For years Tony Allen has joined the likes of Surreal Ali and Preacher Parsons in haranguing the masses in Hyde Park. Here, he describes a typically weird wet Sunday afternoon at Speakers' Corner
Tony Allen - The Guardian Friday 3 December 2004
It's a very dull day and there's a drop of drizzle in the wind as I cycle into Hyde Park. In my pannier bag I've got a two-litre bottle of still water; bungee-strapped to my back is an aluminium decorators' ladder with a board attached bearing the legend Tony Allen - Advocate Heckler, Anarchist Parasite, Mixed Ability Shaman. It's 2pm on Sunday afternoon and I'm headed for Speakers' Corner.
Speakers' Corner is situated at the north-east tip of Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London. Because of its low status, peculiar social history and free admission, it resembles something that might have evolved from bare-knuckle boxing or cock-fighting. The truth is even more macabre. Up until 1783, people gathered at the Tyburn Gallows - junction of Edgware Road and Oxford Street - to witness public executions and listen to the final words of condemned men. The right of public assembly inside the park was established as a result of riots in 1866 and ever since people have gathered here to talk, listen, chat, argue and speak their piece. The legacy is a unique culture of licence and familiarity which allows complete strangers to fall into conversations that might just as easily result in a profound communion as a heated slanging match. While not an exclusively male domain, over 90% of the speakers and regulars are men and the proportion of one-off visitors and tourists is still over 60% male. Public speaking, like stand-up comedy, is a predominantly male form - pushy, up-front and potentially penetrating. I am aware that what follows may seem like the goings-on at a bizarre downmarket gentlemen's club.
Of the many thousands who come and go each Sunday, hundreds are long-term denizens and of them more than 40 will be regular speakers. At any given time, at least a dozen of them can been seen and heard striving to engage the endlessly shifting population, with everything from calls to revolution to warnings of personal damnation. For as long as I can remember, grumpy cynics have dismissed Speakers' Corner as an overpoliced, cheap tourist attraction, while woolly liberals celebrate a long-standing bastion of free speech. I'm local, I could argue that it's both, either or neither.
Despite the weather there's still a fair turnout - at least 500 people with plenty of speakers. I make a brief diversion into the original speaking area to exchange nods with Paul Hunt - St Paul, who, surprisingly, is talking to a group of backpackers. After 20 years as a successful speaker, Paul fell silent in the mid-1990s and since then has spent his Sunday afternoons standing alone, hardly speaking more than a sentence to anyone. Now it would appear he has shelved his dictum that "Speakers' Corner is full of people with nothing to say, speaking to those who are not listening" and decided to give the rest of humanity another chance. Well, he has picked a crap day for it.
As I pass by Born-Again Diane, a severe middle-aged cherub and the only woman speaker to consistently hold large meetings, she is warning a dozen bewildered tourists to "Beware! London contains the scum of the Earth!" In two hours' time, 50, maybe 100 or more of those so-called scum will gather in front of her and, with varying degrees of irony, confess their sins for the dubious pleasure of hearing her verbal chastisement.
Opposite her, Surreal Ali stands on a large toolbox draped in a six-foot British union flag. He entertains a crowd of 30 by reading letters from the housing benefit office mixed with improvised gibberish; behind him are a range of slogans daubed in crayon on A2 cardboard - "Born Free But Dying in Chains", "Ethnocentrism Sucks", "Patriarchy is a Weapon of Social Mass Dysfunction" and "Anglophobia is Global Terror". Ali is only too willing to explain each one publicly and in great detail. In fact, virtually everything about Ali is calculated to provoke discussion. A car horn and a joke-shop plastic dog turd hang from his belt. He wears a crash helmet with two red devil's horns either side of a 12in curled tusk, which he once assured me was a "Terminator T24", whatever that is.
Suddenly I am waylaid by someone I later learn to be Preacher Parsons, one of the Hyde Park Christians, easily recognised by their long, heavy-duty plastic waistcoats worn on top of overcoats and emblazoned with bold block capital warnings about the wages of sin. He has urgent news to tell me, which, I know immediately from his manner, has nothing do with Baby Jesus or my salvation. "Police brutality!" he says. "Unprovoked violence!" he continues. "Britain's war dead!" he goes on - far from finished. "Good afternoon," I say, calmly and purposefully. "You must be my two o'clock ... do you mind if I get off my bike before I start the consultation?" He rants at me again and I tell him to go away. People laugh sympathetically; I'm clearly not the first person he has accosted. He won't leave me alone until he has given me a leaflet.
I park my bike and set up my ladder by the railings under a plane tree close to a group of regulars presided over by Wordsmith William (so called because he once wrote a book review and also so as not to confuse him with Pathologist William, who's a pathologist; Seated William, who brings his own portable chair; or Jesus William, who believes he is the living Messiah). William is standing on a plastic baker's tray; he is the chair of the meeting rather than its speaker. I join them and I ask about Preacher Parsons and the police. Eric answers with an anecdote of his own.
Eric is neither a blank-eyed paranoid nor a dangerous revolutionary, so I believe him when he tells me that he too was intimidated by the police on Remembrance Sunday and that a young officer was following him everywhere he went - including, at one point, all the way to the toilet under the traffic island and back again. I share his puzzlement as to why they should pick on him. Eric shrugs an end to the matter. Not because it's not important, but because there are other things to discuss: Venezuela, Colombia and who really killed Margaret Hassan?
