Profile speaks to Peter Bleksley, the former Met undercover detective and now author, podcaster and television star about his work undercover, his assessment of the maladies facing British police forces and why he believes the government should legalise narcotics.
By William Rome
Ordinarily, when writing a Profile interview, one has half an hour over a Zoom call to assess an interviewee’s personality, authenticity and character. Periodically, in particular when Profile successfully nabs a speaker destined to address one of Durham’s large societies, particularly the Union (to which Peter Bleksley gave an animated speech that evening), one spends an hour or so with them and then hears their address. Peter Bleksley was a little different: from picking him up at the station, touring him around Durham, interviewing him formally at Hotel Indigo, chatting with him at 24s that evening and finally dropping him off at the station the following morning, I had a remarkable opportunity to get a true flavour of the character of the man.
He is fascinating to speak to because he combines so many different, at times ostensibly contradictory, traits. He is down-to-earth, humble and kind, sporting a South-East London accent (he is proud of his heritage and the borough of his birth, where he still lives) – yet he is a highly successful author, podcaster and television star, traits which often are a by-word for conceit. (A friend, upon running into us during my history tour and keeping her cool remarkably well, messaged me afterwards: “HE’S SO COOL!!!”)
Bleksley is a hardened former detective who has been instrumental in locking away some of the most prolific gangsters and drug dealers and yet is a passionate advocate of the need to legalise narcotics. He speaks frequently about his lack of formal education as a teenager and how proud he is of changing this; he listens to my ramblings about St. Cuthbert and the Dun Cow with genuine interest (or at least is too polite to say otherwise) and speaks eruditely throughout. He is visibly taken aback by the grandeur of Hotel Indigo and was beyond enthusiastic throughout our tour.
Bleksley has had a complicated and at times rocky career. He suffered a “catastrophic mental health breakdown”, which he elaborates on in his address at the Union. The victim of spectacular bureaucratic incompetence, his real name instead of an alias was published in an official document, which was shortly thereafter stolen. The isolation of the witness protection programme drove him to a dire mental place but through medical intervention and strength of character he pulled through. Having “a story to tell and an axe to grind” with the Met police, a phrase he uses more than once, cannot have hurt either.
After being medically retired by the Met at the end of his 30s, he felt lost. Yet, he searched for new opportunities and plenty materialised: plenty of people wanted to hear his stories. He pursued a career as an author, playwright, television commentator and podcaster; he is still learning new skills to this day and revels in the opportunity. “There I am now at the ripe old age of 63 learning new skills, with an earpiece and reading from an autocue and taking direction down my ear, and I just get so excited by things like that, to have new opportunities, and learn new skills – I mean, many of my peers are out on the golf course all bloody day.”
Growing up in South-East London in what was effectively a single-parent household – his abusive father left when he was young (“good riddance to bad rubbish”, he notes dismissively) – his childhood was troubled. “I was pleased to see the back of school and school was pleased to see the back of me”. He engaged in “stupid” petty crime as a teenager but his mother’s perseverance changed his prospects entirely. She got the “neighbourhood Bobby” to speak to him about the opportunities of becoming a police officer. He was convinced.
He entered the police cadets and immediately thrived. From a place of struggling with school, he was top of his class and experienced the rather different environments of Peckham and (as he phrases it every time) “The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea”. During that time he built up experience and realised that he was not in fact the “Jack the lad” he thought himself but rather, when compared to police and criminals alike, “a marshmallow”. He sells himself somewhat short here – he notes later that he boxed for the Met – but nonetheless there was a steep learning curve which he embraced.
Yet, he decided to become a detective after a few years as a uniformed officer, and he ascribes this to one decisive moment. “The 1981 Brixton riots had a massive impact on me, not only as a police officer because it made me go down the detective route, but it had a huge impact on me as a human being – the racist obnoxious thug was gone forever.” These riots were prompted by a deep-seated resentment amongst black communities about their treatment at the hands of police officers. As Bleksley notes, the name of the police operation, ‘Swamp’, reflects their intentions: to literally swamp the area and its population. Bleksley believes that the police force was institutionally racist at the time and upon going home after the worst day of the riots promised himself that he would change. He comments several time on the shame of his past views, which he is proud to have disavowed and does not excuse, but explains as a consequence of “being young, impressionable, stupid.”
His success in police exams allowed him to become a detective and he was soon going undercover. The story of his first mission is detailed overleaf. There is clearly a distinct character of detective work compared to normal policing; at its extremes, police officers were enthusiastic about what Bleksley finds distasteful. I mention the response to the miner’s strike, with busloads of Met police officers ferried up to Yorkshire to clash with miners in what many consider to be the only time British police were used as agents of the state, not of the judiciary. “It wasn’t anything I wanted to go anywhere near, and me & some of my fellow detectives used to look on with some disdain when the uniformed were clambering on those busses, laughing, joking, hooting and hollering because they were going off to earn a lot of money in terms of overtime and have a tear-up.”
