DATELINES: FINEST HOUR 150, SPRING 2011
1911-2011: THE SIDNEY STREET CENTENARY
LONDON, DECEMBER 18TH—
The Museum of London Docklands today opened a new exhibition, “London under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists,” featuring the Astrakhan-collared greatcoat Churchill wore when he controversially arrived at the scene to observe operations against criminals on 3 January 1911. (Reported by The Guardian website.)
Mr. Clive Bettington of the Jewish East End Celebration Society, co-sponsors of the exhibit, says Sidney Street “is part of East End and socialist folklore and the area at the time was home to radical political groups, most of whom had come from Eastern Europe, thus helping exaggerate people’s imaginations about immigration and other cultures.”
If there’s any exaggeration it’s the publicity. A legal and warranted police action does not amount to “London under Siege.” Whether or not the “Latvian anarchists” cornered at Sidney Street were socialists, they were in the process of robbing a jewelry shop when the police were summoned. (See “Anarchism and Fire,” page 34.)
The jeweler’s shop was at 119 Houndsditch, near Cutler Street and Goring Street. The besieged house was at 100 Sidney Street, which runs north and south from Whitechapel Road to Commercial Road, near Whitechapel Underground station. Unfortunately there is little left to see of the neighborhood as it was in 1911, since it was rebuilt as the Sidney Street Estate in the postwar reconstruction of Stepney. One of the blocks at the end of the street was named “Siege House,” but number 100 was actually on the east side, about halfway down, near Sidney Square.
Churchill’s presence at the scene in 1911 pursued him a long time. Speaking in Shepherd’s Bush about the departing government before the general election of 3 December 1923, WSC remarked: “In the brief period during which they held office they have not succeeded in handling a single public question with success.” The crowd laughed when a voice said, “They succeeded at the battle of Sidney Street, didn’t they?” Churchill shot back: “We have always been wondering where Peter the Painter got to.”
Churchill’s account of the “Siege of Sidney Street” is in his Thoughts and Adventures, pages 63-72 of the new ISI Books edition edited by James W. Muller. Churchill concludes: “Of ‘Peter the Painter’ not a trace was ever found. He vanished completely. Rumour has repeatedly claimed him as one of the Bolshevik liberators and saviours of Russia. Certainly his qualities and record would well have fitted him to take an honoured place in that noble band. But of this Rumour is alone the foundation.”*
* One of FH’s contributors liked to tweak the editor, who is of part-Latvian extraction, by reiterating the claim (revived in current publicity) that the Sidney Street gang were “Latvian anarchists,” knowing that each time, the editor would faithfully edit this out! This was not to white-wash Latvians, but because the gang leader, “Peter the Painter” (variously identified as Peter Piatkow, Peter Straume or Jacob Peters) did not possess a Latvian name. Two accomplices who died in the blaze were Jacob Vogel and Fritz Svaars; “Svaars” could be Latvian, but not “Fritz.”
THE DREAM IN COLOMBO
COLOMBO, NOVEMBER 20TH— Sri Lanka, the country Churchill knew as Ceylon, not unfamiliar with civil upheaval, reflected on his little-known 1947 short story, The Dream, (FH 125: 41, FH 126: 44). Part of the dialogue:
Lord Randolph Churchill: “But tell me about these other wars.”
Winston: “They were the wars of nations, caused by demagogues and tyrants.”
LRC: “Did we win?”
WSC: “Yes, we won all our wars. All our enemies were beaten down. We even made them surrender unconditionally.”
LRC: “No one should be made to do that. Great people forget sufferings, but not humiliations.”
WSC: “Well, that was the way it happened, Papa.”
LRC: “How did we stand after it all? Are we still at the summit of the world, as we were under Queen Victoria?”
WSC: “No, the world grew much bigger all around us.”
LRC: “…Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them.” The article cointinues…
In 1947, Sir Winston Churchill wrote about a dream he had. He had been seated in his studio trying to paint a portrait of his father. He felt an odd sensation and turned around to see his father, then long dead, seated in the leather armchair behind him. A long conversation on a wide range of subjects followed, an extract of which is quoted opposite. This imaginary conversation between father and son seems appropriate now with the issue of the horrors of war coming up in evidence before the Sri Lanka Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, and in some happenings connected to it.
When Al-Jazeera published what it stated were still unverified photographs of the Eelam War [against Tamil separatists, won by the Sri Lanka government in 2009], the government spokesperson’s immediate reaction was to claim they were fakes. Recently, it has been repeated that there were zero civilian deaths due to offensives by the security forces. On the contrary, there have been repeated claims by many civilians….
These rival claims can only be verified by an independent inquiry, either by a specially constituted panel acceptable to most independent civil society organizations or by a Truth Commission on the lines of the Tutu Commission in South Africa. It is in the interests of the government to see that an independent inquiry is done.
—FEDRICA JANZ, SRI LANKA GUARDIAN
BERLIN, OCTOBER 29TH— Germany has opened a Hitler Museum—but cynics who predicted an “Adolf Hitler Platz” one day will have to wait. The German Historical Museum’s exhibit, entitled “Hitler and the German Nation and Crime,” is devoted to the citizenry’s complicity in the Third Reich. This is new: for decades after the war, German students were taught that Hitler had effectively hijacked the nation as it stood and watched.
“That much of the German people became enablers, colluders, cocriminals in the Holocaust” is now a mainstream view, says political analyst Constanze Stelenmüller. “But it took us a while to get there.” The exhibit consists largely of everyday objects that ordinary Germans made to glorify the Führer, such as a tapestry woven by church women interspersed with images of townsfolk, the Lord’s Prayer and the Swastika.
“WSC DIDNʼT SAY THAT”
WASHINGTON, JANUARY 25TH— Ross Douthat describes The King’s Speech (reviewed on page 44) as “comfort food for Anglophiles [with] plummy accents, faultless sets, master thespians and an entirely unobjectionable political message (down with Hitler and snobbery, but God Save the King).” But Christopher Hitchens in Slate accuses the film of “gross falsifications of history”.
Hitchens says it whitewashes Churchill by painting him as an ally of George VI, who succeeded his brother, the “Nazi sympathizer” Edward VIII, when in fact the “bombastic” WSC stuck with Edward to the last, squandering his political capital as an anti-appeaser. Once Edward abdicated, the Royal Family, a “rather odd little German dynasty,” was “invested in the post-fabricated myth of its participation in ‘Britain’s finest hour.'”
We were all set to send Slate a rebuttal, as over Hitchens’ Atlantic rant in 2002 (FH 114), labeling Churchill “incompetent, boorish, drunk and mostly wrong.” But Slate readers responding on their website spared us the task.
The film emphasizes Churchill’s instinctive support for the monarchy, which is accurate. Edward VIII was a regrettable character, not even controllable as governor of the Bahamas, where several kettles of ripe fish were left when he quit Nassau. But his pro-Nazi ideas (which Hitchens incorrectly says “never ceased”) were as shallow as the rest of him, probably stemming from his admiration of how Herr Hitler got his way without the inconvenience of a Parliament.
King George VI was scarcely alone in supporting Chamberlain and appeasement. A whole generation had been wasted in World War I, as Alistair Cooke elegantly put it during the 1988 Churchill Conference: “The British people would do anything to stop Hitler, except fight him. And if you had been there, ladies and gentlemen— if you had been alive and sentient and British in the mid-thirties—not one in ten of you would have supported Mr. Winston Churchill.”
King George VI’s deportment in World War II won him the lasting respect of his people, eclipsing his mistaken beliefs before 1940. Churchill’s political reverse after defending Edward VIII was brief and insignificant; his comeback as “Prophet of Truth” was soon back on track as events proved he’d been right all along.
Gross falsifications of history? All we have here is the grossly iconoclastic Chris Hitchens, personification of the Member of Parliament described by Arthur Balfour: “The hon. gentleman has said much that is trite and much that is true, but what’s true is trite, and what’s not trite is not true.”
“WSC WROTE ABOUT IT”
NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 16TH— Columnist Bret Stephens on “America’s Will to Weakness”: “Beijing provokes clashes with the navies of Indonesia and Japan as part of a bid to claim the South China Sea. Tokyo is in a serious diplomatic row with Russia over the South Kuril islands, a leftover dispute from 1945. There are credible fears that Teheran and Damascus will overthrow the elected Lebanese government. Managua is attempting to annex a sliver of Costa Rica, a nation much too virtuous to have an army of its own. And speaking of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is setting himself up as another Hugo Chávez by running, unconstitutionally, for another term. Both men are friends and allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,.”
All this was written before Egypt and Libya exploded, Pakistan abducted a U.S. diplomat, and Argentina, which the U.S. obliges by calling the Falkland Islands “Malvinas,” confiscated a U.S. plane used in a joint training exercise.
Stephens continues: “We are now at risk of entering a period—perhaps a decade, perhaps a half-century—of global disorder, brought about by a combination of weaker U.S. might and even weaker U.S. will. The last time we saw something like it was exactly a century ago. Winston Churchill wrote a book about it: The World Crisis. Worth reading today.” Stephens’ column is here.
