The name Blair Peach is not very well known in New Zealand.
It is in Britain people will march in his honour in London tonight, near a primary school that’s named after him. There’s an annual award presented by the UK’s National Education Union to teachers carrying on his legacy. Songs have been written about Peach, including a famed one by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. It’s in Jamaican patois and goes like this:
“Blair Peach was not an English man,
“Him come from New Zealand,
“Now they kill him and him dead and gone,
“But his memory lingers on.”
Born in Napier and educated at Wellington’s Victoria University, Peach was a Kiwi teacher killed by a British policemen during an anti-fascist protest in 1979. April 23 marks the 40th anniversary of his death. He was just 33 years old.
* Blair Peach’s brother speaks out
* My father, the Kiwi fascist: How one son’s childhood was ruined
* Three reasons fascism spread in 1930s America – and might spread again today
Fast forward to 2019, and a play ‘Who Killed Blair Peach?’ written by a friend of Peach’s, debuts in Auckland. The writer, Dean Parker, played soccer with Peach as a teen in Napier and was in London when he died. Parker’s been working on the play – very intermittently – ever since. It’s a whodunnit murder mystery of sorts, exploring the maelstrom around Peach’s death that meant to this day none of the policemen have been charged with his murder.
“There are young people who have never heard of what happened to Blair Peach, when in fact now is the time when we should be remembering it,” says Parker.
“Because what he did was to protest against far right white supremacist groups.” He notes the timing of the anniversary coming a month after the Christchurch mosque massacre.
The illustrious Michael Hurst and Donogh Rees performed the play at Grey Lynn’s RSC, to a riveted audience on green padded chairs. The small venue had a rural town hall vibe and was packed mainly with silver haired folk, who remembered the headlines from when Peach died.
The actors read aloud police reports from the aftermath of Peach’s death which highlighted the entrenched racism of the era. Especially in places like Southall – the London suburb where Peach received the fatal thwack to his head – that housed communities of recent South Asian migrants.
They read testimonies from those who’d known him; the boy dubbed ‘Plum’ with a stammer that never went away except when speaking to children. The serious man with senses of humour and justice whose dark freckled face “looked Lebanese or something” and who played soccer with his students after school.
THIS IS ENGLAND
Rotorua-born David Wickham was also a member of the Anti Nazi League in the late ’70s. The now Nelson-based 70-year-old says the league’s rise was “quite dramatic”. A response to the far-right National Front’s encroach on British society. Notoriously racist National Front members were getting voted onto local councils and staging neo-fascist rallies through London’s ethnic enclaves. So the political left mobilised, “a bit like the yellow vests are doing now in France,” explains Wickham.
“People just realised they had to be stopped in the streets. They had to be taken on. You weren’t going to stop them any other way.”
That was long before social media, so the Anti-Nazis looked to walls for posters or graffiti announcing their next push against the National Front. They organised themselves via ‘phone trees’ – where one person had a list of ten people to call, then each of those would call ten others, and so on.
The groups clashed almost every weekend and hundreds of thousands of people could turn up, says Wickham. Police wielding riot shields and truncheons would form a line between the groups. Violence was not uncommon. Rocks got thrown, Anti-Nazis were chased up alleyways by cops, and arrests made en mass.
At that time police saw the Anti-Nazis and the migrants they defended as “the bad guys”, remembers Wickham.
“The police were there to defend the National Front’s right to march and to keep us at bay. A lot of them were definitely anti-blacks, anti-immigrants … there would have been a lot of racists amongst the police force then.”
It was early spring when Peach died.
Hundreds of people were arrested in that riot, and the list of injured included 120 police, 10 civilians – including Peach – and two horses.
Peach was hit on the head by a policeman’s radio and suffered what the coroner called a “massive skull injury”. He was helped off the street by a local Sikh, who took the Kiwi into his home and called the ambulance. Peach was declared dead shortly after 8pm that night.
‘BRING HIM HOME’
Trade unionist Joe Carolan agrees with Parker that Peach belongs to the current zeitgeist. He’s back in Auckland after attending an anti-racism march in Sydney, against Australia’s United Patriot Front – an alt-right group supported by the Christchurch gunman.
Carolan, 48, is from Ireland and credits Peach with inspiring his own activism.
“In Ireland he was just this big hero and I don’t know how he’s almost absolutely forgotten here … I think it’s time to bring him home to New Zealand,” he says.
He talks about growing up with punk and ska music that reflected Peach’s time: The Clash’s ‘English Civil War’, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Reggae fi Peach’. Carolan sees the latter’s message as that of a man who chose to stand in solidarity with people being attacked instead of gallivanting about on his big OE.
“It’s so relevant now that alt-right rhetoric’s growing again,” he says. Carolan references the ‘We are one’ slogan much of New Zealand adopted after 50 Muslims were killed in the Christchurch shootings – and the online communities that allow the likes of that gunman to bloom.
“Each generation needs to grapple with it at some point because the far right kind of reinvents itself every decade or so.”
NOT A MARTYR
Blair Peach’s brother, 80-year-old Roy, still lives in their hometown of Napier. He flew to London after hearing Blair – the most outspoken and idealistic of the three Peach siblings – had died in a protest.
The retired lawyer remembers Blair as “always very conscious of class structure and the underdog”. That he was bothered by the degree of inequality he found in the UK, eager to lend his hand to the plight of anyone marginalised. That’s why he taught in a special needs school and joined the Anti-Nazi League.
Blair’s “very moving” funeral procession wound its way through the London streets on foot, says Roy, and double decker buses would stop to let the 20,000 mourners pass. Many were fellow teachers, many others were members of Indian and Pakistani communities deeply affected by the fact that Blair had died fighting for their dignity.
Roy is proud of his brother, but believes he became something of an unwitting poster boy for Britain’s anti-fascist movement “because of the manner in which he died”.
“Blair had no intention to be a martyr. He expected to go to the demonstration, involve himself in the march with thousands of others, and go home for his tea.”
BUILDING BLOCKS TO RESISTANCE
Back in England, UK media are reporting campaigners’ call for a fresh investigation into Peach’s death. The aim is to finally put a name to his killer.
The Southall community will march to commemorate the 40 years since he died on their turf and representatives have been in close contact with playwright Dean Parker.
Parker read out a part of a message from them at the Grey Lynn RSC, before the play kicked off.
“We in Southall will never forget the name of Blair Peach,” he read, going on to explain how remembering the past was one safeguard against the far right resurgence once again threatening minorities around the world.