‘I made a one-person picket’: Fran De’Ath protests at Greenham Common

My aim was to talk to the men constructing the silos for the American cruise missiles stationed there, to help them understand the seriousness of what they were doing

I deliberately made a one-person picket at Greenham Common. My aim was to talk to the men constructing the silos for the American cruise missiles stationed there, to help them understand the seriousness of what they were doing. I wanted to catch them going to and from work, and felt that by sitting there on my own, defenceless, they were more likely to stop. And they did.

Behind the placard is another that read: “A chat on your way out then?”, along with a chair for the men to sit on. I never harangued them, but we discussed the issues. For me, the threat of nuclear war was palpable, so I tried to paint a picture of a nuclear holocaust. I think I earned their respect, but I don’t think any of them left their jobs.

The man on the placard behind me is Major Claude Eatherly, who flew a weather reconnaissance plane just before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. He later had deep regrets about his role and suffered serious mental health problems. You can see the anguish on his face in this photograph, taken by Richard Avedon. I didn’t want these men at RAF Greenham to suffer the same regrets.

Back then, I was a hippy, but I decided to dress smartly here: I thought I’d be taken more seriously. I wore a tweed jacket, cords and green Hunter wellies. It also meant I fitted in well in nearby Newbury, a horse racing town, where I used to go for a few hours’ R&R now and then. I’d wash my clothes at the launderette, go for a swim and shower, and have a pot of tea in one of the best hotels in town, reading the papers. I didn’t share this with any of the others at the camp.

The works entrance was at the foot of a leafy lane, and I slept in a tipi nearby. Camping in winter, when this picture was taken, was a challenge. I used to wash in the water from my hot water bottle, as it was the only water that wasn’t frozen. The carpet under my feet is keeping them warmer. I made tea using a “volcano” Kelly Kettle, where you burn twigs to boil water.

One morning I woke up to two motorbikes circling the tent. They were local lads, trying to intimidate me. I walked over to them and said: “Have you ever been inside a tipi?” I made them a cup of tea, and from then on, they brought me groceries every week.

I was at the camp for seven months. Several photographers took my picture, including this one by Ed Barber. It featured in the Observer Magazine in December 1982, as well as in his 1984 book, Peace Moves: Nuclear Protest In The 1980s. It’s on show at London’s Imperial War Museum, and is one of two of his pictures that have been turned into a print for the shop. I’ve given copies to friends who supported me back then.

I was 32 when this picture was taken. Decades later, my fear of nuclear war has subsided, but not disappeared. I went on a demo against Trident recently and thought: “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this.”

An exhibition, IWM Contemporary: Edward Barber, runs at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1, until 4 September (iwm.org.uk).

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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