A Summer in the Park - Tony Allen
Review by Kevin McCarron
A Summer in the Park is, for the most part, a journal kept by Tony Allen covering the period June 4th 2000 to October 16 2000, detailing his experiences at Speakers' Corner. I have seen Tony Allen at Speakers' Corner several times myself and while nothing can match watching him handling up to six hecklers at once, this book does succeed admirably in evoking Allen's unique style as a speaker. In addition, the book is just as successful in evoking the slightly mad, febrile atmosphere of Sundays at Speakers' Corner. The book is divided into two parts: the first section of the book offers a concise history of Speakers' Corner from its inception in 1866, and also interweaves Allen's own experiences throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as a street theatre performer, political activist and stand up comedian into a unique survey of Speakers' Corner during this period. Allen has unearthed some rare photographs of some of the most charismatic and influential speakers of the past three decades: Robert Ogilvy, Paul Hunt, Yorkshire Dave, Ubi Dwyer, Lord Donald Soper, Jim Huggon, Roy Sawh and Barry Roberts. Underneath each photograph Allen offers an evaluation; not always unequivocally enthusiastic, but always shrewd and fair-minded: `While never a big fan of the late Lord Donald Soper, I regularly listened in on the patronising old cleric and must have learned something, watching him deal with all-comers and doggedly dragging the meeting back to its theme' (20).
Although thoroughly versed in the history of Speakers' Corner, Allen is refreshingly unsentimental about its past and strongly up beat about its present state; `the truth is that Speakers' Corner in the year 2000 is in pretty good shape' (12). To support this assertion Allen, characteristically generous in his evaluation of his peers, and, rightly in my view, notes that the three most interesting speakers: Heiko Khoo, Ishmahil Blagrove and Yusef, are all under forty and speak on very different platforms. In addition, he notes that the personable and engaging Martin Besserman is the best entertainer to appear at Speakers' Corner in generations.
The second part of the book is made up of Allen's Journal itself. Employing the same colloquial, intimate style he employed in his previous book Attitude, Allen recounts his experiences at Speakers' Corner over the summer of 2000. In some ways, however, the word `Journal' is misleading as Allen's writing is often amusingly indifferent to conventional notions of structure and could hardly be described as linear. Instead, a particular speaker or event will remind him of an earlier experience, so that the Journal itself moves across several decades. Significantly, however, Allen's central preoccupations remain constant throughout the decades: America, property, and, most importantly, work, or, to be precise, the evils of work. Strikingly, as is also the case in Attitude, Allen's primary concern when evaluating his own experiences as a speaker, as well as those of his peers, is on performance; `But the best technique I ever witnessed, which cleverly manipulated the hecklers onto the speaker's agenda, came from a youngish professorial Indian speaker' (19). It is always technique, delivery, the nuances of performance that are dearest to Allen's heart. He can remain indifferent to a speaker's subject matter, but will always analyse the way they interact, or don't, with an audience.
He is ruthlessly honest about his mistakes and invariably amusing at his own expense: `When I start again, I never really get into my stride. The first thing I do is ask if anyone's got an asprin. At least three people start heckling and calling me a hypocrite because of my slagging off of the drugs companies recently and how I said all our medicinal needs could be grown organically in the garden. 'Take a couple of organic tulips.' (129)
However, Allen is also engagingly immodest about his own abilities, which are, take it from me, considerable: `One thing about me that I love is, I rise to the occasion. All I need is a cheering crowd and to be vaguely in the right, and I'm there ' I'm on it. I just automatically go for it. I'm excellent value on demos' (53). And later `At last they're heckling. For a moment there, I thought I was being too charismatic for my own good' (136).
There are very few stand-up comedians who would not benefit from reading this book. Because of his insistence on the crucial aspect of performance itself, as opposed to content, Allen has much to say of value to any comedian. He is particularly shrewd on the repetition involved in being a stand-up comedian, noting that while stand-up can give the impression of being wholly, or for the most part, improvised, in reality very little is spontaneous and it is only the potential for spontaneity that exists. This suits many performers, but is anathema to Allen himself. He quite rightly observes of himself that he is an inconsistent stand-up, but it is interesting to note that the primary reason he gives for this inconsistency is, unusually, but characteristically for Allen, moral; `I couldn't hack the fundamental deceit involved in presenting only a semblance of spontaneity. At Speakers' Corner it's impro [improvisation] central. I can be spontaneous all the time. All I have to do is be alert and up for it, and not prepare a set text' (93). This is, of course, the reason Allen welcomes hecklers, about whom he writes with a penetration born out of decades of experience. Like most good acts Allen is always happy to acknowledge the contribution a witty and apposite heckle makes to a performance, but is also aware that beery interjections can destroy the hard fought for symbiosis that exists between performer and audience.
Overall, Allen's vocabulary throughout the Journal emphasises his understanding of the unique performance dynamics of Speakers' Corner. He begins his book by noting that up until 1783 people gathered at the Tyburn Gallows, situated at the junction of Edgware Road and Oxford Street, to witness public executions and to hear the last 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 at Speakers' Corner. His own book is suffused with the vocabulary of aggression; he constantly employs words and phrases such as `gladiatorial', `bout', `hit and run snipers', `knock out', `take no prisoners', `ko'd' and numerous other evocations of violence. His lexicon is entirely appropriate to his subject, and I can imagine few readers who will not find much to admire and relish in Allen's courageous exploration of this most peculiarly English institution.