Eric is a regular at the corner, in his early 60s, a serious politico and lateral thinker; he sports a modest handlebar moustache and is a lot more radical than he might appear. He rejects the term conspiracy theorist, preferring conspiracy factualist; and to his credit most of the wacky information I glean from him and the members of this little alfresco thinktank invariably end up as political parlance. At first I didn't believe that the Bush family and the Bin Laden family both had shares in the same group of oil companies; or that the Saudi Royal family had lavished billions of dollars on the city of Houston, Texas, home of the Bush dynasty; or that Peter Mandelson and the Duke of Edinburgh were both lizards from the planet Bildertharg. But now I know different.
I take my customary wander round the other meetings to warm up with a bit of heckling before I speak and to check the newcomers to see if there's anyone of interest. The wiser ones don't leave it as late as this - things get more difficult throughout the day. There's not a drink, drugs or noisy-neighbour problem at Speakers' Corner, but it's possible to encounter shades of all of them the later it gets; the day's events tending to culminate in a sort of hecklers' convention around dusk.
There's more action than usual around the meeting of Preacher Parsons. A young woman is distributing leaflets; there are posters being displayed, a petition to sign and the whole story of "Remembrance Service Opposed by Police Aggression" is documented in a poster in front of the preacher's lectern. In brief: Police Officer 616 told Preacher Parsons to "move on" just as he was about to conduct his annual two-minutes' silence for Remembrance day. The police reasoning was that the old soldiers' march from the cenotaph would be using the route in about an hour's time. When Parsons asked for a few minutes' grace the cop pushed him off his plinth, luckily one of his flock broke his fall. Or "In a selfless act a Christian female Gospel Tract giver threw her body against the falling speaker's metal platform and helped the preacher from plunging headlong to the ground." It sez 'ere.
3pm. I meet up with Bob the Poet and a sidekick and they update me on their recent exploits with the anarcho-goings-on Beyond the European Social Forum. They've joined Circa (the Clandestine Insurrectionist Rebel Clown Army). Apparently, about 50 of these scruffy red-nosed, baggy-trousered ones recently went on a gentle rampage through McDonald's in Leicester Square, from where they were ejected only to become the brief but aimless centre of attraction on the red carpet outside the film premiere of Johnny Depp's new movie, Finding Neverland. Then, by pure serendipity, they spotted members of another street-theatre tribe also in search of a narrative - the ironically named Pro-Capitalist Pinstripes, whom they had previously met at a stage-fighting workshop. Nuff said - let battle commence. Fifteen minutes later, with the stretch-limos waiting in the wings and west-end crowds applauding, they are still rolling around stage-fighting, only now both sides are pulling their punches against a very confused constabulary. I missed all the fun by going on holiday.
Since 9/11 (or, as Cockney Geoff would have it, the Twin Tower Twatting) and the subsequent retaliatory invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Speaker's Corner, with its large Arab and Islamic contingents, has become a much more urgent and lively place. Like most other speakers, each week I spend most of my time here discussing the war in Iraq. To my mind, black radical Ishmahil Blagrove has one of the best takes on the subject, and is currently the most successful speaker - even in the winter months he can pull crowds of 200-plus and hold them for hours.
3.30pm. There has been a break in the weather and there are more people in the park. Ishmahil has a white American tourist on the back foot - questioning his support for a war that hardly acknowledges, let alone keeps count of the Iraqi death toll, and where poor black soldiers and poor white soldiers are dying needlessly at the bidding of the US war machine. Ishmahil makes the pertinent point that if America's real intention was to spread freedom and democracy to the countries of the Middle East, why didn't they start by introducing it first to their friends in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain? As his arguments are shot down in flames, the American interloper backs out of the meeting, fumbling the words of his parting shot. Derisive laughter follows him.
4pm. I reclaim my ladder from Cockney Geoff, who has been amusing regulars by swearing at tourists in my name. "Why did the Americans vote for Bush?" I ask loudly and rhetorically, and quickly answer, "Because they believe you should never change horses in mid-Apocalypse." The dozen people listening all laugh. It's a good start, but to be honest it goes downhill from there.
By 5.30pm it's dark and I'm standing under a solitary street light, losing the plot in front of a rowdy rabble of 40-odd. Arch heckler Cynical James is directly beneath me sniping - the boring pedant. Also, some larky newcomer with a permanent grin, wearing a teddy-bear glove puppet on one hand and a Lion King glove puppet on the other, is poised to strike again. Already he has raised his anthropomorphic mittens and demanded the "bear truth" and insisted on "no lion", and I just know he's got plenty more daft puns where they came from. I've had enough. I decide to finish with a flourish by plugging the forthcoming Anarchist Bookfair Cabaret, where myself and a bunch of fellow artists will be spending the day performing, doing readings and selling fair-trade products (mostly books and CDs). "Next Saturday ..." I shout with as much authority, diction and charisma as I can muster. "Is International Buy Nothing Day!" comes a voice from the back, completing my sentence. And he's right, of course: I remember supporting it last year. "Bollocks," I say, and adjourn to the pub.
- The Guardian Friday 3 December 2004
Why did the Guardian G2 Editor Aida Edemariam cut the last 5 words from the following?
'As his arguments are shot down in flames the American interloper backs out of the meeting fumbling the words of his parting shot to the derisive laughter of those around him. Now there's a prophetic metaphor.'
Her motive was that she had to save space - although a full page picture of Tony appeared with article.
A Summer in the Park Reviews
Guardian - William Cook
New Statesman - Mark Thomas
Freedom - William Briggs
Ready Steady Book - Stuart Watkins
The Times Literary Supplement - Mark Garnet
Amazon -Readers' Reviews