Steve Braunias looks into the killing of New Zealand schoolteacher Blair Peach on the 40th anniversary of his death at an anti-racism protest in London.
English rain, constant, sometimes heavy, always miserable, falling all day long on that grey, bleak Monday in April in Southall, west London, where a New Zealand schoolteacher was killed and his name became immortal. Blair Peach received a fatal blow to his head 40 years ago this week. A police report identified six police officers as possible suspects. Peach was 33. On Tuesday in London, the anniversary was marked with a vigil, a plaque, intense speeches calling for justice; in Auckland, on Easter Monday night, old people gathered in a little room up the stairs at the Grey Lynn Returned Services Club to watch two actors stand behind a table and read out the script of a play by Auckland writer Dean Parker about Peach's life and death.
Vicki Carnell, in the third row, said: "He was my first boyfriend." They met at a party in Napier, where Peach grew up. She lived in Wellington, and came to stay with her sister in the school holidays. He was 18, she was 16: "A very young 16. We did nothing more than kiss and write letters to each other afterwards. He had dark hair and dark eyes. Pale skin, with an olive tone to it. He came across as quite militant in the play but he was anything but. He was a gentle, quiet person."
"My son was named after him," said Mary Ferguson, in the second row. Her ex-husband Robin knew Peach at Victoria University. The naming was less a mark of friendship – they flatted together, but weren't close – than an act of honouring the memory of a kind of martyr. "I was very affected by the news of his death just a couple of years before you were born," he emailed his son this week. "When Mary and I were wondering about naming you, Blair came strongly to me: 'Now there is another Blair in the world.'"
Peach was at an anti-racism demonstration when he was killed. It was during the 1979 election campaign, and the National Front – that particularly English disease of white resistance against dark-skinned migrants - was on the rise. It held a public meeting in Southall as a deliberate provocation. Southall has the largest Sikh community in England.
Left-wing causes consumed Peach. He believed passionately in the Anti-Nazi League and joined an estimated crowd of 3000 in protest. The police sent about 2500 officers, including the Special Patrol Group (SPG), a template for New Zealand's Red Squad policing unit in the 1981 Springbok tour – the riot shields, the batons, the charge. There were clashes. Teenagers attacked police with bricks, bottles, a petrol bomb. Police were required to give the National Front "safe passage", and the role of the SPG was to "disperse" protesters. A subsequent inquiry supplied these statistics: 345 arrests, 97 police injured, 59 prisoners injured. And this, reducing Blair Peach to a parenthesis: "25 members of the public injured (1 fatal)."
Peach was on his way home. It had got dark. A police cordon had closed off the main road, and he turned into a side street towards the railway station. Witnesses claim an SPG officer got out of a police van and hit Peach over the head with a weapon. He collapsed on the pavement. An Indian family across the road told him to come in. He lay on their sofa and was given a glass of water.
The surgeon who later operated on him wrote, "I ascertain the patient had walked into a house, had become verbally aggressive, and lost consciousness." He was taken by ambulance to hospital: "The patient was restless with typical signs of cerebral irritation, and making grasping movements with his hands and arms...He was semi-conscious, not responding to commands and tended when left alone to lie curled up in the flexed position."
"I had a phone call at about half-past 10 at night to say he was in hospital and had been hit," said Celia Stubbs, now 78, from her home in England. She had a strange, almost determinedly matter of fact way of speaking about what happened the night her partner was killed.
She preferred to talk about Peach's commitment to social justice – he was active in the Teachers' Union, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Anti-Nazi League, and taught at a special needs school – but didn't mind talking about their relationship. She said, "I first met him when he was at school in Napier because my ex-husband Tony taught him."
She explained that she'd come out to New Zealand from England with her husband, Tony, who was Peach's English teacher at Colenso College in Napier. The couple moved to Wellington the same year Peach enrolled at Victoria University. Phil Dadson was a school friend of Peach, and attended the Grey Lynn play this week; he said, "Blair became very entwined with their family. Tony was a mentor in a way for Blair." Peach moved to England after the Stubbs returned to live there. "My ex-husband had left me by the time Blair showed up," said Celia. Peach, too, had come from a broken marriage.
