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A Quaker from the class of ’68

Submitted by on May 2, 2011 – 12:04 amNo Comment

The oral history of a law breaker and Quaker, as told to a fellow 1960s radical.

A recent protest at Menwith Hill. Photo by Vertigogen via Flickr.

By Geoffrey Wall

Geoff is a biographer, a translator, a freelance travel writer and an editor of The Cambridge Quarterly. His biography of Flaubert was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

I began as a literary biographer. I wrote about Sartre, Flaubert and Napoleon. Then in 2008, forty years on from 1968, approaching my own sixtieth year, I was commissioned to make a radio documentary about the revolutionary left in Britain. What had my old friends been doing, all this time? Had they just drifted to the right? Such was indeed the classic bourgeois profile. Administer money, and watch closely as Lean Radical Youth mutates gently into Corpulent Citizen. Could that be true? Here was a chance to find out, and to tell the world about the real moral history of the class of ’68.

After making that radio documentary, I turned aside from the lovely game of resurrecting the mighty dead. I discovered oral history. At heart, I’m still a biographer. I love narrative. I explore individual lives. I tell the story of the conflict between creative human agency and material circumstance, the play of freedom and necessity, the tensions of success and failure as they unfold across a lifetime. But now my subjects are contemporary and political. They can talk back.

This is the north of England. Some call it Ideological North. That’s like magnetic north, but it deviates somewhat to the left. Enclosing it all, you must imagine the world’s oldest industrial landscape. The rail journey from York to Liverpool is actually an inexpensive low-tech form of time-travel. You traverse three centuries in two hours, as the train threads its way into the west, all along the high contour line, up above the narrow river valleys.

This is the north of England. Some call it Ideological North. That’s like magnetic north, but it deviates somewhat to the left.
This is where Bible-bearded men with names like Josiah Ezekiel Harbottle invented the textile industry in the last years of the eighteenth century. They began with water-powered mills and canals. Then steam power and the railways. The textile mills are still there, under new management. The buildings survive in their new incarnation as art galleries, carpet warehouses and community centers.

For the last three years, I’ve been interviewing political activists from the cities of the north of England. In York and Leeds, in Manchester and Harrogate, in the back kitchens of Victorian terraced houses, in fancy coffee shops, in church halls and in the bar-rooms of rough pubs, I’ve talked to anarchists, feminists, socialists, Greens and Quakers. Most of my subjects have a remarkable police record.

The conversations I’ve recorded in these places are not exclusively political. They begin from there. Then, once mutual trust has been established, we search the wide, rough ground that lies in between the personal and the political. I ask the biographer’s tenderly intrusive questions. How did you come to politics? Were there political ideas circulating in the family conversations of your childhood? How has your commitment been sustained? How has it evolved? Where will it take you in the future? Beyond the fascination of the individual history, my project is to document, to celebrate and to communicate to a wider circle the ideas of the anti-capitalist cultures of contemporary England. It will eventually be a book, like Studs Terkel. But it will also be a radio program, an online archive, and a piece of verbatim theater.

Portrait of a Peace Activist has been compiled from one of these interviews.

Everyone remembers Natalie. Especially the police officers of North Yorkshire. Natalie is regularly arrested, making headlines, challenging the law.

Everyone remembers Natalie. Especially the police officers of North Yorkshire. Natalie is regularly arrested, making headlines, challenging the law.
Her police file probably says, ‘White female, sixty four years old, sturdy, five foot seven, dark hair, youthful appearance, casual dress, jeans and T-shirt. Posh voice, well-educated, she will normally contest grounds for arrest.”

Picture Natalie, early one morning, cutting the wire, creating a small unofficial entrance in the security fence on the perimeter of an American military base.

Welcome to Menwith Hill, “Communications Relay Center,” high on the North Yorkshire Moors. Menwith Hill is a very large secret: 560 acres of secrecy, enclosing 23 giant white radomes along with 2,000 engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists and computer scientists. What are they all doing, behind the miles of razor-wire, tucked away inside the great white structures? The official description of Menwith Hill spreads a fog of blandly reassuring acronyms. “RAF Menwith Hill is an integral part of the US DoD world-wide defense communications network. Its primary mission is to provide intelligence support for UK, US and allied interests. The base operates with the full knowledge and consent of HMG and is regarded as being of vital importance to this country’s defense strategy. RAF Menwith Hill functions primarily as a field station of the National Security Agency, which is the largest of several elements of the US DoD represented at the base. UK personnel from the MoD and Government Communications Headquarters are fully integrated at all levels within both the operational and administrative areas of the base.  British staffs are aware of all facets of the base’s operations and no activity detrimental to the UK’s interests is carried out there.”

