Vera’s dad didn’t think girls were worth educating. But he must have realised she had a brain, because he took her to hear the Faraday lectures at a nearby university.
And the subject?
‘Shame he didn’t bother to have me educated – it all went over my head,’ she says, now.
Her one qualification, English Language, may not have helped her understand them, but the lectures were a significant experience in her life. And when you hear her story, you wonder just what she could have done with an education.
Vera (not her real name) is 83 now – and there’s no mistaking a woman with purpose. Diminutive, with several earrings, bracelets, colourful clothes and a bike left at the station, she’s been spending the morning writing Christmas cards to prisoners of conscience.
She was approaching 50 and mother to six children by the time her world changed.
It was 1980.
The British Government had prepared a leaflet called, ‘Protect and Survive’ to be distributed to the public if nuclear attack seemed a genuine and imminent threat.. Its purpose was civil defence, to prepare people to take practical measures to protect themselves and their property.
Not intended for peace time publication, pressure on the Government from the media and campaign groups resulted in it being made available, for purchase, in 1980.
‘Protect and Survive’ was met with disbelief and anger. Disbelief at the measures proposed for the population’s protection, anger that the Government was admitting the possibility of world in which a limited nuclear war was conceivable. One in which Europe was the ‘theatre’ of war.
What had happened to the tense but real deterrent of ‘mutual assured destruction’ that followed the Cuban missile crisis?
The Government had also filmed a series of public information broadcasts showing how ordinary folk could prepare themselves – and their property – for a nuclear attack. Now available online, they were not shown at the time, except in an episode of the BBC documentary series Panorama – and you can see why. They make black comedic viewing – or would, if they were not so tragically unrealistic.
In response to the Government’s leaflet, in 1980, historian and peace campaigner E.P. Thompson, wrote a polemic, subverting the Government’s title: ‘Protest and Survive’.
This was the point at which Vera became an anti-nuclear campaigner. ‘I knew it was my moral duty to do something,’ she says.
For thirty odd years she’s been a member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Organising coaches to protests, sitting down in defiance of the police, sleeping out overnight at nuclear bases, crawling under barbed wire fences.
She’s had her phone tapped, been arrested and spent time in police cells.
But before you feel inadequate in the face of this child-sized ball of campaigning energy, her story has a message for people who wish they could – but can’t.
Vera’s done many other things in pursuit of her moral duty, helping her fellow humans, which aren’t for this public forum. She’s seen and heard terrible things in her quest to make other people’s lives better. Sometimes she’s succeeded, sometimes she has failed.
‘You have to be able to put it in a compartment and shut it,’ she says. ‘To move on when you fail and believe that someone, some day, will succeed.’
‘I’ve seen women who’ve given up everything for it. For me, it’s another part of my life,’ she says, ‘ not my whole life.’
Will the battle ever be won? What about the young? Are the campaigners all grown old, even if not weary?
‘I think the young are more concerned about climate change,’ she says, with a far off look in her eyes. Possibly wanting this interview to end, itching to move on to her next self-imposed task.
But then she speaks, ‘there are some young people,’ she says, then pauses. Tells a sad story about a youngster who was bullied over his campaigning. Who committed suicide.
He was young.
He was still at school.
On the table lies a coaster with a message. It’s calling for a local nuclear enrichment plant to be shut down. It’s near a school, apparently. Not the same one, but still, it’s a symbol.
In a world of online campaigners, happy to click to the command of ‘sign this online petition now’ – persisting even when the blinking beast demands an email address, a postcode – it’s shaming. Or is it? I think perhaps it’s reassuring. And even if none of Vera’s children has taken up her baton, perhaps her grandchildren will – for climate change, perhaps.
But as she scoops up the soup dish to take it back to the counter of the café, she answers one final question. Or not so much a question, more a speculation.
Her response is sobering.
‘It think it’s possible we will destroy the world. Make it uninhabitable. One day, one way or another.’
There are various YouTube links to the Protect and Survive information films but here is one posted on the UK’s National Archives site – not, frankly, the most chilling of them all: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/films/1964to1979/filmpage_warnings.htm