Victoria University historian Richard Hill was also at the Grey Lynn show. He met Peach and Stubbs at their home in London. He said, "I strikingly remember how good he was with Celia's two daughters, one of whom was deaf. Just a wonderful stepfather."
"Oh, yes, he was like a dad with Rebecca and Catherine," said Celia. "He had a real affinity with children. He was really loved by the kids at his school. It was in a very poor part of London. He set up reading schemes in the summer holidays; I remember once he brought down about 12 children to stay at my house in Portsmouth, and I think that was the first time most of them had ever left London."
After the phone call on the night of April 23, 1979, she took a taxi to the hospital. She said in her familiar recitative way, "He was dead by the time I arrived. It was just after midnight."
WHO WAS Blair Peach? Martyrs are often confused for saints, and Dean Parker's play flew a bit close to heroes and villains – the cops were portrayed as thugs, cowards, liars, while Peach was cast as good and decent, true to his beliefs, a tireless campaigner, Jesus of Napier come to London to help the poor and the oppressed.
A lot of that was very much the case. Certainly, the centre of his life was social justice and political activism. "He was really good fun and we had lots of friends," said Celia Stubbs; without a pause, she continued, "He was very involved in the National Union of Teachers. That was a consuming passion and the Anti-Nazi League."
At school, he was very good at soccer and wrote quite bad poetry. Parker's play allowed that Peach was sometimes thought of as "bitter". That view – and the claim he was "verbally aggressive" in the home of strangers who came to his aid – may have come from the difficult fact of his stammer.
Phil Dadson, his friend at Colenso College: "He did have an intense side to him. I think it was frustration. It particularly came from the stammer. He had a bad stammer. I think that frustration came from not being able to express himself the way he wanted to, sometimes. It was more like an irritability than anger."
"He did stutter a lot," said Richard Hill, who knew him in London. "You kind of forgot about that after you knew him. It didn't impede his flow of conversation."
Rod Edmond, another New Zealander who saw Peach in London, had this memory: "He had a terribly bad stutter. It was very pronounced. I had a stutter as well, not as bad as Blair's, and I was always struck by how unembarrassed he was by it. He could get stuck on the beginning of a word and turn almost blue in the face and just keep going until he got it out."
To stammer is to never shut up, and Peach could talk for hours. Hill went around to meet Peach at the flat he shared with Celia Stubbs in Hackney. "We went to a local pub. Hour after hour went by and we canvassed all kinds of political issues. I could see he was a pretty mercurial character. At probably three or four in the morning, I said, 'Aren't there licensing hours around here?', and he said, 'The police don't come around here. This is the Kray brothers' patch.'
"He loved a long discussion. He was always really excited about potential ways of making the world better. He was totally dedicated. There was a lot of political theory back then but he and I were more interested in action, getting out there and trying to do stuff. That for him took place during the daytime in the classroom as well as in the evenings and weekends."
He meant Peach's role as a special needs teacher. "He was always trying to help people who had been the most disadvantaged and the most marginalised. He told me things about some of his kids that were truly terrible, like the girl who would bite a chunk out of her arm. You've got to be pretty damaged to do that."
Phil Dadson remembered that his friend had become "much more explicitly socialist" when he moved to England. "He was teaching and I think that probably cemented his convictions, his socialist philosophy. Because it was a school with a lot of poverty, an East End school, lower- income and mixed race. He's always been someone for the underdog."
A school in Southall, where Peach was killed, advised parents this week that it was the 40th anniversary of his death, and that there would be a memorial at the town hall. Speakers included Gareth Peirce, the crusading lawyer of the Guildford Four, played by Emma Thompson in In the Name of the Father . The hall holds 200 people; 400 showed up. The school that alerted parents to the event was founded in 1986. Its website has photos of a lot of adorable little boys and girls of colour enrolled at Blair Peach Primary School.