In a report entitled Assessing the Technologies of Political Control  (1997) the European Parliament described the function of Menwith Hill in slightly different terms. ”Within Europe all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency transferring all target information from the European mainland by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland, via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors in the UK.”

Natalie enters the base. She strolls around, surprisingly unchallenged, for all of twenty minutes. She finds her way to a small building that sits in among the cluster of radomes. The door is not locked. Nobody in the control room. Natalie writes a politely mischievous note and places it on USAF Major John Darling’s desk. It may give him pause when he finds it, later that day, in among his papers.

Natalie has been a peace activist for thirty years. She’s a midwife, and a Quaker and an expert on the law of trespass.

Natalie’s political awakening came in the early 1980’s. In those days, she was working in a hospital on the south coast of England. At a public meeting she learned that 96 Cruise nuclear missiles had been installed just down the road on the old RAF base at Greenham Common in Berkshire. The ordinary resident of the south of England was suddenly next door to a prime first-strike target.

Cruise missiles are dangerous because they lower the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons. And, because Cruise missiles are peculiarly visible, they’re politically contentious. They’re not hidden away deep underground, unlike their elderly ICBM cousins. In times of trouble, they can take to the road on the back of a big truck.

There could be no greater imaginative violation of the cherished national-pastoral ideal than the sight of an American Cruise missile making its way furtively along an ancient English country lane.
The enemy can’t find them because they’re never in the same place. But the local population will observe the Cruise missile convoys as they lumber along local roads in the middle of the night, rehearsing for nuclear war. There could be no greater imaginative violation of the cherished national-pastoral ideal than the sight of an American Cruise missile making its way furtively along an ancient English country lane.

These days, Natalie campaigns against Menwith Hill. Peace activists all over Yorkshire regard Menwith as a monstrously visible appendage of the global American war machine. Menwith is a first strike target. Its precise geographical coordinates are encoded in the digital memory banks of all the other war machines.

I recorded our interview at her home in Knaresborough in the autumn of 2008. For three hours, we talked about her life, as a midwife, as a mother, as a peace activist. Natalie had a lovely, expressive voice, full of generous comic energy. She habitually did the different voices, as she told her story. Those other voices, and two of my questions, are here set in italics.

Natalie’s story

“I was late to politics. It was not until I met my husband, John. He was very left wing. Emerged from public school in the sixties, wanting to change the world. I was woken up then. It was so exciting. That’s what education should be about, people who are not just accepting things. He became an industrial chaplain and we went to Lancashire where I trained as a midwife and got into politics and the Labor Party. We moved to Southampton in ‘79 and I’d heard about these missiles, and another parent said she was setting up a peace group, and that was my first contact with the Quakers. The Quaker peace testimony, that was what really interested me. Surely we can do things in a different way, instead of blowing each other’s brains out?

So I went along to the meeting, put on with trade unions, to hear about Cruise missiles. I’d heard dark conversations about these nasty weapons, coming onto a base up the road called Greenham Common. I remember coming out thinking what madness. I was so scared because we had three little children and I was working as a midwife and you’re there for birth and then you come out and there are these missiles. I went on Cruise Watch, going out in the middle of the night tracking the convoy, getting up in the middle of the night, for death. I went to Greenham Common and I thought what are all these American-looking soldiers, all these American voices, it didn’t seem like an RAF base to me. How have we allowed them to be here, out of control, unaccountable?”

Did you cross the wire?

“Many many times. Yes I did. I climbed over the wire. I wandered all over the place. I used to go into their offices and leave them little notes. They didn’t even know I was there.

I remember those very early days, when the silos were being built to receive these horrible things, and there were lots of police and lots of soldiers, the soldiers were every ten yards around the whole perimeter, and it was at night, and the convoy was coming back and we were all by the main gate and lots of noise and police around and it was getting quite tense, and we didn’t know what to do, and it could have been very nasty, people getting hurt, and suddenly, through all the melee of it all, I heard this woman’s voice, she said, Come on women, let’s sit down.

Suddenly, through all the melee of it all, I heard this woman’s voice, she said, Come on women, let’s sit down. So that’s what we did. We all sat down.
So that’s what we did. We all sat down. And it just changed the dynamics, from confrontational, to this. And it was absolutely profound, in… in my life actually. The realization that there is an alternative way. If it’s not working, instead of banging your head against a brick wall, let’s think of something different, alternatives to violence.

We used to go out in affinity groups, half a dozen people you could phone around and say, The convoy’s coming out, and we used to get together, all very carefully and safely done, it was women by now, and we were out following the convoy, four or five of us in the car, just by the convoy, weapons probably weren’t on it. Because they behaved very differently when there were weapons. They used to go from Greenham Common to Salisbury Plain, practice for nuclear war. You could see these missiles up and people in radiation suits.

