Lois Atherden is an 87-year-old former teacher. She was born and brought up in Surrey and moved to Bristol in the late 1960s when she began teaching in the St Paul’s area. Her opposition to war started early - she attended Peace Movement meetings when she was 15 and later in life marched with CND and protested outside Greenham Common. Along with others, she began the Bristol Peace Vigil in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks on September 11th, 2001. The vigil has continued ever since and Lois can be found outside the Hippodrome in the centre of Bristol, six days a week (Mon-Fri 5.30-6.30pm and Sat 3-4pm), protesting against the war in Iraq.
Q: What’s the best thing about living in Bristol?
A: Sitting on top of a mountain is my ideal position. In my younger days I loved walking and climbing and where I live now, just off the Downs in Clifton, one’s got the feeling of being on the edge of cliffs and looking down. I also really enjoy the wild mix of every kind of person under the sun that you get in Bristol, I find that lovely.
How and why did you become a peace campaigner?
A: My early years were spent in the shadow of the First World War – my father fought in it and even in our little cul-de-sac in Surrey there was a man who’d had half his face blown off. World War I was so horrible, the slaughter was unimaginable and its aftermath was what I grew up with.
At 15 I joined the Peace Movement and I hoped there’d never be another war, but then, of course, I had to live through the Second World War. It’s funny, when I was a child I thought I was a boy and in my imagination I’d don my suit of armour with my sword at my side and would fight bravely. I never killed anybody, I was always rescuing people and fighting for justice – so I’ve been a soldier all my life really! But I’m a very ordinary old lady. I don’t regard myself as noble or self-sacrificing – I think the all that noble martyr stuff is absolute balls.
Why do you do the vigil?
A: Well, the first thing to say is that I’m actually quite dotty. The second thing to say is that I am under no illusion about having any effect on governments and their policy at all – because I’ve been saying “No more war” since I was 15 and obviously that hasn’t happened.
But, what I wanted to do with the vigil was send a message to the Muslim communities that we are not their enemies. My big fear after 9/11 was that there would be a lot of ignorant reaction and the press would identify the Muslims as the baddies and really give them a rotten time. I wanted to show my opposition to that and to the war, so I stand there with my banner – it says “Hoot for Peace” and cars go past and hoot if they feel like it or the drivers stick up two fingers and shout “War! War!” (although that’s got noticeably less as this war in Iraq has gone on). Taking up arms and bombing places can never be the answer to our problems.
We need some hope for the future and I see no hope when we’re just creating anger and bitterness in other people by bombing their homes out of existence. Finally, the vigil does something for me: it gives me a sense of purpose. Our culture is very bad at giving older people that.
What’s been your greatest mistake?
A: One of my strongest beliefs is not to waste time moaning about your mistakes because that can be very paralysing. Whenever I realise I’ve got something wrong – which is almost all the time – I do something about getting it right. I don’t believe in being paralysed, I believe in getting on with things.
What was the last cultural thing you enjoyed?
A: It was the Youth Theatre’s production, at the Old Vic, of Gilgamesh. If you’ve never heard of Gilgamesh, it’s a classic story that has the honour of being the oldest story we have in our culture. It’s been around thousands of years and is basically about a young man coming to terms with life and death – it’s fascinating.
Also, I recently saw Titus and Andronicus at The Tobacco Factory. In fact, I saw it three times! It’s about vengeance and so it’s very pertinent to today because unfortunately our culture is still in the mind-set of “they’ve done this to us so we’re going to do it to the,” a ghastly way of going about things that only creates the conditions for more war.
What is your greatest fear?
A: I really do fear yet another war: not because of the danger of getting killed by a bomb but simply because it is so utterly devastating to people’s lives. I’m not afraid of my life being devastated – been there, done that – because all they can do to me is kill me and at my age death is no great shakes anyway.
What is your greatest achievement?
A: Managing to stay healthy both physically (every day I do 50 minutes walking on the Downs and then walk down to the vigil and back) and mentally – although actually, I’m not very clear about the mental side of things, I have had some odd moments recently.
What inspires you?
A: I feel heartened and strengthened by talking to literally any human being who is prepared to explore the deeper level of life. Anyone who is prepared to meet other human beings and find out what makes them tick, in a spirit of openness and have a real, true interest in others – that’s about as good as you can get really.
I have to say that at times I’ve written off the young generation with a few words such as “they don’t understand, they’re living on the surface all the time,” and all that sort of rubbish, but actually, the ones who’ve talked with me and enjoyed sharing a cup of tea with me, I think they’re pretty bloody amazing. I find them inspiring. There are some very sad, bitter, older people whose mouths are turned down and have nothing good to say about anybody. I want to avoid that state of mind at all costs.
What drives you mad?
A: I might say superficiality but as I’ve grown older I’ve got less snooty about superficiality because more and more I understand that it is our national trait – chatting merrily about the weather or whatever. It used to drive me mad – there was a time in my twenties when I was besotted with the idea of deep thinking and really seeing the world for what it was and I actually refused to talk about things such as the weather or make small talk. It makes me laugh to think about that now!
Can you ever imagine stopping the vigil?
A: Only if Bush and Blair suddenly had a tremendous change of heart and got the troops back home out of Iraq and proposed a proper consultation with Iran. If all that happened I’d notify everyone who comes to the vigil that a miracle had happened and we’d have a party! Until then, it’s important for us to be there and to be visible – people come and say so. They’ll say “Well, I can’t do anything but it’s wonderful to see you here and please keep it up”. And I say to them “I’m here till I drop so you are all right”. I’m not planning to die any time soon.
What has life taught you?
A: To pray hard that you never, never lose your sense of humour, particularly about oneself.
If you want to join the vigil or just drop by and say hello to Lois, you can find her outside the Hippodrome in the centre of Bristol, six days a week (Mon-Fri 5.30-6.30pm and Sat 3-4pm). If you’re driving past, give her a hoot for peace!
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First published issue 45 (Summer 2006)
Interview by Fiona McClymont
Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.