K for Kaleidoscope

K for Kaleidoscope reminds us that how we perceive the diversity around us is important. Trends and fashion even in campaigns have icons and images which can become a battleground and distraction from our core purpose. In the 1980’s in England, the gates for Greenham Common campaigner had different colours of the rainbow to reflect the diversity of those who shared the single purpose of removing nuclear missiles. Memories of time spent camping there brought comfort during Covid lockdowns.

Greenham Common, banana porridge, the goddess,  a rainbow of gates and the Strabane spy network.

Banana Porridge: My belly calls for campfire-banana-porridge for breakfast as I stretch into the light through the oak tree planted fifteen years ago and now taller than the house. “You can’t kill the spirit, she goes on and on” echoes silently through the air mixing with Nora’s no-bananas-poem, mixing with my father and the decades of the rosary. Leafing through my memory of the women who walked from Wales to Greenham Common (about 55 miles from London) to protest against American nuclear missiles at the RAF base as a “deterrent” to attacks from the Soviet Union.The missiles were pointed towards families of civilians in far flung cities.

“You can’t hug your children with nuclear arms”, we chanted at the soldiers guarding the perimeter fence. 1981 marked a turning point in feminism when it became more than a struggle for equal rights with men. The rising consciousness of women prompted us to explore links between nuclear arms, nuclear power, anti-racism and environmental movements like Greenpeace. Women from a wide diversity of backgrounds protested against nuclear missiles at Greenham Common. Women only because we wanted peaceful protest and no leaders. Media of the day labelled us lesbians hoping to marginalise the message with the distractions of erotic fantasy mixed with fear of independent women. Many women were not lesbians but many of us were. Fifty years ago  I  was out and proud – some of the time anyway.

In 2022, war brought despair about the persistence of Us and Them conflicts. A spoonful of porridge mixes Greenham memories with my father making our breakfast when my mother was in hospital. His porridge replaced her home-baked bread and I watched him stirring his anxiety into the pot. Was his anxiety about Mammy’s health or about renewed conflict in Ulster or about money?  Born in 1902  Daddy was no new man and never wheeled a pram or changed a nappy but he worked sixteen-hour days six days a week. I wonder whether my father’s respect for diversity would have stretched to the Goddesses who turned up at Greenham. At the time my respect for diversity  didn’t reach the goddess but I appreciated the rainbow of hope.

Greenham Common founders refused to be leaders and welcomed a kaleidoscope of Socialists, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, multi-colour-all classes-gender-diversity -women as carers, unemployed, mothers, sisters, wives, spinsters, nuns, workers, and Goddess worshipers too. The temptation to split into factions of Us and Them is always present. As a cultural-Ulster-Catholic-sifting through devilish ideas of good and evil, I was tempted to make fun of Goddess worship. I also rejected radical feminist ideas which insisted men are the main enemy. I did appreciate the strategies developed by Greenham women to avoid conflict between women with a kaleidoscope of mind-body-spirit beliefs..

Banana porridge and the goddess at Greenham: Another spoonful of banana porridge transports me to the Greenham campfire where I first heard about the goddess worshippers from my friend Sheila. I was working with Save the Children UK, so camping at Greenham trip was a weekend trip. Sheila recounted an occasion in the early days of the camp. One morning she arrived at Greenham from the home of her mother nearby, buzzing with curiosity and  a woman camping there invited her into a tent. Sheila has an ungainly enthusiastic charm. Her gaucherie and openness earned her a welcome in situations where the ponderous commitment to worthy causes sometimes left little room for common humanity. I could easily understand how she got a hug from Yoko Ono on another occasion. On the Goddess occasion, she accepted the invitation into the tent and squeezed herself through the entrance. She spotted what looked like a cushion or seat and plumped herself down on it. The shriek from the tent’s occupant who had followed her in made her jump onto all fours as she heard her host exclaim.

‘You just sat on the Goddess!”  Sheila hastily scrambled out into the mud suppressing the laughter rumbling in her belly. Her host treated her to a short lecture on the world view where women would reclaim their rightful position in the world and the dominance of the female spirit would  ensure a new balance between spiritual and material life bringing an end to all war and oppression. The tent was an altar to this new order. Sheila did not sit on the only goddess at Greenham. Groups of women made clay effigies of Goddesses and when charged with offences of trespassing or criminal damage brought these effigies into court.

