Friday, October 12, 2007

London Journey: Part Eleven

September 30, 2007: Hyde Park, Speakers Corner:
An 1872 law made it legal to assemble an audience and address them on whatever topic you chose. Since then, [Speaker’s Corner] of Hyde Park has become the established venue for budding orators and a fair number of eccentrics…speakers from fringe groups and one-member political parties reveal their political plans for the betterment of humankind while assembled onlookers heckle them without mercy.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: London.

Some historians have referred to the telegraph system as the “Victorian Internet”. If this is so, then Speaker’s Corner, in Hyde Park, might be called “the Victorian Blogosphere”. For just as today, many of us cranks use our blogs as platforms for our political views and as a way to talk back to power, Speaker’s Corner seems to be very much the 19th Century equivalent. And, fortunately, the tradition is alive and well today.

While there are some in the United States who may try to hold forth in a public place, these people are generally overlooked…mistrusted by the crowds as being not only a little odd, but also just a tad bit crazy, and perhaps even physically dangerous by virtue of their perceived insanity.

At Speaker’s Corner, on the other hand, a fair number of people will wander by on a Sunday (the accepted day for speaking), and see what all the fuss is about. As the spirit moves them, they might even shout out an encouragement to the speaker, or offer an admonishment for wrong-headed thinking….just as we might leave a comment on another’s blog.

On Saturday, as I wandered through Hyde Park, Speaker’s Corner was my ultimate destination. It is a fairly quiet place for most of the week, but there was one gentleman who, apparently comes most days, stands on his soap box (or in this case, plastic crate) and says nothing all day. Then, he goes home.

I know this, because I got to sit in on a portion of a class for a group of Dutch college students. These young blonde men and women (well, they weren’t ALL blonde- but it was a photo finish) were apparently taking a course in public speaking. They were receiving a lesson from their teacher and one of the “regulars” on how to run a successful “meeting” at Speaker’s Corner.

Like their 21st Century counterpart, the blog, which measures its popularity in number of visits, a meeting is deemed successful by how many people it attracts to the speaker’s soap box.

Thus, the Dutch Students were being taught how to gather a crowd. “What’s your topic?” asked the teacher. “People should be happy,” replied one of the students. “Well, then, here you go….(the teacher stood up on the box he brought)….YOU SIR, YES, YOU! COME HERE, I WANT TO PUT A QUESTION TO YOU. ARE YOU HAPPY? TRULY HAPPY?” The whole thing was a bit like listing to a class for carnival barkers, but it was a lot of fun.

Other portions of the class dealt with the subject of handling hecklers. Anyone who has watched Prime Minister’s Question Time knows that the British tradition is not always one of deference to a speaker; in fact, political speakers here are often interrupted by cheers from their friends, and boos, hisses, and rude and witty comments from their enemies. Bringing more friends to your meeting than enemies was the VERY BEST piece of advice I heard on the subject, and one that I devotedly hope that Democrats will heed in the next presidential election.

It was shear luck that I happened to blunder into the class, but it helped me appreciate the happenings the following day much more.

The next day, Sunday, I once again walked up to Hyde Park, and made my way to Speaker’s Corner. As I approached, there was no mistaking that this was the day…the empty spaces of yesterday were filled with spectators today, and signs and banners advertised the topics being addressed.

There were socialists…

…and the Right Wing religious fringe was out in force….

One lady, speaking on behalf of social justice for the poor, put me in mind, by her fiery demeanor and slightly old-fashioned appearance, of Mrs. Pankhurst and her Suffragettes, disturbing the peace at the beginning of the last Century, agitating for Votes for Women.

By far the most agitated meeting, drawing the largest crowd, was held by a man in traditional Moslem dress. It was hard to understand what his point was, since it was very hard for him to get a word in edgewise against the crowd, but it seemed to be very basic: you can’t keep Islam down.

Of course, there was an Angry American in the crowd- who took issue with the role of “peace” in Islam: “If that’s true, then explain the many despicable acts of terrorism that have been committed in the name of your religion…not only 9-11, but in Spain, England, Africa…”

But it wasn’t just the Angry American trying to howl down the fiercely proud speaker; before he could answer the Angry American, he was interrupted again by an Angry Englishman: “Why don’t you join the Modern World? Get your self some modern clothes. Your religion is only about persecuting women!”

It wasn’t simply a racial dispute, however, because in this sentiment, the Angry Englishman was joined by the Angry Jamaican who urged the speaker to get a pair of jeans or something, and then loudly lamented that, because of Moslem terrorism, he (the Jamaican, no longer felt safe riding the tube to work every morning.

While all of this was going on, the crowd debated amongst itself the true nature of Islam while the speaker’s voice sailed out over the crowd, warning that Islam would not be trampled upon by the west. To add the final note to this cacophony, an Angry Caribbean lady scurried through the crowd, bellowing out to the speaker that, unless his gave up his wicked, heretical ways, there would be no future for him, because Christ was Lord.

Across the walk, all the Blonde Dutch Students had arrived and were delivering their messages to a much more quiet meeting…British (and Australian and American) passers-by stopped to listen as the Dutch made their radical claims that it is nice to be nice to people and that we should take a little time to get to know our neighbor: mine was the fellow from Down Under- and we both agreed that we knew of no similar tradition of public speaking in our respective corners of the English Speaking world.

Oddly enough, despite the somewhat overly-wholesome nature of the discourse, everybody at their meeting WAS polite, and none of the students or their allies in the crowd needed to resort to the cries of “shame” and “quiet” and “go start your own meeting, then, if you’ve got so much to say” that they had been taught the previous day.

Although I had no idea that such a place existed before I consulted my guide book, I was very glad that I had a chance to see Speaker’s Corner in action. It wasn’t so much that the discourse was important in and of itself: like so much of what we write feverously in our Blogs, a great deal of it was recycled sentiment puffed up with an excess of hot air. What struck me, rather that this was one of the most vibrant monuments to the power of human expression that I’ve ever had a chance to see…exhibiting the notion, so ingrained in our own (American) Democracy (so ingrained in fact, that we often forget it) that not only can ideas be powerful, but that the individuals who wish to endeavor to express those ideas should be protected and allowed to prattle on about anything they choose, because, in and amongst all the weeds, now and again, something truly marvelous might just spring up- providing only that it is allowed to live to see the sun.

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