A personal recollection of one of the many ‘peace camps’ which sprang up as part of the movement against nuclear and other weaponry in the UK in the early 1980s. It muses on some of the factors which distinguished this camp from others of the time, particularly the implicit tension between a diffuse social criminality or indiscipline associated with younger participants, and the po-faced respectability of those happy to affirm the elitist ‘political criminality’ of peace activism on the one hand, or parliamentary democracy on the other .

Memories of Brambles Farm peace camp

This is a personal recollection of my involvement with an encampment on the edge of a small Hampshire town on a plot of land earmarked for the construction of a Marconi torpedo factory in 1982. ‘Peace Camps’ were a phenomenon that distinguished the ‘peace movement’ of the early 1980s from earlier manifestations of opposition to nuclear weapons of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, concealed beneath the apparent homogeneity of the term ‘peace camp’ ran contradictory currents.

For ten weeks in the summer of 1982, a patch of derelict farmland on the edge of Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, was taken over by a motley crew of local residents and sympathisers. For certain ‘community activists’, involved in the local Labour Party and Green Party, it was a last resort in their campaign to stop Havant Borough Council selling the land at Brambles Farm, land perceived by them as the common property of local people. The fact that it was to be sold to GEC-Marconi so that it could develop guidance systems for the Spearfish torpedo gave opponents the rallying cry, TREES NOT TORPEDOES, and earned Waterlooville the alternative name, ‘Torpedo Town’.

The connection with war production aligned the Brambles Farm land occupation with other anti-military protests, such as the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. This allowed the ‘peace camp’ at Brambles Farm to draw upon a wider and deeper reservoir of support from the flourishing peace movement than would have been possible had it remained a ‘local planning issue’. I became aware of it six weeks in, when handed a leaflet at a municipal ‘peace festival’ in a park in Southampton – the sort of free music event that tends not to happen these days.

Although bracketed with other peace camps, Brambles was more than a symbolic presence outside the wire of a military base: it was an actual physical obstacle to the construction of the torpedo plant, and in that respect anticipated the anti-roads protest camps of the 1990s, as well as land occupations to prevent quarrying and open-cast mining today. While the abstract spectacle of a nuclear apocalypse contributed to a pervasive sense of impending doom, the particular conflict with this convergence of local business, political and military procurement interests that sought an urgent resolution, generated a real sense of crisis among participants in the camp, materialised in the eviction and subsequent brief re-occupation of the site. With Brambles there were certain identifiable enemies who we knew were gunning for us – the council, Marconi, local landowners, the police, the legal apparatus – localised arms of the capitalist octopus, more tangible and easier to get at than despair at the whole cruel magnificence of the ‘system’ and its firepower. Yes, there was a sense of crisis, but it was directly linked to the dynamics of the conflict with these interests, summoning up – often simultaneously – feelings of pride, excitement and fear.

One enemy was E W Borrow, local landowner and businessman, who once owned Brambles Farm before selling it on to the council. He also owned the industrial estate across the road from the camp. The Borrow connection wasn’t lost on us. On one daring night-time sortie, the illuminated letters above Borrow’s estate office were removed – a small, but gratifying gesture. The estate also accrued more than its fair share of anti-military and anarchist graffiti. A workmate, whose son worked at the Wadham Stringer car sales place across the road from the camp, told me that the police had taken over an upstairs office of the firm, filling it with cameras and surveillance equipment to observe the camp from across the road…just another retrospective justification (as if any were needed) for those who ‘might’ have damaged cars on the forecourt.

Its situation on the edge of a small town lent a particular dynamic to the camp and its subversive/dependent relationship to it. There were the bags of provisions brought over by sympathetic residents of Hambledon Road. There were the very convenient public conveniences, five minutes walk away, by the supermarket. Close to hand was The Heroes public house, its sign showing a red-coated last stand from Zulu, or the like. Being a couple of miles from the (now late-lamented) Gales brewery in Horndean, you could get a decent pint of HSB. The landlord was very ‘trigger happy’ when it came to barring people, including one of our number for having an ‘offensive haircut’, and wholesale barrings of peace-campers were regular occurrences. The back patio, often quietly appropriated as we drifted from the bar, afforded pleasant views of the camp that summer, especially when the sun was low in the sky, with the mist creeping over the fields.

