by Andy Beckett
Thirty years ago, Helen John was the first full-time member of the Greenham Common peace camp. Now 73, she’s still hard at it, trying to stop drones operating from a UK air base
‘I’ll be wearing a T-shirt with ‘No More Assassinations by RAF Drones’ on it,” says Helen John, matter-of-factly, when we arrange to meet by phone. She is 73. She has recently been in poor health. But a certain reputation still precedes her.
For 30 years, since the first day of the Greenham Common peace camp, when she and three other women chained themselves to the perimeter fence of the cruise missile base and waited to see what would happen, she has worked fearlessly and relentlessly to undermine the British and US military. She has broken into and damaged top-security establishments, stood against Tony Blair for parliament, and been assaulted by policemen; she has regularly been arrested and imprisoned. In 2005, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, but her campaigning style has grown no milder or more respectable.
“We have seen the back of the cruise missiles, the son of the Nazi V1 flying bombs; now we have their grandson drones bringing about indiscriminate destruction,” she wrote in a recent online rallying cry against the lethal pilotless aircraft currently deployed over Afghanistan. She signed off with a characteristic flourish: “In sisterhood and total defiance.”
We meet at Lincoln station, near RAF Waddington, an airfield where next year drones will be controlled for the first time from British soil. Currently, the appropriately-named Reapers, with their all-seeing cameras and cargoes of bombs and missiles, are flown by an RAF unit based in Nevada. The smaller time difference between Britain and Afghanistan is intended, John says, to make their operators less prone to tiredness and killing civilians.
She relays this information in a precise, quietly furious voice. Yet otherwise she is not quite as expected. Instead of the promised “assassinations” T-shirt, she is dressed like an ordinary pensioner in waterproof jacket and cords, an elderly dog on a lead beside her. She is small and slight and self-deprecating – quick to mention that, so far, her attempts to establish a Greenham-style protest at Waddington have not been a success. In September, she and a few local activists set up on a roadside verge beside the base. “I sat there on and off for about three weeks, with motorists whizzing by at 60 miles an hour,” she says. “About one person in a thousand hooted.” Even fewer stopped to ask what the protest was about. Eventually, she packed up and drove home to West Yorkshire.
But John, who after Greenham spent more than a decade in a caravan protesting outside the Anglo-US electronic eavesdropping complex at Menwith Hill on the North York Moors, does not give up easily. Last month, she returned to Waddington with a tent. She shows me where she tried to pitch it, beside the main gate. An armed guard looks out across windswept cabbage fields. Behind him extends a maze of runways and unlovely military buildings, somewhere within which the drone “pilots” will work their joysticks. John fixes her gaze on the base: “I don’t believe in the use of any weaponry, but there is something quite noble about someone who is prepared to lay down their life [in combat]. But sitting in an air-conditioned room thousands of miles away … Killing by remote control. These weapons are a complete departure from civilised behaviour.
“The authorities aren’t going to make the mistake at Waddington that they made at Greenham,” she says. “Unlike at Greenham, the public won’t be able to see any preparations for the weapons system’s arrival. The drone control centre will be a special little room, already built.” Last month, her second attempt to highlight it also ended in failure: putting up a tent on her own in an autumn gale proved beyond her.
The Greenham camp, she says, was established in better weather: the glorious Indian summer of 1981. Unlike some of the other founders, she was middle-aged, 44, and had not previously been politically active. “I went through life like a pudding. I didn’t notice a lot of things. I didn’t know what feminism was. I had five children, and had been working as a midwife.” Suddenly struck by terror and anger at the nuclear arms race, she decided to leave her family and live at the peace camp full-time, the first Greenham protester to do so.
We drive round Waddington’s perimeter. It is miles long, topped with barbed wire, but John is unimpressed: “A tiny fence like that,” she says, “they think they’re secure – it’s ridiculous. It would take five minutes to cut a hole big enough, to get a lot of people in.”
She remembers the thrill when she and her comrades first trespassed at Greenham. “The sentry ran out from his box, with his arms out to stop us, like a goalkeeper. I just fell about laughing. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and said something like: ‘Come on, Mrs John’” – at protests, guards usually learn to recognise her pretty quickly – “‘you don’t want to be ridiculous.’ And I said: ‘I do want to be ridiculous.’ He dumped me outside the base, and I ran straight back in. Meanwhile, the other women had occupied the sentry box.” She laughs softly. “That day was the first time we were arrested.”
Nonviolent confrontation and improvisation, she believes, can turn tiny protests into big, influential ones. “We need to stir up as many problems as possible for this place,” she says, gazing at Waddington again.
But who will make up this protesting “we”? John is in touch with Quakers in Lincoln who are sympathetic. Yet they are too old, she says, to establish a peace camp with winter coming. With typical self-belief, she is seeking other local recruits by approaching weekend shoppers in the street. “It takes time. A lot of people here don’t care about the drones yet.” Or worse: when we stop for lunch in the village beside the base, a friendly woman proudly mentions that her grandson is working on the drone project. We have to settle for a snack bar that also stocks RAF-related publications and memorabilia, and John insists on eating in the car.
For all the defiance and ingenuity of peace activists such as her, Britain remains a militaristic country. The day we meet, the possibility of a war over Iran’s nuclear programme fills the papers. Why, then, does she think most Britons worry less about nuclear weapons than they used to? “Because nobody’s been nuked for a long time, and there’s never been a nuclear exchange [of fire], they’ve fallen asleep. They think it’s not going to happen.”
On Remembrance Day last year, John was arrested for writing anti-Trident missile slogans on the high court building in Edinburgh. Convicted of malicious damage, and refusing to pay a fine, she spent three weeks in prison. Wasn’t that a pretty brutal experience for a 73-year-old? “No. I’ve never found prison to be an awful experience. It’s … interesting – and relaxing. My life is usually spent rushing around. In prison, you don’t have to do anything. And they’re more frightened of you than you are of them.”
RAF Waddington might want to invest in some better fences.