by Carol Turner, CND vice-chair, November 2017
Our movement is the poorer for the death of Helen John, a long-time nuclear disarmament and antiwar campaigner who died peacefully on the evening of 5 November in the care home where she now lived. Helen was an exceptional figure, an imaginative and fearless direct actionist whose insistence on the right to protest – and necessity of doing so – inspired successive generations of new young campaigners for three decades.
Best known as a co-founder of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp where she lived for many years in the 1980s, Helen also set up camp at Menwith Hill, the US spy base near Harrogate, in the 1990s and most recently at RAF Waddington in Lincoln, the main operating base for UK drones. Many CND activists of today remember her best and most vividly for these protests.
Helen campaigned throughout Britain – in London at the US embassy, the Ministry of Defence and parliament; in Scotland, especially at the Faslane naval base. She appeared in many courts and served time in many jails. She also toured North America and Europe on umpteen occasions during the 1980s and ’90s, and is still remembered in peace movement circles there.
Her nuclear disarmament journey began in Wales when she joined a handful of mainly women marchers on a100-mile trek from Cardiff, the location of a factory that produced nuclear warhead components, to the Greenham Common airbase in August-September 1981. Dissatisfied with the lack of publicity, a few of the women decided to stay and set up what later became the women’s peace camp. Helen John was one of them.
A few weeks on, she and others visited Labour Party conference to raise support for the camp. Helen afterwards recalled meeting Walter Wolfgang, now a CND Vice President: ‘Walter was the very first person in the conference to support us. He was beaming all over his face as he put £20 in my collecting tin.’ Helen was to become a regular presence at Labour conference, speaking and protesting for many years.
Less well known perhaps is her on-off membership of the Labour Party, which she joined for the first time in the 1970s, after moving to Wales with her husband and children. She rejoined and lapsed several times during the years I knew her. Her last brief stint as a party member was in Lincoln during her drones protest. Helen was unable to accept the abandonment of nuclear disarmament and the war policies of New Labour. She stood against Tony Blair in Sedgefield in the 2005 general election – and carried on campaigning from her cell after she found herself jailed for an earlier direct action!
A committed feminist, Helen’s beliefs were expressed in her everyday activities. The personal was always political. Her friend and partner, Cat recalls her saying that while it was acceptable for men to leave their families and go off to war, if women left their families to fight for peace they were shamed for it. That is precisely the treatment Helen and other Greenham women received from a hostile media.
Helen grew up in wartime. Some of her earliest memories were of V2 rockets – the guided ballistic missiles of their day – dropping bombs on Romford, Essex. When she left school she trained as a nurse, and worked in South Africa for a time after she qualified. Returning to London, she was first a district nurse then a midwife.
Her approach to nursing was a little unorthodox. She sometimes regaled me with tales of her early days on the district – like the time she was reprimanded for washing an elderly patient’s windows and hanging clean curtains. It might not have been in her job description, said Helen, but it did considerably more for the patient’s morale than a bed bath.
She was a student nurse when she first met her husband Douglas an electrician who later worked on North Sea oil rigs. They married and had 5 children. A bit of a leftie, Douglas supported nuclear disarmament and the march from Wales to Greenham. Helen and her family had no inkling of where it was going to lead.
Helen was a caring person. Looking out for others was part of who she was. I got to know her in the 1980s, When she wasn’t on speaking tours, she and her then partner divided their time between Greenham and a Hackney flat they named Grotsville, always filled with people and bubbling with activity.
When she moved to Yorkshire at the end of ’80s, a steady stream of women – escapees from Greenham, London and further afield – would turn up exhausted on her door step in Thirsk then Otley, for a few days respite care. They were met with a beaming smile (usually), coddled in a hot soapy bath, and put to sleep in warm beds or sleeping bags. Helen had a key to my flat in London, to come and go as she pleased; it was one of her own bolt holes.
She took care of friends and strangers alike. I remember one time, much later, when she called me from a women’s jail in the north of England. I had to get her a special hair preparation and send it right away. I was flabbergasted. Since when had Helen John ever shown the slightest interest in hair styling? It wasn’t for her she explained; her cell mate was depressed and a hair-do would help cheer her up.
Her egalitarian and open lifestyle notwithstanding, Helen could be cantankerous and stubborn. Not a Keep Off The Grass sort of a person, particularly when it came to state authority. We had a few quarrels in our 35 years of friendship; our temperaments and ways of working were polls apart. But there was no one in the world I’d have trusted more in a tight corner. I admired her courage and loved her sense of incongruity. We’ve laughed a lot at the weird ways of a weird world. When we sat down outside the American embassy in 1986 to protest the bombing of Libya by US war planes that flew out of Lakenheath, an earnest young policeman took it on himself to remonstrate with this mild-mannered middle-aged lady on the edge of the heaving crowd. Helen listened patiently for a couple of minutes while he explained in words of one syllable that she might be arrested. His jaw dropped when she replied, deadpan: ‘Constable, why are you wearing a blancmange mould on your head?’
Good bye lovely lady. I know you’d have savoured the irony of dying on the 5th of November, going out with a bang on firework night