Under Siege

A tabloid outrage from a century ago.

Picture the scene. A ferocious gun battle is taking place in London. About 200 policemen and the Scots Guards are shooting it out with a gang of robber-revolutionaries who have killed four policemen over the previous two years.

As the bullets fly, Theresa May totters down to see what's going on, declares it "extremely interesting" and, taking control of the operation, calls in the artillery while shrapnel whizzes round her head.

It's an extraordinary image, but that is essentially what happened on 3 January 1911, when Winston Churchill, then home secretary, began directing events at the Siege of Sidney Street, apocryphally taking a bullet through his top hat. The distinctive, fur-lined greatcoat that he wore that day, as seen on the Pathé newsreel shown in cinemas that evening, is one of the items in the "London Under Siege" centenary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, which does an excellent job of unpicking the complexities of this lurid, fascinating affair.

The siege capped a triptych of dramatic events that began with the "Tottenham Outrage" in January 1909. This was an "expropriation", or wage snatch, carried out by two Latvian refugees and interrupted by the police. During a two-hour chase - in which the heavily armed robbers hijacked a tram - a policeman and a boy were killed. The Latvians shot themselves rather than surrender.

Such casual disregard for human life provoked a wave of anti-immigration protest. The Latvians were from a group of revolutionaries, mostly anarchists, who fled Russia after the 1905 uprising and settled in London. Like the Angry Brigade 60 years later, they used numerous aliases and engaged in criminal activity to finance their politics. This proved to be their undoing.

In December 1910, the gang staged another robbery. It rented apartments in a building backing on to the jeweller H S Harris, at 119 Houndsditch. The intention was to break in and crack the safe, but the robbers were overheard and the police were called. The Latvians came out shooting and three unarmed City of London policemen were killed, along with a robber downed by friendly fire.

Once more, London was outraged and the newspaper headlines captured the public fury against gun-toting "aliens", Seven hundred and fifty thousand people lined the streets around St Paul's for the policemen's funeral procession. The exhibition features some of the sophisticated guns used in the robbery - quite how these impoverished immigrants got hold of such weapons has never been discerned - and a gorgeous, wooden model of the crime scene made for the trial of five (acquitted) Latvians, as well as newsreels, oral history, photographs and posters.

But the drama was not over. The gang - including, it was believed, its enigmatic leader, Peter the Painter - was traced to 100 Sidney Street in Stepney. Again, a gunfight broke out. The siege became a public event as cabs from a special rank at Aldgate rushed people to the location, where residents rented rooftop seats for ten shillings. As the battle intensified, a cat and dog were killed in the crossfire. Churchill called in the artillery, but before it could arrive the building caught fire. Churchill would not let the fire brigade put out the flames.

Two bodies were recovered and identified as Fritz Svaars and Josef Sokolow. Of Peter the Painter, there was no sign. It was said that he had escaped dressed as a woman and a poster offering £500 for his capture was around as late as 22 January. Peter has recently been named as Janis Zhaklis, a Latvian anarchist who disappeared in 1911.

One of the most remarkable things about the siege is how little impact it had. A new medal for police bravery was introduced but the Liberal government ignored knee-jerk demands from the right-wing press to restrict immigration or arm the police and merely placed the remaining Latvians under stringent observation, which seemed to do the job. Indeed, the siege's greatest legacy could be the commemorative plaques on nearby housing blocks - Peter House and Painter House - which were still attracting the impotent ire of the Daily Mail almost 100 years later. l

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide