A Summer in the Park
Review by Dan Cull
“I may disagree with what they are saying but I’ll die for their right to interrupt and heckle each other while they’re saying it.” (Allen 2004 p. 118)
Walking into speaker corner I always find to be a bit of a treat, there is always a level of anticipation and excitement, and that nagging fear that the drunk homeless guy ranting into his can of spesh in the underpass below Marble Arch might be the most coherent argument you hear all day. Speakers corner; I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s the true cultural heart of London, you can forget your National Galleries, and British Museums, they’re all well and good, but to really get to the heart of London as a thinking, breathing, loud mouth, nutter, you really need to revel in the obscurantist thought and the bizarre mixture of religious fundamentalist, left and right wing radical, status quo defending, and just plain surreal ideas on display.
This book is by the stand-up comic Tony Allen, the book however focuses on his other role as an: ’advocate heckler, anarchist parasite, and mixed ability shaman’, it is based on diaries written during a summer speaking and heckling in speakers corner, with the aid (or possibly not) of an arts council grant. Although the book came out quite a few years ago, for some reason I have only just gotten around to reading it… which is a shame, as it is really very good.
The first section of the book is somewhat of a brief history of speakers corner, as well as introducing some of the ‘great and the good’ from the past 30 years or so of speakers corner, the book makes a case for this corner of Hyde park as being a long time space of speaking – noting that people used to gather in this space to listen to the last words of condemned men before their execution at the Tyburn Gallows, it was also the site of numerous rallies and riots throughout history, one of which apparently granted the area its ‘free speech zone’ status… something which is tenuous as speakers corner is actually policed, by a character known as “‘im on is ‘orse” and a band of other park police.
It is heckling that makes speaker corner what it is, a two way street of potential creative genius and potential random nuttiness, Allen is thankfully a master heckler, hence his arts council grant to be an “advocate heckler” for those who wish to heckle but cannot bring themselves to do it. A role he unfortunately only takes on sporadically throughout the summer. Allen’s heckling style is multifaceted, however, some of his best heckles follow from the idea of ”disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed” which is not a bad motto to follow. He starts each week by ‘warming up’ which involved heckling other speakers, some of his heckles are fantastic, his response to a fundamentalist christian castigating the crowd as sinners is to politely enquire; “Was it bad, what you did?” It is this sense of mischief that makes heckling at speakers corner so fun. It is said, and noted in wikipedia, that Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris all frequented speakers corner… I can just imagine a regular using the line “Hey Karl, why do you drink herbal tea”… although I somehow can’t imagine Marx responding with Tony Allen’s comic put down that: ”Not only is it a crap joke, it’s an old crap joke and what’s more is the original quotation is not Karl Marx but it is the anarchist philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon – ‘property is theft, property is liberty, property is impossible’. An elegant and witty paradox that resonates its subject matter. Unlike the crap pun your joke depended on.” (comic brilliance!) But you never know the old bearded guy may have had a sense of humour much lacking in many of his followers today!
Before warming up Allen usually visits “St Paul” a regular and speaker – of sorts – as he chooses to stand aside from the crowds in silence, so also a little bit of a character, he however shares his ‘thought for the day’ with Allen, before he heads of to warm up. I am sure these thoughts for the day when all added up have some meaning, but, alas like the author I have forgotten them shortly after discovering them. In many respects it is in the time Allen gives to introduce, and pass comment on, the many characters who inhabit speakers corner, that make this book more than a passing comment on comedic method or public speaking styles, in fact this coupled with the historical comments on speakers past, and the meaning and significance of the place make this book a significant record of the cultural epicentre of London. Moreover, the feeling of involvement in the general buzz of the place, and the reminiscent nature (for anyone who has gone to speakers corner) make this book so readable and enjoyable.
Dan Cull's Blog (includes video clips of Tony at Speakers' Corner)