WHO KILLED Blair Peach? It was swift and devastating. A single blow fractured his skull. "An abnormally thin skull," wrote the surgeon. "In fact, the bone is particularly translucent, which accounts to some degree for the shattering impact."
There has always been speculation that the killing was racially motivated. "He was very swarthy," said Dean Parker, who wrote the show performed at Grey Lynn this week, and who marked him on the soccer field when they played each other's school teams. "Dark. You'd think he was Lebanese maybe. Semitic in some way." School friend Phil Dadson: "He could easily have been mistaken for a person of colour. He had an almost Sri Lankan or Indian look to him." Richard Hill: "He could have been Middle Eastern. He could have been from any number of exotic locations."
Hill heard of a more sinister reason why Peach was attacked. As a member of the Friends of Blair Peach, he campaigned for the attacker to be held to account. He said, "We received information through sources that the night before the demonstration Blair was being shadowed by the SPG [Special Patrol Group]. We thought that the source was credible and so we fed it to the High Commission here who passed it back to the UK."
The Metropolitan Police investigated, Hill said, but in his view it "went nowhere".
Peach had been arrested at protests, and once for challenging a publican who refused to serve black customers. Hill said, "My belief is that he was being watched, being monitored."
Dave Wickham, yet another left-wing Kiwi who was living in London at the time of the killing and who knew Peach, doubts there was any kind of conspiracy. "I think probably what happened was they saw someone they thought was a Pakistani, Middle Eastern, or whatever, and went nutty and coshed him. I think it was unlikely they thought it was Blair Peach."
Peach visited Wickham a couple of times at his squat. It was a kind of left-wing terminus. "There were so many political groups in England," Wickham said. "I always used to joke, 'Show me two Trotskyists and I'll show you three political parties.'"
One of the women who lived at the squat was a German called Anna. He came to realise it was actually Astrid Proll, the getaway driver for the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang. "Absolutely lovely person," he said. "Just a real pleasant personality." She was in hiding, but was recognised and busted: "I remember she was one of three women put in a male prison, because one of them was a New Zealand woman who was robbing banks for the IRA."
Music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air…"It was an amazing time in London in the late 1960s and early 70s," said Phil Dadson. "People were becoming much more politically enlightened and socialistically oriented. I had a mentor. Cornelius Cardew. Actually, he was killed in a hit and run [in 1981] and many people believe he was knocked off because of his socialist activities."
Dadson was studying experimental music; Cardew was an innovative composer. "He also wrote a lot of liberty and freedom songs for factory workers. It was during that time he was knocked down and killed in the street. They never found out who did it. I think he was targeted; he was considered a danger, he was spreading dissent into the workplace.
"There's a parallel here with his death and Blair's death - two characters in my life who both have become martyrs for their beliefs. Blair was very involved with distributing socialist and anti-government literature and was out on the street protesting a lot. He could have been targeted too. Earmarked, like Cornelius. I wouldn't be at all surprised."
To Suresh Grover, who was demonstrating at Southall on the day of the killing, and remembered the constant rain, the New Zealander has remained a hero of England's migrant community. "People see him as someone honourable who came and supported us, and paid with his life," he said from his home in London. Grover has campaigned ever since for a public inquiry into the killing.
Yes, he said with pure disgust, he attended the infamous 1980 inquest which ruled death by misadventure. The coroner, Dr John Burton, has long been pilloried and attacked for his conduct – he attempted to hold the inquest without a jury (overturned at the Court of Appeal), was dismissive of Indian witnesses who saw the attack, and airily, bizarrely, expressed his unsupported view that Peach might have been murdered by a protester wanting to create a left-wing martyr.
Burton was later appointed the Queen's Coroner and performed the post-mortem on Princess Diana. In retirement, he played with model steam engines. He died in 1984.
