Ann Petitt, 'Walking to Greenham: How the Peacecamp began and the Cold War ended'

IssueOctober 2006
Review by Janet Kilburn

Perhaps for most women who had a close involvement with Greenham, a new book on the subject will be approached with a certain trepidation. Over the years there have been a few - some written by academics, others by women who lived at the camp - and for reasons including remoteness and subjectivity, none has been fantastically well-received. One reason for this is that not one of us has the “whole story”. We each have our own - and we know it.

In this book however, Ann Pettit has managed, with good humour, incisive wit and a solid political perspective, to acknowledge this and to tell us hers. The bones of the tale are well-documented and now solidly embedded in peace movement folklore. This book, essentially a personal memoir, puts the blood, sweat and tears into it.

How it really began

In terms of the camp, it covers the period from the 1981 Cardiff to Greenham walk (in which Ann is universally recognised as instigator) to 1984 when she last spent any significant time at the camp. However, as well as recounting the fantastic DIY spirit, dis-organisation, lack of professional campaigning skills, and surreal experiences of camp, it also offers a thread of familial experience from the 1930s on.

It includes narratives of her father's communism and his dilemmas over the correct path to tread during the Second World War, and her mother's experience of life in occupied France - with her own dad in the resistance, and her decision not to turn away when the trains, carrying their human cargo east, passed through her village.

Doing what you can - even if that simply means bearing witness - seems to have been well-communicated; her family's values have no doubt helped shape and inform her life's journey.

Across the divide

The latter part - perhaps one third of the book - is dedicated to the story of the engagement of people in the British peace movement with those in the then USSR. They were motivated in part by the idea that ordinary people had to make connections with each other across the Iron Curtain in order for things to change.

Coming from a background where the workers' revolution and “Uncle Joe” were idealised, and operating in the Cold War climate herself - though with a much stronger critique of project USSR than her father - this bold approach was quite inspired.

Her story of the Trust Group and of travelling to Russia has to be placed in context. These days you can hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere if you have a British passport. In the early 1980s the situation was very different. Paranoid Soviet state control had reached insane levels, and internal dissent, contact with westerners and so on, was dealt with in a brutal manner. There were risks - small and great - for all concerned.

Life on earth

From her early adult years as a dope-smoking squatter in London, to the later chaos of motherhood in a dilapidated Welsh farmhouse surrounded by rubble, children, vegetables and animals (including Dolly the cow - who plays a small but important role in the Greenham story!), Ann well communicates the reality of trying to organise while also managing daily life.

Her connection to and appreciation of the earth - from an obvious love of the Common, to her gardening - also runs through this book. It is peppered with observations about the weather, the smell of the woods, and the brightness of the stars.

Her story

In a way, there is nothing to critique in this book because, although you might think some of the strategies (or lack of them) and approaches are not what you would have done, this is her story.

As a parting shot, Ann reminds us that the spirit that created Greenham is infinitely fertile and encourages new approaches for dealing with current issues. The power of this very readable, funny and moving, book is that it communicates the belief that everyone can make a difference - that each of us can do things to add new chapters to the story.

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