Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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London’s Historical Depths

A two hour stroll around the City and the East End covers a multitude of things. I started on the canals, which provide a fantastic network of cycle and pedestrian friendly routes around the city. There’s been a lot of building along the Regent’s Canal since I last went along it towards Islington. Much of it is fairly generic canalside apartments, but some are more architecturally interesting than others. My favourite, though, is still the place on the right of this picture, which has been around at least since I moved back to London 10 years ago.


A bit further on, as I was going through the backstreets to the south of Shoreditch Market, I came across The Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor, built in 1902. Image

The building has been converted into expensive flats now, but is a reminder of the vastly multicultural background of this area and of London as a whole – something a lot of politicians would rather forget. The Soup Kitchen is within spitting distance of the site of one of Jack the Ripper’s murders, now the site of a rather hideous 1960s multistorey car park.

The whole experience of walking around London looking at the buildings can be summed up in this image, taken on a previous wander.


This one picture encompasses nearly a thousand years of architecture, from the Erotic Gherkin 30 St Mary Axe building to St Helen’s Bishopsgate, a church that dates back to the 11th century. I know of few places in the world where ancient and modern rub shoulders so effectively. There’s a lot of history in that single image. IN just the last century the area has been bombed by the Kaiser, Hitler and the IRA. In fact the Gherkin probably wouldn’t have been built without some unscheduled explosive demolition.

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Peter the Painter

Following my earlier post about the Sydney Street Siege, I got a comment asking about Peter the Painter. Interestingly neither of my anecdotal London history books (Ackroyd’s Biography of London, and Iain Sinclair’s even more eclectic London the Anthology) seem to have anything to say about him or the Siege itself. Fortunately there are plenty of resources online, and it is an interesting tale, the conclusion of which is still far from clear…

Peter the Painter was also known as Peter Piatkow (and a variety of other spellings) and was the leader of the Latvian gang behind the siege and the Houndsditch murders that preceded it. After the siege, one of the arrested gang members, Yakov Peters, was identified as Peter the Painter. Peters was tried but acquitted, and later went on to become one of the founders and Cheka after the Russian Revolution. He even took over the organisation for a period when Dzerzhinsky had briefly resigned. He led a number of violent repressions against allegedly counter-revolutionary forces, but was eventually purged himself and executed in 1938, only to be posthumously pardoned in 1956.

However, there are other candidates for the true identity of Peter the Painter. These include Gederts Eliass, a Latvian artist involved in the 1905 revolution there and living in exile in London at the time of the siege. He was identified as Peter the Painter by the historian Philip Ruff after research in the KGB archives. More recently, Ruff has identified a second person as Peter the Painter: Janis Zhaklis, another exiled Latvian revolutionary. Zhaklis and Eliass in fact worked together on a bank robbery in Finland.

The true identity of Peter the Painter, and what became of him after the Sydney Street Siege, is still far from clear. I guess that’s another thing you can say about history in the East End. It might come up and mug you on the street, but it dashes away and hides in the fog as soon as you try to get a handle on it.


Walking through history

One of the things I like about living in the East End of London is that history has a tendency of mugging you in the street.

Not so long ago, I visited Wilton’s Music Hall, the last remaining East End music hall and much more besides. Some of you will have seen it used in the most recent Sherlock Holmes movie, for example. Then, on Friday, at a talk by Will Palin, I heard about the Lost Squares of Stepney, and found that Wilton’s is on the edge of one of them.

On Sunday, during a walk to Canary Wharf, I found myself on Sydney Street, famous for the Sidney Street Siege of 1911, where a group of Latvian anarchist armed jewel thieves were tracked to their lair. They held off 200 armed policemen thanks to their superior weaponry. The Home Secretary of the time, Winston Churchill, had just called in the army for artillery support, when a fire broke out in the building. Churchill stopped the fire brigade going in, and waited for the robbers to emerge. They never did, and two of them were later found dead inside.

Their leader, Peter the Painter, was never captured, and the other remaining members of the gang all had charges dropped or convictions quashed, with the original killings ascribed to those who had died in the fire. Peter the Painter went on to have something of an anti-hero reputation in the East End.

As I walked down Sydney Street I found that the local council had named two new buildings to recall the siege.


Siege House is next door to Painter House, which has a nice plaque detailing some of the history.


And, just as a footnote, on my way to Sydney Street I walked past the Blind Beggar, another place of criminal repute in the East End, but also deeply linked to the founding of the Salvation Army.

The history is so thick round here you fall over it.


A double dose of English Insanity

There’s always been an odd thread of eccentric insanity running through english, and probably british, culture. Two things over the past few days have served to remind me of this. Firstly was a trip to the Lord Mayor’s Show in London on Saturday, encouraged by the presence of one of my upstairs neighbours on one of the floats. The LMS happens once a year to inaugurate the new Lord Mayor of London. This is a ceremonial post, unlike the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the incumbent spends much of their time promoting London as an all round good place. It’s an ancient title, dating back to 1189, and the show dates back to 1535. It’s an opportunity for the various ancient guilds of the City of London and more modern organisations like banks, charities and the British armed forces to strut their stuff.

The variety of this strutting is quite incredible. The military bands do what they do very well, and give a formal, uniformed, gravity to the proceedings, but many of the other displays serve to wonderfully undermine this.


I’ve no idea what these guys were up to.


Or theres, but I like their style.


But the giant inflatable rib of beef from the butchers of Spitalfields was right out there!

Now you know where the people who came up with the London Olympics opening ceremony got their initial training.

My second dose of insanity was this evening, as I walked across Hyde Park listening to the first in the new series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. People who know this radio show will know why I was happily giggling to myself in public. Those who don’t have something to look forward to.

I doubt this radio show would do well in any other country, or that it could easily be explained.

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Amanda Palmer

For once a post that’s not about astronomer!

Last night I went to the Amanda Palmer gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. It was amazing! I haven’t been to see live music for ages and I can tell this is something that has to change. My only real complaint is that since it was almost entirely standing only and I’m not the tallest of people I ended up having to stand on my toes and peer around people’s heads to see the stage.

But the music was great, the performance was incredible, and the evening went off very well.

And Amanda even has a blog from which I learnt that she was staying with people I know! It’s a small world…