Written the day after Peter’s death
I was shocked and upset to learn from John Sauven yesterday of Peter’s death. It’s so hard to imagine still less bear.
I know how much you loved him and I have some idea, I think, of quite how much of life you two shared. My deepest condolences and sympathy.
My own first encounter with Peter was with you. It was my interview for Greenpeace (1986), in a dingy backroom of the timber wharf warehouse in Islington. A pretty unpromising place, I thought. I was prepared to be disappointed by the experience having something of a dim view of Greenpeace at the time. Then I met you guys. There was a friendly intensity – an absolute seriousness, leavened by immense charm. These people mean business, I thought. And you did. And then we did.
Working with Peter was one of the great privileges of my life. Greenpeace was a powerful experience, but having the opportunity to work and be alongside Peter was transformational. I was green (as in naive) as a spring leaf but he was patient and coached and encouraged. His energy and organisational skills were prodigious, his intellect and powers of measured reasoning sublime, and the bastard also had empathy and humanity too. I adored him.
Of course, Peter was in bold contrast to others who were impressive and admirable in many ways but, for me, a drain. I would have left Greenpeace within a year and thereby missed out on one of the most powerful experiences of my life without Peter’s calm and reassuring presence in the background. We eventually let rip of course and it was a blast…anything and everything began to seem possible. We started to feel we could change the world and I think we did. We got Greenpeace in shape, created a culture of trust and creativity and for calculated risk-taking that enabled an explosion of campaigning energy, flair and impact. The world shifted on its axis.
And Peter was the foundation, the father, the engineer. He got us in the right places, helped us practically, introduced a rigour in critical reasoning then let us do our thing. It was an object lesson in leadership: quiet actually, relatively unassuming but omnipresent too so that we never felt alone and exposed. We also knew, for sure, that the opposition – from world governments to global corporations – didn’t have anyone to compare with our leader; no-one who either had his stamina or could out-reason him, match his quiet passion and his unassuming but wholly resolute confidence. It made us feel impregnable.
I’d been in the organisation for two weeks when Peter abandoned me one evening in a Greenpeace international trustee meeting in Lewes. David McTaggart was on the prowl; in electric mood and mode, promoting World Park Antarctica and a Greenpeace base there with a fierce and crystalline intensity. Peter cooly announced he had a parent teacher evening or something akin in Kentish Town and I was suddenly the UK trustee…I was crapping myself and McTaggart was staring straight at me. It came to a vote. About half of the trustee body was for David’s proposition and half against. Mine was the deciding vote. Oh fuck. What did Peter want, or Alan? Who knew? Fuck, fuck. I decided that having a base in Antarctica was a good idea for us; I listened to the arguments and made a decision – casting vote, here we go!! The next day back in London Alan furious, Peter amused! Not sure he agreed that I’d done the right thing but he supported me all the way. I later confessed I’d found David somewhat intimidating and asked whether Peter felt the same way. Well, ‘no, not really’, Peter replied. As Under Secretary-of-State in Northern Ireland he’d had the Reverend Ian Paisley bellowing at him day in day out and while McTaggart was a force he didn’t quite compare. And there it was…in a nutshell – Peter had that worldliness, that experience, that assurance and he deployed it to embolden us all whether or not and maybe even sometimes especially when we made mistakes. He was of course always ready to reflect and laugh and as I looked at photos of him last night I was reminded that he had one particularly kind eye and one particularly steely eye. Did you see that too?
I’ve got a million stories and lovely memories but I suppose over and above the personal friendship, the mentoring, the everyday support he provided, Peter was a great campaigner. In fact, I would say he was arguably one of the great campaigners of the environmental or indeed any other movement.
Others had more external charisma perhaps and even brighter fires burning, but few, if any, had his strategic skills, his inexorable logic, his systematic application. And he didn’t try to do it (all) himself by any means; he let us build an organisation that across the piece was extraordinarily confident, well-tooled and able. The sum of the parts was a mighty thing as he knew it could be and he was its stealthy, assured source and coil spring.
And look what he/we did! Of course we were part of an immense and hugely talented international organisation with outstanding values, a fearlessness and a hard-earned brand to die for. But with this fantastic foundation Peter shaped and led a programme of work that changed the world and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Let’s remember that time for a moment – our time. The Montreal Protocol (actions against ICI, ‘sorry grandpa’); the North Sea campaign; Acid Rain; major actions on Sellafield and against BNFL that almost killed the nuclear industry in this country; one of the world’s first major Global Warming campaigns; nuclear free seas…The launch of the new Rainbow Warrior. The reinforcement and amplification of the most compelling brand in the environmental world. We grew the Greenpeace membership from 40,000 to nearly 400,000 in four years, giving us immense influence; created the Greenpeace Environmental Trust.
These and much more created the imperative, the space and the popular support for political action. They released the forces that caused better businesses to change their policies, culture and behaviours. They led to the Earth Summit, the IPCC and COP…They gave rise to a thousand, a million kindred campaigns and actions and organisations…
And this was Peter. He was its locus, its forcefield.
You have lost a great friend, I a mentor. Professionally my relationship with Peter was the most inspiring and enlightening of my life. I became a different, better person. And after last night’s news when I look back to 32 years ago I can remember that period now – almost all of it – as vividly as if it was yesterday.
I hope you are coping and finding solace. It would be great to share some grief, reminisce and have a laugh at some point soon.
My very best wishes