Burton also concealed the Cass Report from the jury. Named after the police inspector who investigated Peach's death, it identified six SPG officers as possible suspects. Cass recommended that criminal proceedings ought to be taken against them for obstructing the police investigation and perverting the course of justice.
He was particularly damning of the senior officer in the SPG van – later identified as Inspector Alan Murray. Murray denied any involvement in Peach's death when the report was finally made public in 2010. By email this week – Murray is now a professor of accounting at Warwick University – he wrote that he had nothing further to add.
BLAIR PEACH supporters continue to regard Murray as their prime suspect. In 1984, a rather covert approach was made to Murray to talk about that day in Southall – and, remarkably, he accepted the invitation.
Rod Edmond, a New Zealander who knew Peach and is now a retired professor of English at the University of Kent, sent Murray a letter. He said this week, "We tracked down his address. I can't remember now how they got it."
Celia Stubbs had mentioned it was through a private detective. "Ah. Yes. Yes, that does come back," said Edmond.
"He'd left the police and was living in St Andrews. I wrote to him posing as an old New Zealand friend of Blair's who had recently arrived in the country and was haunted by what had happened and was curious to know more, and I wondered if he'd be willing to meet me and tell me what he thought happened."
Wasn't that deceitful? "Yeah," he said, wonderingly. "In essence. But I had been haunted by the thing. The deceitful thing is I had been living in England since 1969, but broadly speaking it was accurate."
Edmond continued with the story. "He told me to come to a pub on the edges of St Andrews. It was lunchtime at a rather shabby looking place. I stood at the bar and ordered a drink and two guys came in.
"One stood back and the other came across to the bar and engaged me in casual conversation for a couple of minutes. Then they disappeared and came back a minute later with Alan Murray. He told me he'd sent his friends in to check me over because he was frightened I might have come with a knife or something.
"He was shortish, decently built. Scottish, strong Scottish accent. Dark-haired, dark complexion, a Celtic look. And very articulate. He was a smart policeman and destined for higher things in the force. That's why he resigned in disgust at the way he was treated. The Cass investigation effectively destroyed the career he had in mind for himself.
"We talked for about two hours. He wanted to tell his side of the story. He described the whole day - about how chaotic it was, about how undermanned the police were, how they hadn't expected the demonstration to be as large, and as he said, violent, as it turned out. He painted a picture of the police under enormous pressure."
But the nub of it was that Murray denied that he or anyone in his SPG team hit Peach, or even saw Peach.
Edmond: "I've never been able to decide whether he met me because he was genuinely innocent and wanted to establish his innocence, or because he was plagued with a guilty conscience. I also think it's possible he killed Blair without knowing that he did it.
"Certainly I was intrigued by Murray. He was so smart. I thought I was dealing with a very complicated individual. He interested me, and I think some of that came through in my report [to Peach's supporters]. I remember Celia saying, 'It sounds like you liked him.' They wanted me to come back with a culprit. I was more interested in the complex nature of the man I was talking to. There was an uneasy feeling, a disappointment I hadn't delivered the news they wanted to hear."
It was a strange rendezvous – an affable drink with someone suspected of killing Blair Peach. Edmond corrected that version, and said, "I had a curious drink with someone who left me very uncertain as to what had actually happened. He was surprisingly open. He asked me how Celia was. He'd seen her at the inquest; he'd obviously been struck by her manner. The impression I got is that he remembered her as a tragic figure. Again I'm left not knowing whether this was just a genuinely concerned question or someone who is wrestling with a guilty conscience."
Celia Stubbs doubts a public inquiry will ever be called. Her focus is on her work with refugees; she visits two detention centres for asylum seekers every week. Yes, she agreed, it's very much the sort of thing Blair Peach would be doing had he lived.
"I've tried very hard to move on," she said. "I just know that Blair would have wanted me to move on. There are awful things happening in the world the whole time."