As usual, I woke up in the middle if the night and didn’t quite get back to sleep as deeply as I had been. That happens in proper beds as well as dusty hardwood floors. So when I heard stirring at half-five, I was more than ready to jump up and greet the day.
After the previous night’s delicious chicken chilli thing with rice and mysterious lentil stuff (also delicious), the great food continued with porridge, bread, rolls, all kinds of spreads and sweet, life-giving apple juice. There was only one gents’ toilet as far as I knew, but there was no conflict for access or even queues. The only problem was that I foolishly left filling up my water bottle ’til too late, and there was far too much ‘number two’ in the atmosphere for me to consider it. (I know I can’t avoid inhaling other people’s airborne shit particles from time to time, but I refuse to bottle them and keep them with me all day, preserved in water I intend to drink.)
I was taking my little bag with me to the blockade, but those who had been more sensible with their sleeping provisions left their rucksacks in a designated room of the hall (which I can now safely reveal as St. Michael’s, near the shopping centre – thanks, Mike!). Someone’s job was to return after the blockaders had been delivered and move the bags to the hall in Reading we’d be staying in later. (I can also identify that as St. Johns & St. Stephens Church & School – thanks, Johnny & Steve!)
As rehearsed before last night’s dinner, the blockaders got locked to each other and boarded the buses. Time could not be wasted at our destination – Aldermaston’s Boilerhouse Gate – for there was every chance the police could intercept them and prevent the blockade from happening at all. The veteran activists all had stories of being thwarted by waiting police officers. On some occasions, they’d been prevented from driving right up to the site, in which case the consensus was to jump from the bus and run the rest of the way, dodging the law as best they could. The worst case was that the van would be turned away too far from the gate to attempt the sprint, meaning there might not even be a blockade. That would please my mum and my wife, I thought, who were fretting away in Glasgow about my possible arrest. (Translation: I’d be slightly relieved, too.) As one of the drivers pointed out, though, the reality when we get there could differ greatly from any of our imagined scenarios. As it turned out, he was right.
With the blockaders aboard, I found a seat on the leading bus and got my camera ready. We manoeuvred out of the church car park slowly, making sure the other two buses were following, and headed to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston.
“The most important thing is to stay calm,” said Jane, one of the experienced blockaders, and I drew a couple of deep breaths. I couldn’t see much in the pre-dawn darkness, but I kept the camera rolling just in case. Up next to the driver a guy was navigating with a map on his lap while constantly updating the other buses over the phone. “This is your ten minute warning… This is your five minute warning… This is your three minute warning…”
“We’d better get locked on now,” said Brian, one of the main organisers, and those who hadn’t yet did so. We were at the perimeter of AWE Aldermaston now. It’s a massive site, straddling two police force jurisdictions, and we were following it’s circumference anti-clockwise. “Can you see anything yet?” Brian asked.
“I think I see high viz coats,” said the driver. “Difficult to tell.”
The traffic was thick and slow-moving along the two-lane B-road. The AWE employs a lot of people, and the Boilerhouse gate was the port of entry for many of them. When there’s no blockade, that is.
“Two high viz jackets,” called the driver, “three… four. Directing traffic. Five. Definitely police. Six. Shit!”
The road was lined by trees, and it wasn’t until we’d trundled closer that a good view of the gate was afforded us. Countless police guarded it, all blurring into a single impenetrable mass of neon-yellow.
Then we were next to them, with two buses and a mile of regular traffic behind us. No time to think, just keep calm. The side door slid open and a supporter jumped out, clutching placards and signs, followed by me, camera still rolling, ready to capture whatever happened next.
Despite myself, I made eye-contact with the officer nearest me and instinctively gave him my friendliest smile. He smiled back. Not curtly, or politely, but broadly and with genuine good will. “Morning,” he said.
Not wanting to push it, I got onto the grassy verge beside the gate as swiftly as I could (the commonest charge for arrested blockaders is ‘blocking a public highway’). Training my camera back towards the bus, I managed to capture the blockaders (or ‘arrestables’) disembarking fluidly, despite being locked to each other by the wrist. To everyone’s surprise, the police made way for them and even offered helpful suggestions: “You could be a bit further over, love, give your pals a bit more room.”
Before we knew it we had three neat rows of people, arms locked at the wrist within reinforced tubes, successfully barricading Boilerhouse Gate, flanked by officers of the law who were either engaging in good-natured banter with us protesters or moving the traffic along, telling AWE empoyees, “Sorry, this gate’s blocked.”
If I couldn’t believe it, the veterans were flabbergasted. “Never seen anything like it,” they all told me. One young policeman was weaving through the protesters with a camcorder capturing everything with rather more solemnity than his more affable colleagues. When he turned his camera towards me and mine, I waved and pointed back and forth between them, whereupon he broke into a wide, friendly grin.
The traffic got moving again, the blockagers got as comfy as they could (not very) and the supporters started to erect the Bombs Away Café to keep everyone fed and watered. We had made it, we were fine and the police, it seemed, were our pals.
I was reminded of one of the many classic scenes in A Hard Day’s Night. Ringo and Wilfred Brambell (as Paul’s “very clean” grandfather) are sitting in a city police station. A hopeless trouble-maker, the grandfather regales Ringo with tales of police brutality and corruption, inviting him to consider the bobbies who have just escorted them to their bench. “They seem alright to me,” says Ringo, but McCartney Snr.’s having none of it, insisting, “All coppers are villains!”
Oblivious, the desk sergeant calls through to them, “Would you two like a cup of tea?”
Brambell leans in to Starr, sporting his best Steptoe sneer, and says conspiritorially: “See? Sly villains.”