WHEN Peter Brayshaw’s long term partner Tracy Warnes passed away a few years back, he recalled how they had hidden together in a besieged motel in Angola as bullets fired all around. The couple were in Luanda, the capital, working with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola as the fight for independence from Portugal neared a chaotic conclusion of sorts in 1975. Allies were turning into enemies ahead of a civil war played out to a soundtrack of guerilla fighter firearms.
“They soon learnt to recognise the sound of gunfire aimed at their rooms and gunfire from their comrades defending the building,” my colleague Dan Carrier wrote when Tracy died. “She even stored a grenade in her room so she could blow herself and any potential attackers up if the end came.”
As the sad news of Peter’s own passing last week, just as everybody was hurtling around in that blurry pre-Christmas dash, his back story, the things he saw in Africa, may have been lost beyond those who knew him well.
If a stranger looked across the council chamber this year, would they have pick Peter out as the man in that Angolan motel, pock-marked by bullets 40 years ago? There he stood, on his feet in front of councillors, looking every bit the economist, starched shirt, tie in order, his attention to spreadsheet detail which made you sometimes wonder whether he was actually the only person in the hall who had read every single line of every report. His mild-mannered approach, and the occasional self-effacing chuckle, gave no clue to drama he had seen, fighting for justice for people in another land.
And that was the nature of the man (pictured above with fellow ward councillors Roger Robinson and Samata Khatoon), not someone I knew so well but clearly someone more interested in collective achievement than individual headlines. His lack of obvious ego might explain why those dramatic stories from Angola and South Africa, and other places thousands of miles from here, were not shared at every turn. For he rarely gatecrashed a colleague’s spotlight moment, and instead seemed happy to pop up in the boring bit, and look boring is in italics, after one of their grandstand speeches at full council meetings. Not everybody can be the star striker, but every political group needs busy scrutineers like Peter.
His three stints on the council meant he had seen the ups and downs, and suffered the sting of the narrowest of electoral defeats in 2006 when he lost his seat by two votes. Whatever level of politics you are at, those kind of recount defeats can be haunting. Undeterred, he later transferred from Bloomsbury to Somers Town and was soon back on the council. It was an interesting switch, because his enthusiasm for the new Sir Francis Crick medical research centre behind the British Library potentially went against the wishes of many constituents who felt, while the lab could have been built anywhere in the country, new homes were what was needed from a glorious brownfield opportunity in that specific area.
Yet Peter explained his support politely and persuasively – agreed to disagree with ward colleagues – and no ground was lost. Of course, Somers Town has always been a safe Labour seat, but maybe they just appreciated him being honest and out there about where he stood on a contentious debate. That’s often an uncelebrated virtue in the jostle of local politics.
Others may know better, but his politeness, reasoned tone seemed to be familiar. Without ever being rude, he occasionally corrected me if I posted a version of the olden days on these pages which he felt had been too sweeping. And that gentle approach came across in the tributes that were offered last week too.
“Peter was one of the fairest people in politics,” said Sarah Hayward, the council leader but also a friend, last week. “If he agreed with you it wasn’t to garner favour it was because he believed it was right, if he disagreed he did so honestly and without future prejudice.”