On Friday, 24th January 1975, I got home from the late shift at about half past ten. It was too late to go out, so I made a sandwich and settled down in front of the television to watch the late film. About ten minutes later, the door bell rang. It was Bruce Kemble. Bruce lived next door to us. He was the education correspondent of the Daily Express.
“Rob, did you know a teacher at your school called Alfred Knott?”
“Yes, of course I know him, he’s the deputy headmaster. I just spoke to him, about half an hour ago”
“Well, he’s been shot”
The Express news desk had phoned Bruce at home. Someone had walked up Alf’s driveway, spotted him in the kitchen and shot him through the window, hitting him three times in chest.
Earlier that evening, as I left the Brook Hospital, Alf had called me over to his car. He had dropped his wife off for a nursing night shift. He offered me lift home, which I declined because he lived in Maze Hill, Greenwich, very close to the Roan School for Boys. Driving me to Kidbrooke Grove would have involved a lengthy detour, and in any case I liked to walk. We chatted for a while about portering, medical school and boogie-woogie piano. Alf had taught me some boogie riffs that I play to this day.
I felt a bit dislocated by what Bruce had told me and struggled to make sense of it. I calculated the time needed for Alf to get home, get shot, get taken to hospital and for the news to travel to Fleet Street and then back to Bruce. I realised that the shooting must have happened almost immediately after our conversation. I was shaken. Assassinations happened by grassy knolls in Dallas, Texas, not in suburban South East London.
Bruce took me next door to his place. He interrogated me about ex-pupils who might bear a grudge and other possible motives for murder. He opened two cans of beer. Bruce was an unreconstructed Fleet Street journalist; work and alcohol were indivisible. He pulled out a London telephone directory, saying “right, let’s speak to the widow”. I am not sure whether I was more shocked by his assumption that Alf was dead or by his callousness. The phone was answered by a policewoman, who offered no information. Bruce made some similarly fruitless calls to A&E. He asked me if there was anyone amongst my porter colleagues who might have access to information and I assured him that there was not. I was fond of Alf and his wife Beryl, and I had no intention of involving myself in brutal news gathering. After a lot of phone calls and several more beers, Bruce gained no information and I went home to bed.
The next morning, I learned from BBC Radio 4 that Alf was still alive, much to my relief. There was some confusion, as the IRA had claimed responsibility for shooting an army officer in Mill Hill. Mill Hill is in North London, but Alf lived in Maze Hill, Greenwich. It appeared that the assassination attempt was a bodge job from start to finish. I imagined that the assassin had peered at his London A-to-Z, then the house numbers, then back at the A-to-Z, uncertain until he saw Alf arrive home. I supposed that he had decided that Alf had a sufficiently military bearing to be considered a target. I wondered whether the fact that Alf was doing the washing up had created doubt and affected the gunman’s ability to dispatch him efficiently. Despite the severity of his injuries, Alf was back at the school and teaching six weeks later.
I had a warm friendship with Bruce Kemble. He was a good looking man in his late-30s who liked blues and jazz. He encouraged our noisily inexpert band when we practiced in the garage. “It sounds like Hendrix” he told us, and we were duly flattered. He was Father of the Daily Express Chapel, which is to say chair of the Express branch of National Union of Journalists. The 1970s were the zenith of the Fleet Street unions’ power, so it was an influential role. Although the Express was a right-wing paper, Bruce described himself as a socialist, “more of a Communist Party fellow traveller than an actual member” he would say. He used to perform a Max Miller tribute act in night clubs, complete with trilby hat, curtain-material suit and risqué patter:
“There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad, she was popular.”
Some evenings, a black cab would bring an intoxicated Bruce home from El Vino’s after midnight. He would get out and noisily discuss football with the driver whilst the meter continued to run. Later, when I was a pre-clinical medical student at King’s College in the Strand, we would travel to the West End together in the morning. I would lose his attention if there was an attractive woman in the train compartment. Years later, I saw a photograph of him chatting to Margaret Thatcher. No-one could doubt his intelligence, charm and talent, but many of his attachments and loyalties seemed rather loose to me. I imagine that he was no different in this to any other successful Fleet Street journalist of the time. When I was a teenager, Bruce used to put me in mind of Viktor Komarovsky, the morally bankrupt Bolshevik played by Rod Steiger in the film of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. The comparison was unfair and excessive, but teenagers can be very judgemental. Set against this, I cannot deny that I admired his intellectual roguishness.
The would-be assassins were the Balcombe Street Gang, the most prolifically violent of the IRA’s active service units in England in the mid-1970s. The IRA mainland campaign started with a car bomb outside of the Old Bailey in central London in March 1973. A close friend of my mother, Auntie Maisie, worked in an office opposite the court and sustained a bad facial injury in the explosion. A furious pattern of bombings and shootings followed. Much of the violence was indiscriminate. West End restaurants were raked by gunfire and bombs were left in pubs full of young people. The campaign caused a lot more death and injury to the general public than to IRA-designated legitimate targets. As I left work on 7th November 1974, I heard a loud explosion, which was a bomb at the King’s Arms, a squaddies’ pub about a mile away from the Brook Hospital, close to Woolwich barracks. That was another Balcombe Street Gang operation. Many of the injured were admitted to the Brook. The hospital was crowded with military personnel for weeks thereafter.
I was still in the Workers Revolutionary Party at the time that Alf was shot and I had become infected by their paranoia about the security services (which was by no means unjustified). I was fairly certain that I was the last person to see Alf before he was shot, so I assumed that the police or the security services would interview me, either as a suspect or as a potential witness. I had nothing useful to tell them, but the Met had a bad reputation. I waited anxiously for an ominous knock at the door. It never came.
A couple of months later, I went to the school to visit the teachers who were giving me support in my extended campaign to go to medical school. I walked into the staff room to find myself facing Alf. “Oh, it’s you!” he said, with his best theatrical flourish “who the hell did you phone that evening?” He had told the police that I was the last person who had spoken to him. He had also told them that the shooting had nothing to do with me. That assurance seems to have been good enough for them. We both felt that the police’s failure to bother to speak me was worryingly careless, notwithstanding my concern that they would have roughed me up if they had.
Alf was a charismatic and popular teacher who had real presence. He had attended the Roan School as a pupil himself. He had been captain of several sports teams, as well as head boy. He was awarded the Roan Exhibition for academic attainment. He returned to the school as a teacher in 1954 and remained there until he retired thirty years later. The Roan excelled at sport and performing arts. Alf particular encouraged the latter. He supported my early musical endeavours. His lust for life survived the attempted assassination. He died in 2011, two weeks after Beryl had passed away.
Another Roan pupil who went to medical school was Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, television doctor and polymath. He has blogged about one of Alf’s great teaching moments. I remember Alf teaching me that exact same thing.