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Popular Politics Project
Interview summary: Jane Gifford
Interviewer: Judith McSwain
Date of interview: 8 April 2014
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
Jane Gifford arrived in Newcastle in 1970 to study art at Newcastle University. She was living in Summerhill Square, Newcastle and working at the local Further Education College at the time of the siting of Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common in Berkshire. The arrival of 96 missiles had shocked a group of women from Wales who organised a 120 mile walk from Cardiff to Greenham Common in August 1981. Once there, some of the women decided to stay to draw attention to the base, the missiles and the involvement of British people in USA foreign policy.
Jane was already into peace issues and co-operation (she founded a housing co-op with a group of like minded people), workers rights and the women’s movement. She was very involved in the Anti-Nuclear Movement began opposing nuclear power and got involved with protests linked to Torness.
So, before the Embrace the Base action in 12 December in 1982 when 35,000 women held hands around the fence at Greenham, Jane had become familiar with challenging authority. At the waste dumping enquiry in Newcastle, with others, she recalls that she bolted herself to the public gallery. But, she says, her first involvement in protest was when she was a child. Then, she lived in Black Notley in Essex. With her father, she watched the Aldermaston march near her home and recalls the banners – one of a dinosaur with the words “too much body, too little brain” and marchers asking “will you come and join us?” Her father predicted that she would, when she was older.
Women from all over the country visited the Peace Camps. North East women, leaving children and husbands at home, booked coaches and drove mini-buses to make their own protest at the base in Berkshire. Jane’s partner, Colin, made the sandwiches for the group Jane travelled with as a mark of his support. Trips took place at the weekend and were often uncomfortable, sleeping in tents and benders. Jane recalls how some politicians said that the women were spies and Michael Heseltine said women risked being shot for taking part in actions. The newspapers and media were vicious, cafes and pubs refused to serve women who were associated with the Peace Camps. Jane remembers how the women showed contempt for the jibes by singing verses ridiculing those who were trying to insult women as lesbians, vegetarians and in the pay of Moscow. In Jane’s experience, the reality was that the cost of bolt croppers (£20), coaches and minibuses were met for by the women themselves.
Jane describes how difficult it is to recapture the events that lead to her arrest. So many years later it feels like telling a story: one that has been narrated many times. She tells of being with a group of 30 or so women, finding a hole in the fence and someone saying “Let’s all go through!” and her saying “Yes, let’s”, then climbing through and “scampering off towards the silos” [where the weapons were kept]. When confronted by soldiers and policemen guarding them, Jane turned back to her “merry band of sisters” only to find she was alone. She tells the tale with a great deal of humour recalling her choices: running or strolling back to the hole or staying put and saying – “it’s a fair cop”. Jane opted for the last hoping by doing that (ie nothing) she would retain some dignity. One of the policemen pointed out “well, your friends aren’t here are they?”, illustrating that this wasn’t a planned action. However, Jane does make it clear that all visits to the base were important, were planned actions “to harry” and “make the point”. This visit was different only in that she “ended up in the cop-shop”.
There were about 20 other arrestees that day. Singing and solidarity broke out in the group as women went off in ones and two to be processed. It was at this point that Jane found herself on her own as the others she was with had been part of a planned action somewhere else at the base. As a result, she felt she was “taken for a ride” by the police who offered to get a message to her friends if she waived her right to have someone with her during the processing of her case. “It was put to me it was important to get a message out”. But she was kept waiting and waiting, as were her friends. Finally, strong words from the coach driver got Jane “busted”. However, it felt humiliating to have seemed to need the help of the one male around.
This event was not typical of how the actions Jane was involved with would normally have been “organised efficiently”. Women would take on the role of observers and take the numbers of any policeman behaving badly towards a woman. Jane recalls an earlier action when, with 3 of her friends, she ended up in court charged with assaulting a policeman. In fact the “observer” had simply asked the man who had pushed a women to show his police number [on the shoulder of his uniform].
Jane thinks getting arrested as a result of a spontaneous, unplanned action was “naive” and what happened after that possibly came about because she was alone. She had been arrested before but when she found herself on her own things took a different course. She explains that planned actions were carried out with the best interests of everyone in the group. So, she explains, if a woman, say was a lawyer [was arrested], then everyone deciding to pay the fine would have been the right thing to do.
Back on the coach returning to Newcastle it all seemed not exactly a “bit of a hoot” but … At this point Jane is again conscious of “telling a story”, something she is good at. Nevertheless this narrative is based on the fact that she had to attend court in Newcastle. Right up to that point she says “ I really hadn’t made up my mind not to pay my fine … And then something when I was in the court … and I just thought I’m not going to pay it, I’m not going to pay that! why should I. … for walking on what is my land”.
The fine was about £25 (the price of a bolt cropper). Others would have paid if she could not have done. But Jane says, she felt it [the decision not to pay and therefore go to prison] would, first of all, add to the publicity. Also, as a part-time teacher she felt she had no career to ruin. She felt she was dispensable in a way – she had no family. Living in a co-op where rent was shared out between people according to their need also was a factor.
