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I have been looking for pieces which give a sense of what Blair Peach was like as a person – not merely as the activist who died on 23 April 1979, but as a human being, and as a friend. Many of the obituaries describe his closeness to Celia Stubbs, with whom he was in a long-term relationship when he died.
Others mention the positions he had taken in his union branch, of hostility to imperialism, of support for equality, etc. Here for example is Bernard Regan, who had worked with Peach in the NUT: “Above all else, Blair was an internationalist. He supported the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and welcomed the overthrow of the Shah of Iran … Blair alwars put forward his views without rancour. Despite occasional disagreements, he was always pleasant to work with, generous, witty and good humoured.”
According to another teacher, Dick North (an SWP member on the NUT exec), Peach “was one of the first teachers to take unofficial action during the 11974 London Allowance Campaign. Though threats of disciplinary action from the Authority followed, he was deterred from further action. He had a phenomenal capacity for hard work – he wasn’t the sort who makes fine speeches and leave the duplicating and writing of envelopes to others.”
The danger is of making Peach sound like an automaton, someone who gave his entire life to politics and did nothing outside. At school and university, few of Peach’s friends had been political. Here is one of them, quoted in New Zealand’s Listener magazine, “He was just an ordinary joker. We used to call him Plum. He liked his soccer. His father was a coach and Blair became a Hawkes Bay [player]. He was good. But he was just a little fellow. Small and wiry. He was the sort of guy when he got older that women wanted to mother.” Almost the only politics that this friend could recall was Peach’s long-term sympathy for the dispossessed Maori.
Digging a little deeper, many of the people who met Blair Peach in London describe him as quiet. Here for example is the children’s author Michael Rosen, who met Blair at a meeting of Teachers Against the Nazis, “I remember him as quiet, intense, very serious.”
Part of this quietness was bound up with Blair’s stammer, which several friends describe, and one adds the important extra piece of information that (as far as she could see) Blair did not stammer while teaching, or in particular when talking to vulnerable children. (And there were vulnerable children within his extended family).
For the anniversary of Peach’s death, one of his university friends Derek Melser, wrote a piece for New Zealand’s Listener magazine, “Stemming from a stammer” (above), in which he described how (he believed) Peach’s stammer had shaped his personality, his humour and his politics: “There are two main ways of dealing with a bad stammer. The overt stammerer, such as Blair was, lets it all hand out. His audience may be treated to any of a variety of explosive repetitions, facial tremors and contortions, sudden rushes of words…”
Hilda Tims, his school English teacher was quoted in a separate piece in the same issue of the Listener, describing the intensity of Peach’s stammer, “He had so much to say but he couldn’t get it out. He was a captive in his own body. Sometimes he would boil with a frustration that he was incapable of releasing.”
Blair was introverted by his stammer, Melser suggested, in company he would be one of the last to speak but often the most memorable: “Having no public ego at stake, and being immune to the word-induced illusions that affect the garrulous, the introverted stammerer is in a good position to see through other people, to perceive their subtler needs and fears. He is thus well placed to charm or reassure others, or, if some propensity proves too irritating, to devastate. When doing either, Blair never faltered.”
Melser describes Peach’s womanising, his need for company, and his occasional drinking.
Like Regan, Melser describes his friend’s good humour, “which attracted because of its quirkiness and child-like exuberance rather than its wit. [It] was expressed in catchphrases and fluent parodies of others’ speech.”
Even Peach’s politics and career he explains through the stammer: “Other aspects of Blair which can be better understood in the light of his stammering include his concern for the underdog. Apart from his natural generosity of spirit, the fact that Blair knew humiliation himself perhaps made him keener to protect others from it – like the children he taught at the School for Deaf and his West Indian and Asian neighbours.
I never met Peach, I was just 6 when he died, and can hardly comment on whether Melser was right, or whether his insight was overdone. What I will say is that if Melser is right, Peach would not have been the only one of the 1970s’s generation of anti-fascists to have their politics shaped by disability: David Widgery‘s polio, for example, is undoutedbly the key to his later passion for the health service as well as his life-long commitment to the dispossessed.