When I came across this obituary of Peggie Preston, what struck was she had lived the type of life which should have ensured her a prominent obituary in the national press, instead of her becoming an after thought in the Guardians ‘Other Lives’ section. The one place were class prejudice still rules supreme in all its arrogance is on the Obituary Pages of the British Press. Few working class people appear on these pages whether it be in the Times, Guardian, Independent or Telegraph, although to be fair the latter is more liberal than most as they always have space for the odd non commissioned officer who committed heroic deeds when serving in the military and rightly so.
However in the main the obituary pages are overwhelmingly made up of the so called great and good, people who come from the ‘right type of background’ with a sprinkling of authors and artists etc who had made their peace with the British establishment. Of course there are exceptions but they are few and far between. In many ways that most of the broadsheets recently carried an obituary of Andrew Glyn [Eton and Oxbridge] is an example of this class prejudice, for I doubt very much if a revolutionary Marxist from a working class background would have found themselves on the obituary pages.
Jonathan Fryer and Denis Herbstein
Rather as the camp followers of old traipsed around Europe tending to the needs of weary armies, so the veteran peace campaigner and occupational therapist Peggie Preston, who has died aged 84, ministered to those suffering in conflicts.
I first met her in Saigon, in the summer of 1969, when she was living in hiding (her visa having expired) at a children’s home at Phu Mi. She spent five years in south Vietnam, at the height of the war, with a British medical team, living with local people and working for local rates. She was useful to journalists, as she had excellent contacts among radical Buddhist monks and other government opponents, but she also knew how to harangue. She burned with fury against injustice and the might of what she called US imperialism. Though a Quaker, she did not think that silence was always appropriate.
Peggie had been born in Assam, the daughter of a tea planter, but from the age of four she had grown up with an aunt in Dollar, Clackmannanshire. As a young woman in the second world war, she served in the WAAF, spending six years as a bomber command radio-operator at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. But henceforth, her life was devoted to the intertwined causes of peace, aid and development. Before Vietnam, she had been in South Africa, treating victims of apartheid. Working at the huge Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, she dealt with casualties of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. She identified with the cause of oppressed peoples, including, later, Palestinians.
In early 1991, Peggie Preston was among peacemakers from 15 countries who pitched their tents at a pilgrims’ resting place just inside Iraq. The idea was to interpose a non-violent presence between the warring forces and so focus attention on the looming Gulf War. The American peace campaigner Kathy Kelly recalls an evening when “Peggie urged us to hold an event in which each of us would offer a representation of our country’s culture. It was a bit surreal as the bombers flew overhead, but I remember how grateful people were for her tenacious encouragement.” Cut off from the rest of the world, with food and water in short supply, they were reluctantly evacuated to a possibly more dangerous Baghdad. Preston returned to Iraq a decade later to view the destructive effects of international sanctions on the people of Iraq.
By now she had become the veteran among the family of peacemakers. She might almost be seen as the inverse image of the Victorian soldier Sir Garnet Wolseley, who in a long life of warring saw action in four continents. The much-travelled Peggie Preston continued her missions for peace – to Sarajevo and to Croatian-controlled Bosnia during the wars in the Balkans. She was arrested at a demonstration near Ramallah, trying to heal wounds in Palestine. After the second Gulf War she resigned from the Labour Party and destroyed her Labour party card. She could be heard on the loudspeaker at Parliament Square voicing support for the peace protester Brian Haw and spent Christmas Day 2006 there with him. A Molesworth base demonstration outside the Ministry of Defence in London led to her gaining a criminal record. “We held hands and had to kneel, but with my arthritis I couldn’t get down.” She was bound over for a year to keep the peace.
This February, aged 83, Peggie Preston hobbled along Downing Street with the mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq to hand in a petition to Tony Blair. It was her final public act.
Latterly, Peggie suffered from ill health. Painful legs made it difficult to move far from her council flat in Covent Garden. She became a habitue of the crypt cafe at St Martin-in-the-Fields, conveniently placed for demonstrations and rallies in Trafalgar Square.