I taught them anything but I did listen.
J: If you were at that age to stand up in a school assembly or class, and the question was why are you at Greenham, what are you doing? What do you want to achieve? If you were to communicate to them in a few sentences, in just a few words to explain why.
L: First thing I’d say is, can you name 96 cities in Europe? Right, we have weapons aimed at 96 cities in Europe, each of those weapons will totally destroy a city. Does that make sense? And because that’s going to happen, we have another country aiming 96 weapons at us. If you can name 96 cities in Europe. Does that make any sense to you? And that’s just the start of the nuclear war. That’s the first strike. I mean, do you have to go any further? I do find that you have to draw a line between what terrorises us and what freezes us, is what was very real in the 80s. When you come to rationalise the idea that would do something as terrible as deploy nuclear weapons either accidentally or not… it was such a nightmare, it was freezing people and causing mental illness. Children can only cope with so much reality, there is nothing they can do about it. This is the awful thing. We’ve created a situation where we are all frozen. It’s not the children’s fault, they’ve been born into this situation. So it’s a dodgy one, we’re all responsible yet there is nothing we can do about it.
L: The only thing we could influence is stop them doing it, the children. You don’t have to go into the military. You don’t have to work for nuclear weapons. You know, just don’t join it. And yet universities brainwash them into going, they’re the best jobs around here you can get – an apprenticeship. Really around here its difficult to not get a job which is not related to the nuclear industry, its everywhere. One of the loveliest men in our church and I never stopped having a go at him, he spent his entire life designing a weapon, I said to him years after you’re dead, your work could have such a terrible effect. Yet in his personal life he was just amazing. I have such respect for him, but I never let him feel comfortable around me. These scientists, the other side of it, they spend their whole life designing nuclear weapons.. and what for? I mean, imagine meeting god at the end of you life and saying I spent my whole life doing this. What is it you’ve created in your life? To spend all your life designing weapons. That’s what they all do, it’s a huge industry. And they contaminate the atmosphere and the water. It is difficult living here as well.
S: What did you do earlier in your life that led you to being an activist?
L: I’ve always been an activist.
S: Right from a young woman?
L: I went to a boarding school with Nuns. I was always in trouble. They were very kind to us. The nuns stupidly taught us to think for ourselves. They indoctrinated us to think for ourselves. They didn’t like it when we did. I’ve always been interested and politics to me is very much right or wrong.
S: So it was really in your heart before Greenham? Greenham for a lot of women was their moment of awakening.
L: But Greenham was a lot more than that. Greenham was a space where women could be themselves. And every gate had someone who was really difficult. Someone who was really a mental case. A lot of women were experimenting without having their medication. Trying different ways of living. A lot of women were mad and sad. The idea that you could live your life on your own, sometimes women just need friendship and reassurance.