My laughter then and now is tinged with a degree of respect for the Goddess worshipers as they were brave enough to reshape many myths which surround us even yet. The myths about gender differences and even more extreme myths about race are often presented as rational when they have less claim to rationality than Goddess worship. As Toni Morrison points out racism and sexism were created as a way of pitting Us against Them and put us at the mercy of those seeking economic and social power. AfterSheila’s encounter with the goddess effigy, she moved to another gate where she found women whose socialist beliefs were more in accord with her own.

A rainbow of Gates at Greenham: Greenham women had a strategy for diversity. Each gate into to the nuclear missile base was named after a colour of the rainbow symbolising the motivation of the women who camped there.  Adopting the rainbow as a symbol also meant resistance to the predominant media threat which used the lesbian-man-hating label to discredit the protest long before the liberal days of LBGTQI+. Honest women got married and had children or were spinsters. Lesbian was a label to deter the majority of women but the media slurs only helped break down barriers between lesbians and heterosexual women.

Red Gate had more Manchester socialist women like me. I don’t remember the whole rainbow diversity of yellow, blue, indigo, violet, red, orange, turquoise and green but some stand out – the main gate was Yellow and alongside and had the status of the founders from Wales. Apparently on one occasion at orange gate the women cut large swathes of wire and entered the camp where they commandeered a minibus and drove it round inside the camp before having to give themselves up. Blue gate attracted people who resisted labels including young women who left home because of abuse; women with mental health problems who needed someone to talk to and women with strong convictions who didn’t fit at any other gate. At Violet gate, the emphasis was on femininity rather than feminism and apparently women used feminine charms with soldiers on the other side of the fence The one thing Greenham women had in common was commitment to peace, non-violence, and a better world for humanity in the future. The Common evoked a sense of sharing – a green surrounded by trees which offered shelter. The large silos holding weapons of destruction which would destroy all life were surrounded by the barbed wire fence. The American nuclear base was an even greater  insult to our shared world because the silos sat on what was once-Common ground.

Spotted by the Strabane spy network: In 1983 at the second attempt to “embrace the base” with female energy was not exclusive to women., The festive and inclusive atmosphere including groups of Christian monks and nuns and the way everyone tied something personal to the fence and held hands with each other in an unbroken circle was a new style of demonstration for me. In the 1980’s I was among those who identified as  lesbian and I was in love with two women. I wasn’t “out” in Ireland even though I was “out” in England but I was discreet in how I presented these relationships in my workplace. Lovers were “friends” when they visited Ireland. Not only was there no instant internet in the 80’s but there was also a strong feminist code that you had to ask permission if you wanted to take a photo of someone at a demonstration or meeting.  I didn’t tell my mother about my participation in the 1983 circling the base demo – partly because of the lesbian labels. So, I was somewhat surprised at a phone call when I arrived home that evening when I was asked:

“Whose coat were you wearing?” Our mother’s Strabane network seemed to have spies everywhere making the Special Branch in Northern Ireland look like amateurs so it was hard to keep anything secret unless it was something she didn’t want to acknowledge. In the days before mobile phones and video calls how did she know I had been wearing a jacket borrowed that same day from my lover before the demonstration – a jacket I had never worn before?

The easiest response is immediate confession, ‘Ahm, I borrowed a jacket from Pat, we were at Greenham Common to-day. You know Pat.. you know from Birmingham. There was a coach from Birmingham..’

“I know Pat.”

“She lent me the coat because it was waterproof and warm. How did you know about it?’

“I saw you on the news.”

This time it wasn’t a neighbour or someone she had met on Strabane Main Street. I suddenly remembered an image of a tall blond woman strolling past us swinging a video camera. I didn’t see her record us or dream it might be broadcast on BBC news. So much for asking permission I thought and rambled on about the demo and how friendly and peaceful it was, hoping it didn’t bring back the history of anxiety at my attendance at Civil Rights and People’s Democracy marches in Northern Ireland. I told her about the nuns and monks dancing  together at the perimeter fence.

Between 1989 and 1992, the US withdrew its missiles and the base came under the control of the British military.  How much the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 contributed to the end of US cruise missiles at Greenham or how much the winds of change blowing through the trees at Greenham Common were party to the fall of the Berlin wall is impossible to say. Ghosts circle the Holly tree transplanted one Christmas from a self-planted seed on my father’s grave in Strabane.  I nod to Gorbachev , Harry Rowolt in his pope outfit and Flann O’ Brien as I take another spoonful of banana porridge. I  hear echoes with the chorus from the 1950’s song “Yes we have no bananas” in Nora Hughes poem. Connections are there but the Skibbereen Eagle newspaper which kept an eye on the the Czar in 1898 is no longer in print. Now  resurrected on Facebook but for how long?

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