FULLERTON, CALIF, DECEMBER 15TH— The following was submitted to me as an essay on a final exam taken this week. (If you don’t know who “The Doctor” is, skip this note or Google Dr. Who.)
“Churchill is known for as the British Prime Minister during World War II. He saw the threat that Hitler presented, unlike Neville Chamberlain who thought, ‘Hitler seems like a right fine old chap.’ Churchill also coined the ‘iron curtain’ phrase regarding Communism. What most people don’t know about Churchill is that he was a personal friend of The Doctor, or at least he knew The Doctor well enough to know his phone number and be able to call him in the TARDIS.
Churchill summoned The Doctor during World War II when the Daleks had infiltrated the underground war cabinet, masquerading as weapon designed to defeat Hitler, by a British scientist who turned out to be an android created by the Daleks and given fake human memories. Churchill, it appears, later helped River Song get the painting Vincent Van Gogh made of the TARDIS exploding to the Doctor to warn him of the Pandora Opening.”
Editor’s note: Doctor Who episodes frequently involve historical figures, though we’re not quite sure how tongue-in-cheek this submission was. TARDIS, Doctor Who’s time traveling device, is short for “Time and Relative Distance in Space,” and the Daleks are the evil robots bent on world domination. But it will take a better Dr. Who fan than we to identify River Song and the Pandora Opening! Readers please help….
“KARSH 4” UNEARTHED
VANCOUVER, FEBRUARY 2010— In a master’s thesis entitled “By the Side of the ‘Roaring Lion,'” University of Calgary graduate student Rebecca Lesser uncovered a fourth in the series of Churchill photographs snapped by Yousuf Karsh after Churchill’s “Some Chicken— Some Neck” speech to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa on 30 December 1941. Referred by Terry Reardon, she sent us her manuscript, which is avail- able from the editor by email. Ms. Lesser notes that Karsh snapped several candid photographs of the two leaders: “It was Mackenzie King who had arranged for Karsh’s photographic encounter with Churchill…”he was as eager to be photographed with his British counterpart as Karsh himself was to photograph Churchill.
The third photo, “Karsh 3,” not pictured by Lesser, was in Karsh’s account in FH 94; and Terry Reardon’s “Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King” in FH 130.
Rebecca Lesser’s fourth photo, first published on 10 January 1942 in Canada’s weekly general-interest magazine Saturday Night, “depicts a laughing Mackenzie King glancing over at Churchill, who in turn looks into the camera with a slight smile. The photograph was deemed unsuitable by King, as he felt that their jovial expressions were inappropriate for the serious nature of their meeting; he had not been posing for this photograph, and thus had not been granted the opportunity to constitute himself into the image he wished to convey. King’s concern regarding the public reception of such unposed images assured that these other photographs from that most famous sitting would be relegated to the archives.”
We have always thought that Karsh’s “afterthought” photos of King and Churchill together (which, unlike the more famous pair, were never retouched) convey a truer picture of both statesmen. We continue to wonder exactly how many photos Karsh actually shot that day in Ottawa.
TRUE AND TRITE
NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1ST— Richard Toye’s biased and lopsided Churchill’s Empire (let off lightly in FH 147) continues to cast a trail of misinformation. In The New Yorker of August 30th, Adam Gopnik wrote a balanced account of the continuing interest in and new books about Churchill, which drew the following response from a reader in New Mexico:
“Adam Gopnik’s article on Winston Churchill glides over the damning portrait of Churchill’s turn-of-the-century exploits in Richard Toye’s Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made. It is hard to reconcile the Churchill who believed that ‘imperialism and progressivism were parts of the same package,’ and who lamented the death camps of the Holocaust, with the Churchill who dispatched hundreds of thousands of Kenyan Kikuyu, including President Obama’s grandfather, to torturous detention camps (‘Britain’s Gulag,’ in the words of the historian Caroline Elkins); who spoke of Indians as ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion,’ and who said that ‘the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.’ Churchill’s imperial vision reminds us that a reconsideration of his political principles must not be confined to the era that shaped his finest hour.”
To The New Yorker:
The allegation that the President’s grandfather was a Mau Mau rebel tortured by the British stems from a blogsite and/or Obama’s “Granny Sarah,” who also claimed that the President was born in Kenya. The Mau Mau rebellion didn’t begin until the end of 1952 (a year after Obama’s grandfather was proven innocent and released), and Churchill actually expressed sympathy for the Kenyan rebels. The parliamentary forms extant in India and developing in Kenya stem from the British rule your reader deplores. The “Aryan stock” quotation does not appear in Churchill’s canon. For better information than that provided by author Toye, he might want to rely on more balanced accounts, such as Arthur Herman (Gandhi and Churchill), who knows what Churchill really thought and did about India. —RML
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