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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis