Who was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist.

Who Killed Blair Peach? 1979 by Peter Kennard born 1949

Blair Peach was a 33 year old teacher killed on a demonstration on 23 April 1979 at Southall against the National Front. He is one of three protesters to have been killed by the police in Britain since 1945: the others being Kevin Gateley, the Warwick student killed on a previous anti-fascist demonstration at Red Lion Square in 1974, and Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor killed on anti-G20 protests in 2009.

Peach died from a single blow to his head by a police officer, as Peach was retreating from a protest which had finished. The campaign for justice for Blair Peach took in lobbies of police stations, the mass production of stickers, postcards, calls for boycotts of UK goods, and while it did not succeed in its central ambition of bringing Peach’s killer to justice, had all sorts of secondary achievements, including the establishment of the campaigning group Inquest.

In 2010, following Ian Tomlinson’s death, the government belatedly published the Cass report into Peach’s killing. Cass identified the group of officers who were present when the fatal blow was struck, and “named the names”, as to which officers had sought to obstruct the inquiry.

In many of the accounts of his death, Blair Peach is a significant absence: a Che Guevara of the revolutionary left, someone who is better known for the images of his death than for anything that happened to him in his lifetime. Here, therefore, I wanted to convey more about who Peach was than how he died.

Peach was born on 25 March 1946 and studied at the Victoria University in Wellington, where he had helped to edit a magazine, Argot. Described in its subtitle as “a literary magazine”, in practice, almost all of its content was poetry by New Zealand authors and broadly modernist in style. The other editors were Peach’s housemates, Dennis List, subsequently a successful poet and novelist, and David Rutherford.

Argot is described in a number of published accounts as an important magazine of New Zealand poetry, a modest but real part of a significant cultural renaissance. Many of its contributors were already well-known poets in their thirties and forties, including Louis Johnson, who in a later account recalled Peach, “the slight youth–Jewish perhaps– / a dark tousle of hair and owl-size spectacles / who came to my house in the early sixties / for poems for his student magazine”.

Of the three, short, poems of Peach’s which I have been able to track down in Argot, one is a short monologue voiced by an affluent person expressing his regrets at the prospect in front of him of a life wasted preserving property, while the two others convey a sense of running towards an unknown but fixed and fatal, destiny (“Unmoving / I outrun pursuit / Desiring also / To outrun myself”).

After Peach died a number of writers dedicated poems to his memory, including Chris Searle, Michael Rosen and Susannah Steele, Louis Johnson, Edward Bond, Sigi Moos, Sean Hutton and Tony Dickens. It is hard to explain the relationship between Peach’s poetic youth and afterlife: friends do not remember him following poetry in England after he had left university. And in the political that were published after his death, this part of his life vanishes almost to nothing.

Something which the obituarists did notice was Peach’s stammer. Derek Melser, who knew Peach in Wellington and then in London, described his friend as introverted by a “true” stammer, which affected him at least once per spoken sentence, and expressed itself in “a variety of explosive repetitions, facial tremors and contortions, sudden rushes of words, gasps, sighs, extended vowels, bodily jerks and sheer incomprehensible blurting.” Peach had, in consequence “a certain cheerful hopelessness and a lack of social ambition or pretension coupled with a wryness, and sometimes bitterness, born of struggle”. This in turn explained, for Melser, Peach’s desire for justice, which began with a radical identification with Maori in postwar New Zealand, and led him into a life as a teacher of disabled children and an activist of the political left.

There is always a risk in attributing a person’s politics to a single psychological cause: clearly, not everyone who stammers becomes a revolutionary. But it is clear that Peach was – in the broadest possible terms – “on the left” even before he moved to London. He worked in the evenings as a hospital nurse and fireman; he was part of the 1968 generation. The cultural politics of Argot where in the broadest possible terms left-nationalist, the poems chosen reflect a conscious choice to make a New Zealand art independent of European or especially British influence.

Peach emigrated to London in 1969, along with many others of his generation (including for a time both Melser and List) and taught at the Phoenix School in east London, a school for (in the contemporary term) “delicate” children. He was still working there ten years later when he died.

Peach identified very strongly with the left-wing teachers network Rank & File, and in 1977, joined its sponsoring organisation the SWP. This was not a shallow decision. He had had friends in both the International Socialists (the SWP’s forerunner) and the International Marxist Group for several years.

In 1974, when Rank and File was pressing for a significant increase in teachers’ salaries, teachers at Phoenix School voted to take unofficial industrial action. Peach, with other teachers, was summoned to appear before a governors’ panel and threatened with disciplinary action. It seems that disciplinary action may also have been threatened within the NUT – although in both cases the action was dropped when the scale of the parents’ support for Peach became clear.

Around this time, he also published a piece in the newspaper Rank & File, calling for the democratisation of his union.

Peach was a committed anti-fascist. Meetings of the East London Teachers’ Association traditionally ended with a drink at the nearby Railway Tavern in Grove Road, Bow. One evening in 1974, the teachers were told by a fellow customer that the publican refused to serve black customers. Challenged, the publican accepted that this was his policy. The teachers left the pub, before returning to the pub with about 80 people, including the east London docker and then SWP member Michael Fenn, where they first attempted to picket it, and then spoke to the landlord a second time. He called the police, who arrested Peach, who was taken to be the ringleader.

Peach was also arrested in April 1978, outside a public meeting held by the NF in an East London school. The police had arrested a fellow demonstrator, who was black and female. Peach instinctively placed himself between the woman and the arresting officer and said, “Leave her alone, she has not done anything.” He was arrested, and pleaded not guilty but was convicted, receiving a fine of £50.

Peach was elected President of the East London Teachers Association in 1978. Twice that year he was attacked by supporters of the National Front as he cycled home from teaching at the Phoenix School, and he suffered black eyes, bruising and cuts. According to the East Ender newspaper, “Doctors fear permanent damage may have been done to one of his eyes. His finger has been bitten through to the bone shredding the nerves.”

Even before 23 April 1979, Peach was putting his body on the line in the cause of the struggle against fascism.

David Renton has been blogging for the last month about Blair Peach and the poems and articles referred to in this piece can be found there. He will be publishing a pamphlet with Defend the Right to Protest in June setting out the content of the Cass report into Peach’s death

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