As an undercover detective, Bleksley contributed to the arrest and conviction of many of the late 20th century’s worst gangsters and drug dealers, in work he enjoyed as it was “so varied”, though it was also “largely terrifying most of the time!” His undercover work tended to constitute brief interactions rather than prolonged acting, although on one occasion he had a six month operation, running “a pretend company from a lock-up in Thurrock in Essex, [with] the bad guys who were smuggling the drugs coming to me and dropping off their stops. I did other undercover jobs where I’d meet someone at lunchtime and the job would be done and dusted” by evening, though it was rarely that easy.
To me, it is fascinating how one can pull off such audacious deceits time after time. I was staggered that he had maintained this persona without ever dropping character, a feat of acting impressive even for trained character actors. Equally, I questioned how he avoided gaining a reputation as a gangster and fixer whose clients had a mysterious habit of being arrested – my knowledge of the criminal underworld being limited, I had assumed that people would talk.
To the first question, the answer was straightforward: “it wasn’t very far away from who I was.” Bleksley repeats twice what he calls the “three ‘f’s” – the topics of conversation for young men of his background at the time. Football, fighting and fuc… (I’ll leave that last one to your imagination). He comments: “what did I do in my life? Go to football, box for the Met and have girlfriends. So the three ‘f’s were me! They were what I could talk about. Obviously I didn’t talk about my football team because I didn’t want people rocking up to meet me at Queen’s Park Rangers, so I would profess to support some other team. I managed to pull it off without too much difficulty – with my fingers crossed of course! Stick to what you know, stick to who you are, as close as you possibly can do. Because otherwise you’ll get found out.”
The second question is one which the Deputy Commissioner of the Met, upon presenting him with a certificate, also levelled at Bleksley. His response was “I’m so glad you ask that question, Sir, because now you are beginning to appreciate the scale of the size of the illegal drugs industry.” He adds that he “could work out of London frequently from this gang to that gang and another gang, and there’s no crossover because they’re all independently importing, on a wholesale global level, drugs into the country. That’s borne out even clearer than ever because it’s the fourth biggest industry in the world, so of course there are millions of people involved in it.”
I heard this statistic from Bleksley on multiple occasions throughout our afternoon, and the issue of drugs took up much of his address at the Union. Surprisingly for a man who spent the majority of his time with the police catching drug barons, and equally for a man who concedes to having experimented with narcotics in the years surrounding his mental breakdown and dissuades everyone from trying the same, he is an avid proponent of legalising all narcotics. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy: the lot. His argument rests on the contention that the war on drugs is impossible to win and so it is crucial that the individuals controlling this enormous industry are not criminals. He remarks that he believes in “legalisation and regulation”, the latter as important as the former. It is a cause celebre seemingly as important for him as the hunt for Kevin Parle and the mystery of the murder of Alistair Wilson, for which he is best known.
To detail in these pages the independent detective work which Bleksley is still doing would take up most of this newspaper – and I am sure he would be most disappointed if I didn’t point you towards his books and podcasts instead. They are fascinating tales; one of my favourite moments of the evening was when I had just finished my formal interview with Bleksley and we had a fellow guest at Indigo come up to us saying “Peter? Peter Bleksley? Are you any closer to finding Kevin Parle?” with an enthusiasm that took me aback. Bleksley gave a detailed, engaged and thoughtful response, as he had done throughout the afternoon.
Two points are worth mentioning, however, from my conversation with Bleksley. Firstly, though he is realistic, he is also immensely committed to securing justice for the victims: “I’ll just keep plugging away. Will I ever solve it – probably not; will I ever stop trying – no.” Relatedly,he is very critical of police forces for what he perceives to be their disinterest in these cases. “A journalist in Scotland that I know did a Freedom of Information Act request to Police Scotland to see how much money they have on the [Alistair Wilson] investigation this year – I’ve spent more money than the Scottish police have.” Disinterest is certainly not something Bleksley can be accused of, for he will go to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of justice. He recently went to Spain to throw letters into a house he believes contains Parle, on the basis that “hearing them clatter onto the driveway and going out and thinking what’s this – oh he’s here – might just upset the criminality a bit more than getting something in the post.”
The quality of policing is a common theme throughout our conversation. He believes that “the scandalous thing about it is that we are all a bit less safe than we used to be.” Petty crime has skyrocketed, with many instances not reported and therefore not factoring in statistics. Although the appalling former policemen who have been convicted of sex offences have naturally impacted police confidence, “the reason that public trust and confidence in the police is where it’s at, and is nose-diving, is that for 20 years they have failed to deliver a service to the moderate mainstream of the nation. And by that I mean the people who’ve had their houses burgled, their cars stolen, their bikes stolen, their phones stolen and so on and so forth.”
He adds: “And they also disparagingly, insultingly, disgustingly came up with the expression ‘low-level crime’, which just goes to show the disconnect they’ve got from the public. If you and I got these [phones] nicked this afternoon, how low-level would that be? My livelihood depends on this bloody phone. It would not be low-level – it would be catastrophic to my life, to my ability to earn a living.” And what a shame that would be, as after all in the work he has done, during and after his police career, he has dedicated his life to seeing problems in the world and challenging and removing them. A truly good man.
Image: William Rome