Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Siege Of Sidney Street - Frederick Oughton


I presume we're all up to speed and fully au fait regarding the siege of Sidney Street? Peter the Painter? Good.
Essentially, Frederick Oughton's book The Siege Of Sidney Street is the novelization of the film of the same name made in 1960 starring Donald Sinden, Kieron Moore, and Peter Wyngarde. The screenplay was written by Jimmy Sangster who also wrote the screenplays for many of the Hammer horror movies and it's Sangster's screenplay that Oughton's book is based on.

The blurb on the back cover of the book is interesting as it reads like a Daily Mail headline and for that reason alone deserves to be quoted in full: 'The Day Anarchy Clutched At London. London's East End - January 3rd 1911. Bullets whine in Sidney Street, holding back hundreds of police, guardsmen and the Home Secretary - Winston Churchill. Three anarchist fanatics - Peter the Painter, Yoska, Svaars - had robbed and killed for their cause. Now had come the bloody day of reckoning... Here is a sensational story with a scaffolding of truth - of the gaslit, gin-soaked era when marauding anarchists took whatever they could grab.'
Sounds good doesn't it? I particularly like the phrase 'with a scaffolding of truth'. It could well be the Daily Mail. I must say, however, that the book actually takes a diabolical liberty with the truth but that's okay. Nothing wrong with that.
The historical, real life event is turned into a story of cops and robbers with a love interest, the twist in the tale to differentiate it from a hundred other cops and robbers stories being that the robbers are Russian anarchists, spurred on not by any desire to get rich but by ideology. They're appropriating money to help fund the revolution as explained to an incredulous police detective by an informer: "These people in London are anarchists, dey get money for friends in Russia." "To help them escape?" Mannering asked. Beran huddled deeper into his thick overcoat as though the temperature had dropped. "For der revolution. Der is going to be a revolution in Russia; dat is why dey want so much money. Revolutions costs money, sir."

And indeed they do. In my day, when me and my fellow comrades-in-arms wanted money for the revolution we'd call on Chumbawamba or any number of anarcho-leaning bands to play a benefit gig and they'd always oblige. In fact, when Chumbawamba were flush with the success of Tubthumping we wouldn't even have to go through the rigmarole of setting up a gig - they'd simply donate money straightaway, bless 'em - and much respect to them.
There's a lesson in this, actually. If Chumbawamba were around in 1911 then perhaps anarchist gangs wouldn't have needed to rob banks? Subsequently, when Chumbawamba were actively donating funds to anarchist causes not so long ago, perhaps in doing so they were keeping crime down? But I digress.

A good bit in the book is when the police detective is seeking information about the club where all the Russian immigrants congregate. He talks to the landlord of a pub situated opposite the club who is only too happy to offer up information about his neighbours: "It's a club a'right! Gawd, you c'n 'ear 'em jabb'r'n' away fifty ter the dozen right dahn the perishin' street. Club they calls it! Whore 'ouse more like! Gawd, you should 'ear 'em. I'll tell you somethin' else too. All they drinks there is tea. Tea. Round 'ere folks say as they're vegetarians."
"Perhaps they don't like meat, that's all," says the detective.
"Meat?" replies the landlord "Who said anythin' about meat? Vegetarians, that's what I said. That or them anarchists. Wouldn't be surprised to 'ear they was atheists too. Tell you, that club's got a bit of a name round this district, sir."
Vegetarians! And atheists to boot! How brilliant is that?

Another bit that deserves to be highlighted is when the anarchist Svaars is observing Peter the Painter saying goodbye to his lover: 'He would never have thought Peter was capable of such a display in front of others, for in the anarchist movement love was relegated to the level of sexual function, and nothing more, so as to avoid unnecessary entanglements and jealousies.'
Surely, that can't be right? I know it was decades later and he was no anarchist but Che Guevara once said "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." I tend to go with that, personally. It's good to know who to hate, I believe, but you're on a hiding to nothing if you discount or give up on the notion of love. Or perhaps I'm just an old romantic at heart?

But where am I going with this? Well, The Siege Of Sidney Street is a ripping yarn and surprisingly violent and bloody in some of its descriptions. Whilst its stock in characters is fairly standard as in the world weary detective, the 'gangster's' moll (whom the detective falls in love with) and so on, the outcome is quite unusual in the fact that the 'villain' (Peter the Painter) escapes and it's the detective who seems to have lost the most because the woman he's fallen in love with has been killed by a stray bullet in the final shootout.
In reality, Peter the Painter was indeed thought to have escaped the Sidney Street siege and over the following years was reported to have been spotted in Australia and even on the Titanic. Such is the stuff of legends. To the consternation of the Daily Mail and the Metropolitan Police Federation, in Whitechapel, London, two housing blocks have been named after him and plaques erected explaining who this 'anti-hero' was.

Frederick Oughton's book is probably out of print now but as well as being a fairly enjoyable read, in its own peculiar way it too serves as a dedication to the memory of Peter the Painter and that fateful and historical day in Sidney Street.
And there's nothing wrong with that.                                                                                                                                                      John Serpico


  1. Excellent as ever and I learnt some things too (which is probably more than I would have done from the book..,,). I'm now lying awake at night terrified that the country may be at risk from vegetarian atheists...the horror !

    1. I know! Me too! It's good though, isn't it?