Having made the decision not to pay the fine she simply returned home from her court appearance knowing that she’d have to go back and face the consequences. So she began preparing for the inevitable – imprisonment. As a smoker at that time she “got a lot of golden Virginia (tobacco) … as I knew that would be currency.” When the date for the second court appearance came “I took my paint box and paper. Washed my hair …” in readiness. All her friends were at court singing and carrying banners. It was uplifting. But once inside the court the sound of her supporters did not reach her. After the case concluded and she was put into the van she realised the “uplifting world of sisterhood” was going to recede. She squinted out at the road through a small hole in her cubicle within the van. She soon became the object of jibes as the other “miscreants” (all male) with her in the van and she felt even more isolated and a bit terrified but tried to be “philosophical”.
Jane arrived at Low Newton and was “unpacked into the ladies wing” and she was processed. The place felt familiar – like a girls school: “cabbage smells” and “being bossed about by women”. Forced to take a shower and wash her (clean) hair, take off jewellery she then had to do a kind of intelligence test – although the answers of a previous subject were still visible through the rubbings-out on the re-used question-and-answer sheet. Jane’s rebellious nature came to the fore, she recalls saying to herself: “You’re jumping through their hoops, Jane. So, I started writing random things all over the pages. … I didn’t want to jump through their hoops”.
After a visit to the social worker, Jane went to the Dining Room. “All the women there burst into applause and cheered. … they had heard about it on the radio. I was chuffed about that. … There were women from all walks of life. … They were very supportive. … “ “The women were very kind on the whole.”
Jane’s cell-mate had been picked up for shop lifting. She showed Jane how to make her bed and kept her right. The tobacco was traded. But, Jane recallse, her best asset was her painting skill. Women asked for her to make greetings cards. The finished cards would then be ‘sent’ in a pillowcase by being swung out from the cell window, caught by her neighbour and passed along the outside wall of the prison to the recipient. It was frowned on for women to do deals. Jane’s reward for each card was 2 jammy dodger biscuits.
It wasn’t all lighthearted working together against the system. “At night it was quite scary…. people would scream …” Jane would think ..” are they being hurt?”. Jane recalls one evening when she heard screaming and for some reason the cell door wasn’t locked so she could have gone to find out what was going on. She didn’t. Something she feels guilty about to this day.
“This reminded you that this was a place of pain …”.
Jane recalls other evidence of the real function of the place she was in: the wash basins without plugs – of no real consequence except Jane’s toothbrush went down into the drains. She also recalls the experience of having to “ferret about in a pile of old jym shoes that previous inmates had worn until you found two that matched” so she could join in a game of netball. And, she remembers she was warned “ Don’t tell anyone what you’re in for. Don’t tell anyone where you live.”
The women Jane mixed with were largely low-level prisoners, although there was one woman processed at the same time that Jane recalled had committed a more serious crime. She felt that there was segregation probably and the “free association” didn’t bring her into contact with everyone.
Another activity she recalls is “we had to do sewing … we had to mend the male inmates clothes, their prison trousers … I would say ‘ where’s the mail bags’ …”.
“… It was an experience. … It was a week away from anything you want to do. … When I went there they took away my paint box, my paper, my tobacco. Everything. And then you realise that if they don’t want to give those back to me they don’t need to. … In fact I did get back my paint box and tobacco. … To be in someone else’s power is .. is quite unnerving. … Yes, you’re getting on alright and they haven’t hurt you … but that’s luck so far … . … When you were waiting to be fed you all had to stand in line and people would be walking up and down. … You were reminded that you were incarcerated. … I wouldn’t want to do it again. But, I’d like to think that if I had to I would. ..”
Jane had lots of cards – including a “cake in a file” from Joe Scurfield -which she was allowed to bring out with her. She spent the last 24hrs on her own. But when she did leave she was met by her friends and went home to a champagne breakfast and a banner outside her house. Jane plays down her week in prison. She doesn’t feel heroic. She was probably the first women associated with Greenham that the inmates had met and hopes that the press demonisation of women was undermined in their minds by meeting her.
Discussion moves onto Chernobyl and the effects in the North East of England. Jane relates the story of someone who subsequently died of cancer after continuing to drink the cream from the contaminated milk that was having to be thrown away.
How much difference do activists make? is a question raised by reflecting on the experience of being arrested and imprisoned and bringing to mind what others did and sacrificed. By 1991 the last missile was removed. And in 1997 the land at Greenham reverted to common land.
Jane’s reflection on the legacy of the experience of Greenham, her arrest and imprisonment concludes the interview:
“… at the time one was conscious of things like the ‘personal is political’, ‘small actions are important’. Maybe empowering that number of women … taking the message of peace, taking the message of conflict resolution, conciliation, consensus – all the ways we tried to work which were so antithetical to the ways, for example, that Mrs Thatcher wants/wanted to work … a small counterweight to the ghastly, ghastly way war is seen as the only solution to problems. ..”
“.. When one is younger one thinks if this life is a story, a narration there will be an end. And that will be a happy end but life ….. there is nothing like that. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. And we want to make it bad for the least number (of people).”