My winter of love: The lesbian gathering was freezing cold. Would a clinch with an anarchist help?

Geneva in March 1986 was cold. I had travelled overnight on an extremely long train journey from London to Switzerland. I and several other women heading for a huge lesbian feminist conference had failed to find affordable flights and instead had bought train tickets with vouchers collected from very large boxes of Persil washing powder.

The journey was hellish. There was no heating on any of the trains and we only had enough booze for the odd warming sip from a hip flask. I was wearing every pair of socks I had packed and would run up and down the carriages every half-hour trying to get my circulation moving.

I had hoped conditions would improve once we arrived, but the conference was held in a university building, and to say it was basic is an understatement. Being a lesbian in the 1980s was no walk in the park, and we were not considered worthy of elevated heating bills.

Some of the 800 delegates had come from warmer climes in South America, Asia and Australia, as well as parts of Europe and North America. Everyone was cold, even the women I met from Winnipeg, known for its freezing winters.

Our accommodation was a bus ride away, beneath the ground in nuclear bunkers. It was obvious that I was not going to get warm any time soon. We were issued bunk beds with thin blankets, the showers ran cold to tepid, and the food was mainly the feminist staples of pasta salad and hummus.

And then I met charismatic Carla (not her real name), an anarchist from New York. Carla was different from my usual crowd of hardline feminists. Whereas we would picket porn cinemas to protest against sexual exploitation, Carla’s crowd called for class war, believed all work was exploitation and dressed like goths.

But our mutual attraction was enough to gloss over differences in politics. Over steaming cups of herb tea laced with cheap brandy we talked late into the night, pausing to listen to the women from the Greenham Common peace camp singing campfire songs (no doubt in part to invoke the image of crackling logs and flames), about property being theft, lesbian vampire films and whether feminists should be vegetarian (Carla said “yes” because men see women as meat, and learn to do so from butchering animals, but I said “no” because all I could think of was eating a hot bowl of lamb stew to warm me up). As we snuggled up, I smelt patchouli oil and roll-ups.

I would love to be able to say that “that night [we] were not divided”, as Radclyffe Hall wrote in her infamous lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, but I am afraid that not only did the bunk beds mean there was no privacy, but they were so small a leprechaun would struggle to fit in one.

The Greenham women, appalled at being accommodated in a nuclear bunker, constructed wigwams in which they congregated during the conference sessions, and despite the awful caterwauling of anti-war songs, I crawled in with them to keep warm. As evenings drew in, and the cans of cider appeared, the lesbian drumming group started bashing out rhythms that prompted many of the women to dance like crazy, doubtless to keep the blood flowing. During these activities, Carla and I would be in a passionate clinch somewhere, our collective breath visible as though we were puffing on fat cigars.

There was much to love about the conference and, as I travelled home, fantasising about a hot bath and a thick duvet, I allowed my mind to wander, imagining meeting Carla in a little more comfort back in London.

But, silly me, Carla was an anarchist and therefore lived in an unheated, grotty squat in Brixton. To make matters worse, the gas had been cut off, so there were no cups of hot chocolate, and we couldn’t afford brandy. Our romance was short-lived, and I did wonder, for some time afterwards, whether it would have been different had we met in the summer months. I somehow doubt it, because, although I look back at our fling with fondness, the most prevailing memory I have of that weekend is of my feet feeling like two blocks of ice that would never be warm again.


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