The camp’s suburban location meant that there was a greater variety of people and ideas within the camp. The coincidence of the camp with the school holidays was also significant. It would have been a different, less interesting place to be had it been the sole preserve of professional activists and peaceniks. There was a current of youthful social criminality that would jar with the moralising ‘political criminality’ of the average peacenik, as well as horrify the respectable legalism of some of the Labour contingent, reflecting the moralistic and middle class tenor of the peace movement at the time. While the emergence of the peace camp network marked a rejection of the official legalistic protest of CND (with its emphasis on petitioning and marching, at the same time as recognising the legitimacy of those it petitioned), nevertheless, this ‘unofficial’ phenomenon generated its own cadre versed in the ethos of ‘non-violent direct action’, a milieu as prone to elitism and as patronising as any group of professionals. (A year on from the camp and I’m in a shared house with one of its ex-participants, a rather haughty fellow, who’s just got back from the sit-down blockade of Upper Heyford airbase, where he was one of the 600-odd arrested. Talking about his day in court, he described the policeman who testified against him as a lower class twit. This chap even made off with the pictures I took of the camp! – I didn’t have the negatives because, strangely, they’d been switched with someone else’s holiday snaps at the developers).

The diverse motivations and experiences of those involved in Brambles, helped offset real tendencies towards the sacrificial elitism characteristic of the Peace Movement, particularly among younger participants who, united by a diffuse anti-authoritarianism, resisted the respectability and attention to procedure of the official/unofficial axis. An illustration of this was the site caravan which, as well as having the ubiquitous CND symbol painted on it, bore the slogan, JOIN THE BANANA CLUB, in huge black letters, alongside a painted banana logo. There was an air of tension among the original campers over a slogan that betrayed an element of irreverence out of keeping with an image that some of the more po-faced participants wanted to project. As the weeks went on, and the number of participants grew, already existing tensions which had been tempered by real friendships between original campers – whether local Labour or local ‘bad lad/girl’ – tended to mutate and become mediated through the sometimes bitter conflict between Southampton Labour Party and assorted anarchists (The Trots had zero visibility here, presumably marching, shouting ‘Jobs not Bombs!’ somewhere or other). There was a perception – among the anarchists, ‘independents’ and unaffiliated ‘hooligans’ – that the Labour contingent was trying to run the whole show, armed with the official unilateralist policy of the parliamentary Labour Party. A particularly ‘controlling’ and hostile member of this triumvirate was one Matthew Taylor (1), son of the pop-sociologist Laurie Taylor. A menacing sidekick of his was a rather bumptious character called B (2). Anita, another one of this contingent, was actually quite nice. This group took it upon themselves to produce a rather anodyne A5 leaflet, distinguished by the fact that the menacing one was reputed to have worked all night carefully letrasetting the microscopic text on both sides. A particular bone of contention was the ‘black’ flag (more mottled dark grey and brown) which fluttered from the site caravan, and Taylor and his heavy were in the forefront of attempts to get it taken down, as it gave a ‘bad impression’.

The camp offered an opportunity to make real, or act out (for me, anyway), some of the fantasies awakened by contact with situationist ideas – through the cheap edition of The Society of the Spectacle, from BM Mattoid, for instance. I’m not sure whether I had by this time the Situationist International Anthology, though Larry Law’s Spectacular Times booklets were floating around, I think. The camp was also just as much, if not more, of ‘a critique of human geography’ as a gesture against militarism. An extract from ‘Elementary Programme of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism’ (in the Anthology) sums up the attitude:

All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its elementary laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones…Materialising freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet

