September 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment
....and welcome to some scribings about a gallery with a bit of an old school flavour, or should that be Old Skool Flava, i'm not entirely sure.. These photos of Greenham Common airbase were all taken on film (mainly Ilford Delta 400 and HP5 400) and have been treated to some pretty unsubtle contrast alteration in the old 'grades' style, but I think it suits them. To carry this a bit further, I decided to do the research for this blog using books (remember them?), pen, and paper, which was quite refreshing in a way.
There is a plethora of information available about Greenham Common. In summary, it was a former World War II airfield that was taken over by the U.S.A.F in 1951, receiving its first aircraft two years later. It evolved to feature two 9000 feet runways, 3 hangars and accomodation for 1500 personnel. Later it became famous (or infamous) as the U.K base for the American G.L.C.M's (Ground Launched Cruise Missiles), which were first delivered in 1983, with a total of 96 being present by 1986. These attracted the well known protest activities of C.N.D (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), the Peace Camp and Cruise Watch. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S forces departed and Greenham Common closed as an air base in 1991.
I really didn't expect that you'd be able to get anywhere near this place, or, if you could, that there would be anything left to see. Instead, amazingly, we seemed to be able to wander around at will, and, though there are quite a few companies using the remaining buildings, hardly saw a soul, despite the fact it was a weekday! In some of the photos you can see that the road layout is based on the American system of driving on the right, there were also U.S style fire hydrants dotted around the place! Strangely, or at least I thought it was, the sign on the preserved area of the missile shelters states that they are protected under the "Scheduled Ancient Monuments Act". I've never heard of this, and there was no mention of English Heritage/ National Trust etc. so it made me wonder whether this area is technically U.S soil? Then again, I might be completely wrong, but, as it's highly unlikely that anyone will ever read this, I'm going to stick with this idea.
The photos show quite a variety of things, including the missile shelters, the control tower, runway area, Commissary (identical apparently to contemporary American malls of the time), the Command Centre (which also housed the decontamination units) and some of the hangars. I was determined to spare you the rigours of facts for most of this diatribe, but have just found out that, by royal decree, there must be at least a 1:15 fact to text ratio. So, grudgingly, "Stop...Hangar Time", (now that's old school!!). These 3 "Luria" hangars are 320 feet wide and 160 feet long, steel framed and steel clad, with enough space to accommodate the B-47 Stratojet or the KC-97 refuelling tanker. "But!", I hear, "one of them is concrete, you incompetent fool!", among other shouts of outrage. Well, this is because this one was rebuilt in 1958, after a B-47 jettisoned its fuel drop tanks on take off. One of the magnesium tanks hit another parked B-47 and one landed on this hangar. Ever since there has been speculation, which has never completely been denied, that the aircraft was also carrying nuclear warheads, which did not explode but did leak radioactive material. The hangar burned for two days, which is made even more worrying by the fact that there were also eight, 1,000,000 gallon(!) underground fuel tanks at the base.
Anyway, I think that makes the quota just over 1;15, so, back to the photos! On pages 9 and 13, you can observe rare evidence of a generally unknown and short lived chapter of the Greenham Common story. While the histories of the "Peace Convoy" and C.N.D were well documented, little media attention was given to another group active at the same time, the "Pease Protesters". This ramshackle collective was fiercely opposed to the import into the U.K of American "junk food". It adopted the name and logo of the iconic yellow split pea based pudding to spearhead it's campaign, believing these would evoke a unique type of English traditionalism. Why were they active at Greenham??, simply because the Commissary ("village store") at the base was, at the time, the largest retailer of U.S origin processed food in the U.K, importing, according to the group's pamphlets, over 4250 tonnes of saturated fat per day. The "Pease Protesters" made it their mission to halt this influx by blockading the building, an action that began early in the summer of 1985.
However, in a misguided attempt to adhere to correct "Englishness", the group refused to conform to the American road layout at Greenham Common and set up their barricades and brazier on the LEFT hand side of the road facing the Commissary. As well as causing several dangerous incidents in which the anarchists only barely escaped injury, this short sighted policy rendered the entire roadblock ineffectual. Trucks approaching the drop off point simply passed on the opposite side of the road, while those departing did so to the rear of the protesters, their drivers often crawling silently up to the blockade, before either belching, loudly sounding their horns, farting, or emitting a "Rebel Yell", any one of which ensured that the road was immediately cleared.
The shambolic campaign attempted by the "Pease Protesters" was doomed from the start, and the end finally came after a farcical incident that occurred on the 23rd of June 1985. Over a period of several hours, two off duty U.S servicemen, Lance Corporal Thaddeus P. Weinberger and Master Sergeant Washington "Hank" Dwight VII, surreptitiously crept up behind the unsuspecting militants and deposited 5 Big Macs, 3 Quarterpounders (with extra cheese), several large portions of Fries, and a "Forty" of Root Beer into the protesters' haversacks and clothing. On the discovery of this substantial stash of fast food, the group's credibility was destroyed and the "Pease Protesters" disbanded on the spot, amidst howls of ridicule from passers by.
Today, (or at least several years ago anyway), Greenham Common Airfield is a surpringly quiet and peaceful place to walk around, with large areas of the site devoted to a nature reserve, including strolling cows and ponds full of waterfowl. When I visited, I was astonished at the amount of buildings and equipment that remained, not least the fire drill 'plane' and the practice bomb! There was a also a varied and bizarrely relevant collection of vehicles lying around, including a London "Routemaster" bus, and, my personal favourite, American "Winnebago" type leisure vehicles stored next to a truck lettered for "Wild Rose, featuring the Russian Ice Stars". There's a symbolic message in there somewhere....
P.S The well known C.N.D arrow symbol can be interpreted in two ways. The first is as the semaphore signs for the letters "N" and "D". The second is as a broken cross, representing the death of mankind, and an unbroken circle, symbolizing an unborn child. The first C.N.D badges were ceramic, this material being selected as it would survive as archaeological evidence of a death after the body had 'disappeared'. This is chilling stuff, which sent a shiver down my spine when I read it, especially when you think that all this was happening less than 30 years ago...
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