I was passing one of these convoys and I saw one of the friends, Carol, tears pouring down her face, and I walked over and I said, O Carol are you all right? And I heard this character, this policeman says, Right, you’re nicked. And that was it. I was held in this van for about six hours, and then released, and they were so rude, [mock indignation]. I wasn’t used to people in authority being rude. I thought no more of it and then three months later there was a policeman at the door. Summoned for a breach of the peace, to Salisbury Magistrate’s Court. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing as defense, and a kind friend came with me, and we got off on a technicality.

But that was the start of it. I was endlessly arrested under military land bylaws. They were eventually declared invalid, taken up to the Lords, so I got into that whole law thing, changing things through the law, if there’s an unsafe law let’s break it and bring it to court.

The whole Greenham experience, it was profound, and it did cause problems in the family, of course it did, because it took me away. The children were nine and seven and four. They often said they thought we talked too much.

Sometimes I think they wanted me to give up. It’s difficult when somebody’s committed to something. I’ve always said if someone is forcing you to give up that is not a happy, healthy state to be in. I think I’d be quite resentful.”

Tell me about Menwith Hill.

“I went into the planning office in Harrogate to look at the public files and there was this press release. “Her Majesty’s Government and the United States Government are pleased to announce that RAF Menwith Hill is to be designated as the European Ground Relay Station for the space-based infra-red system.” What on earth was that about? So I rang up a friend in Peace Studies. And he said, I think that sounds like Star Wars. I said, I thought Star Wars had gone away in the 80’s. You know, Regan’s daft idea. Not at all.

So one day I went up to Menwith Hill and I saw contractor’s equipment on the site where these radomes were going to be built. The Space Base. SBS radomes. And I thought what can we do? The law! We’ll take out an injunction in the high courts…to stop the building of these two radomes. You’re up against this massive dark force. American Government. American Military. American Legal System. They do what they like. And that’s what we found out. How unaccountable and in control. An occupation. That’s what visiting forces are in this country. Its all covert and secret and you’re not allowed to know.

The other day I was out, on the road at the entrance to the base, with some banners. Lots of Americans coming past. And this child, I saw him. I had the flag upside down and he just went like this. Covered his eyes. And I was arrested.

It’s tiny, in the scheme of things. Quakerism… this small group of people, who are chipping away. Eventually it will come right, unless we blow the whole place up.”
They said I’d forced this American coming out to drive over the flag. Absolute nonsense. I wouldn’t do that. We won in Harrogate. Very good magistrate. District Judge. Saying, If these Americans can’t cope with that. It’s really important, protest.

We have a demonstration every Tuesday evening, six till eight, outside the main gate, and that’s been going on for nine years, highlighting missile defense, and we were there, it was a Tuesday evening, the day it happened, the twin towers, and we had the flag upside down, and I said, I think it would be totally insensitive to use the flag this time, I really do, please don’t use the flag, and I remember the police, North Yorkshire Police, they came out and said, We really would appreciate it if you didn’t use the flag. It was after that they put up a fence, barbed wire. It’s now totally enclosed, and it’s got cameras all the way round, very tall cameras that scan the area. It’s got tighter and tighter. I still know how to get in, but I don’t think I’ll test it because of the injunctions. And it’s such a dangerous place, because really it does put our security at risk.

I understand why local villages don’t get involved. Because it splits villages. We leafleted the village of Darley which is just below Menwith Hill. Leafleted the whole village one year. We got one phone-call. From a man said he was about 74. Lived next door to Menwith Hill for about twenty years. His wife, who was 73, had been stopped on a Thursday afternoon, daylight, local car, by the Counter-Terrorism Unit. And she was so frightened. And I said if it ever happens again, get in touch with your MP.

It’s tiny, in the scheme of things. Quakerism… this small group of people, who are chipping away. Eventually it will come right, unless we blow the whole place up.”

I wonder about the very possibility of anti-capitalist politics in our time. Where can we find, in our own era, the traces of a creative collective subject? Are we to believe that the collective subject is now only ever either corporate-capitalist, or irrational-destructive, or soporific-consumerist? Listening to the life histories of individual activists, each with their distinctive political culture, persuades me that Enlightenment values of liberty, justice and equality have survived into the century of the Cruise missile. But I don’t stop there. I ask what does it mean, day by day, year by year, to espouse those values? How exactly do we espouse a noble abstraction? What is the cost of the requisite sublimations? How complicated and inconsistent and self-surprising is an authentic political passion allowed to be?

But let’s leave Natalie with the last word, cheerfully poised between positive and negative visions of the future, and trust that the little chip may just keep the place from blowing up.

Listen to Natalie in her own words.

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