A Summer in the Park - Tony Allen

Review by Mark Garnet - The Times Literary Supplement

In May 2000, the seasoned stand-up comedian Tony Allen secured an Arts Council grant to attend meetings at Speakers' Corner. Part of his mission-statement was to act as "Advocate Heckler" on behalf of audience members who felt reluctant to speak for themselves. But he would heckle other speakers without trying to disrupt their meetings, in an attempt to reduce the level of confrontation.

Allen himself admits that his application was "playful" But when MPs are allowed more than £100,00 for expenses alone, his grant of £300 per week must be judged a sound investment. Allen went beyond harmonious heckling, and drew sizeable crowds with his own provocative oratory. His account of that summer is relentlessly readable and thought-provoking. It is an impassioned manifesto for authenticity and communication between human beings, against the encroachments of spin and alienation. There could hardly be a better advertisement for a tiny piece of London which is still an invaluable oddity of our unwritten consultation.

One might have expected that Speakers' Corner would decline in the face of "interactive" alternatives on the World Wide Web. But Allen believes that the old place is "in pretty good shape", and denies that it is primarily a forum for religious fanatics. To prove his point, he provides sparkling pen portraits of a cast of regular speakers that includes gifted and charismatic orators as well as crazies and cranks. Some of them, such as "St Paul" who attends that temple of conversation in order to stand in silence, have been fixtures for decades.

Allen's diary is suffused with affection, and not just for the people. As an anarchist, it is no surprise that he cherishes a public space whose denizens respect their own tacit understandings more than the official agents of public order. He is an insightful as well as an entertaining guide, honest about his own shortcomings and impartial in his judgements of fellow performers. But if his book has a weakness, it is the lack of a long-term historical perspective. For all his optimism and first-hand experience, it would be a miracle if the essence of Speakers' Corner had survived the onset of passive consumerism. Performance seems to take precedence over political content; and the whole spectacle is probably only tolerated for the sake of the tourists.

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