The Spectacular Times rendition of this (derived from Chris Gray) was more blunt – ‘All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops – the geometry’. The tranquil image of suburban passivity described by Debord was recognised: ‘The new towns of the technological pseudo-peasantry clearly inscribe on the landscape their rupture with the historical time on which they are built; their motto could be: “On this spot nothing will ever happen, and nothing ever has”’. The brief existence of Brambles leavened the despair of this motto. One guerrilla action involved a group of the ‘hooligan’ contingent getting on the roof of an ‘office/retail complex’ overlooking London Road – the main thoroughfare of Waterlooville – and moving the hands of the public clock, which overhung the street – an incisive critique of spectacular time. On this same nocturnal expedition, sailing on the ‘high’ of our audacity as we lurked on the fire escape, someone suggested a future ‘hit’ on the Job Centre – part of the same complex, but on the ground floor – to be ‘claimed’ by the ‘Youth Liberation Front’, which someone said was run from a flat in Guildford. As it happened, no such ‘hit’ ever took place, nor was one planned. A return visit by a few ex-campers to a now ‘precinctified’ London Road the following year, and the appearance of the phrase RIOT FOR ROMANCE in the porch of a travel agents, prompted an outraged front page in the local rag – an unexpected outcome for what I’m told was a trivial bit of Friday night fun.

The peace camp really did feel like a ‘liberated space’, an antidote to a social isolation policed by TV (transmitting information – ‘the poetry of power’), an area of reciprocal communication in which conflicting ideas could clash without the ones socially favoured in the workaday world outside the camp winning out. One participant (a very fine human being), inspired by a couple of articles in Freedom about anarchist activism in Australia, came out as a ‘Carnival Anarchist’ – to snorts of derision from Matthew Taylor (himself due to commence a Masters degree in Industrial Relations at Warwick University). Having said that, much of the conversation was at a level of everyday banality usually despised by politicos of all varieties…A German punk, nicknamed ‘The Rooster’ because of his ‘Mohican’, commented that cow-shagging was the predominant form of bestiality in Germany, rather than the sheep-shagging considered traditional in Britain. However, this sweeping generalisation was countered by the anecdote about a Petersfield farmer caught en flagrante in a cowshed with a calf. Traces of the puritanical elitism that would later riddle the anarcho-punk milieu also surfaced. A punk with Anti-Nowhere League painted on the back of his jacket was publicly scorned by some Crass punks as a ‘plastic punk’, presumably because he wore a studded leather jacket, tartan trousers and sniffed glue. Another feature was the ‘Brambles Shambles’, an impromptu singalong around the campfire, with assorted percussion and instrumental accompaniment.

In the final fortnight of the occupation we obtained some huge pieces of hardboard and some pots of paint. Out of it a ‘house’ was built, while our presence was more prominently advertised by erecting the other boards with brightly painted slogans, such as: PEACE CAMP, THIS IS GREEN BELT NOT MACHINE BELT, TREES NOT TORPEDOES, and PEOPLE’S PARK. The latter slogan, a nod to a struggle over public space in 1960s California, got right up the Labour group’s nose, though it chimed with the feelings of most other campers, notwithstanding the hippie nostalgicism (which actually appealed to me at that time). With a higher profile, there was increased incidence of passing motorists bawling out ‘Get a job!’ or ‘Why aren’t you working?’ – unwanted reminders of the social disciplinary role of wage slavery. As the eviction loomed, there were sightings of a gentleman in a white car, who would regularly pull up at the roadside and observe the camp before pulling away again. As it turned out, he was the bailiff who served the eviction papers.

Brambles Farm was the place where I could indulge the fantasy of life without the boring job I was stuck in at the time, building up the social networks that would give me moral support when I finally did jack it in. It was great while it lasted. The social connections it generated survived the ultimate eviction of the camp.

By ‘A part-timer’.

(1) Since then Matthew Taylor has become one of the architects of and apologists for New Labour, head of its think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, and is now (2010) director of the Royal Academy.

(2) This character had a major falling out with his ward Labour Party a year or so later – issuing threats to kill the children of a Labour councillor. At this time the local paper ran a series of stories about a phantom painter who would prowl the streets of this ward armed with a brush and a pot of black gloss, painting very-carefully-executed rectangles on windows displaying rectangular Labour election flyers…

[For details of the free festivals that later occurred on the same site, see;
http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/torpedo-town-free-festival.html ]


Source: Awsm.nz