moved into number 10 Canal Bank Road, close enough to a rather
greasy canal, which Rory would throw people into if they offended
him, or if they contravened the arcane rules of complicated ball
games which he devised. Sometimes Peter would arrive with a foreign
TV crew, expecting to stay for a few days on their way in or out
of Afghanistan, and they would have to sleep on the floor because
the rooms were full of Rory’s girls.
But behind the games and the jokes, there was always an eccentric
correctness to what they did, a heightened sense of right and
wrong, a feeling of what was and what wasn’t ‘done.’
Despite Rory’s willingness to sleep in a tent in Afghanistan
for a month, he could get unreasonably impatient if he came back
to find that someone had eaten the smoked salmon from a hamper
he had brought in from Fortnum and Mason. Peter too knew how things
should be ‘done,’ surprising an Afghan who came to
live in his house in Henley for the summer by his obsession for
the different polishes needed to clean the brass and the silver.
He once turned up at a friend’s wedding bearing a priceless
antique teapot as a gift. The delicate porcelain survived although
he was carrying it loosely in a plastic carrier bag. In the field
he was always immaculately turned out, wearing the best foreign
correspondent khaki in the front line, and preparing himself well.
He was the living example of an old British military saying that
‘any fool can be uncomfortable.’ When the travel writer
Peregrine Hodson stumbled on him travelling with a friend in the
Panjshir valley, he was startled by their supplies.
Besides a large medicine chest, they had a mouth-watering selection
of food: boxes of instant meals, including sausage and mash; beef
in gravy; paella; curry; packets of soup and vitamin drinks; tins
of steak and kidney pie and baked beans; porridge and honey and
bars of chocolate….In addition they had a tent, sleeping
bags, foam rubber mattresses and inflatable pillows.
Unfortunately a day or so after they met, they were cut off from
this life-saving store house by a major Russian offensive. Peregrine
Hodson counted thirty troop-carrying helicopters going overhead,
who fired at the Englishmen hiding behind rocks on the ground.
Their only route to safety lay through a minefield. They picked
their way carefully across, hoping that the mines that they could
see thinly covered by sand were the only ones that had been laid.
Peter picked up one of the small green plastic anti-personnel
mines which he said, with some authority, was inactive since it
looked as if the firing pin had gone. He tossed it away to one
side, where it exploded. He grinned sheepishly under his moustache
at Hodson ‘That’s lucky. I’d thought of lobbing
at you for a joke.’ They travelled together to safety in
Pakistan, walking hundreds of miles across hostile terrain, with
few supplies, all encountering sickness along the way. One night
there was a loud burst of automatic gunfire while they were staying
in a village where they believed that there might be robbers.
Hodson recalls that Peter’s head hardly lifted from the
pillow at the sound.
too valued courage above everything else. Although with his classical
understated good manners he would never of course claim that he
was brave himself. In one incident he narrowly escaped death after
an attack by a Russian helicopter gunship. All of the mujaheddin
he was travelling with were killed except for one young man who
was very badly injured. Rory put him on his back and carried him
for a day. When he could go no further, he sharpened a Swiss army
knife, and laid out a makeshift operating theatre on a rock to
try to get the bullets out. The young man died before he could
begin to operate.
Rory once told a friend that being shot at was ‘like standing
on a green at the golf course. There are lots of balls being fired
at you, but none of them hits you.’ No one spent more time
in danger than Rory Peck, and people flocked like butterflies
Peshawar was the front line in the Cold War, awash with money
and guns as America paid for influence. There was lots of money
too from TV companies who were often paying for the same thing
as the American spies – information about the war across
the border. The city was full of glamorous fit young men going
into danger and coming out with their pockets full of cash. There
were parties, but none as large or loud as Rory’s parties,
and there was gossip in a city where the last thing you came across
was a fact, but there was no gossip as good as that heard in Number
10 Canal Bank Road. Amid the journalists, aid workers, diplomats,
spies and soldiers, they were freelance adventurers drawn to that
thing which is deep in all of us, the thing which draws people
to fast cars, sky diving, Russian roulette, cocaine, the exploration
of the border of life and death. There have been cities before
which had that allure, life on the edge of danger – Saigon
in the 70s, Beirut in the 80s until the kidnapping started, Split
in the 90s. But not perhaps since Vienna in the years after the
Second World War has there been a city like Peshawar.
Everybody pretended to be working for someone else, dealing in
secrets in the large concrete villas where they all lived. And
among them American right-wing fanatics traded in the belts of
dead Russians like scalps. The garden at Canal Bank Road filled
with vintage motor bikes, and the sheds filled with antique rifles
which Peter began to deal in. There were plenty about. Alongside
the hi-tech weapons which the Americans gave the mujaheddin fighting
their proxy war against the Russians, there were many Afghans
still using rifles which had been supplied by (or taken from)
the British more than a hundred years before. Perhaps Flashman
was still the best book to take in your luggage to the Hindu Kush.