This article was first published in Time Out in 2006. I am posting it after hearing about Sounds from the Park, a partnership between On the Record and Bishopsgate Institute that is hoping to record an oral history of Speakers’ Corner. Photos by Chris Kennett.
This London curiosity grew out of revolt, when Edmund Beales led the Reform League to Hyde Park in 1866 to complain about the lack of a vote for working men. The marchers were blocked from entering the park by police and a small but interesting riot developed. The Reform League continued to meet at Marble Arch to test their right to hold public meetings in the park. In 1872, the government relented and granted the right to assembly and free speech in this corner of Hyde Park. The Met promptly responded by turning Marble Arch into a tiny police station to keep an eye on the rabble below.
On a sunny Sunday in October, the rabble are out in force with a dozen speakers taking their spots, espousing black power, Islamism, Christian atheism and much else that is vocal but indeterminable. The two largest crowds gather directly opposite each other on either side of the path. One is engaged in raucous religious debate, slinging insults about the Koran and Bible back and forth, and occasionally taking time out from happily lambasting each other to heckle the speakers, a Christian, a secularist and a Muslim, who each take their turn upon the platform. It’s the sort of ferocious debate about Islam and freedom that the newspapers tell us we don’t dare have in public. Across the way, a striking young man has drawn a larger but less vocal crowd to hear him eloquently espouse familiar but fervent criticism of the Iraq War.
Nikolai Segura has been coming to Speakers’ Corner on-and-off for seven years, and then on a weekly basis for the last 12 months, during which time he’s become one of the Corner’s regular hecklers. ‘I’ve been heckling for a year,’ he says. ‘It makes a show for the crowd, but it also sends the message that this is a place that exemplifies freedom of speech.’
A couple of weeks ago he was heckling a speaker when ‘some Muslims came up to me and said there were extremists in the park who would kill me for what I was saying,’ he says. Segura’s response was bold. He has returned to the park wearing a Muhammad-baiting T-shirt (‘There’s a picture of the prophet on the back of this shirt… only kidding [please don’t kill me])’, and today he gets on the stepladder to speak himself for the first time. The resulting debate is ferocious, spiteful and fascinating.
Religious debate has been a feature of Speakers’ Corner since before it even existed – many of those executed at nearby Tyburn were Catholics, who used their final speech to try to convert the crowd . But the unmistakable change in overall tone from political to theological – the ‘three Abrahamic religions shouting at each other’ as Segura puts it – was first noticed by speaker Terminator 24 [T24] 25 years ago.
‘It’s changed a lot,’ he says. ‘During the Cold War it was a lot of social democrats, trade unionists, socialists and many intellectuals. But after 1979 international relations affected Speakers’ Corner and the revolution in Iran saw a change. It became more aggressive, more religious. And after 1989 there were even fewer universal, social democratic presentations and more nationalism and fundamentalism. It mirrors how the world changes.’
Heiko Koo, who runs the Speakers’ Corner website, believes the debate there is genuine. ‘All speakers get information from each other and people in the audience and from the internet, so ideas and theories get spread around and I’ve seen them change the mind of some speakers,’ he says.
T24, like Segura, started in the crowd before progressing up the ladder. ‘I came here and started to ask questions, and the speakers were very abusive, so I thought: That’s not the way; if I were speaking, I would not be oppressive and tyrannical. Now, when I talk, I leave it open, without judgment, express a thought and let others join in. It’s unique, very special here. I love being with real people, seeing their expressions, their laughter, their frustrations and anger. I love it here. The open space, it’s free and,’ a pause for effect, and to have a swig of coke, ‘I have nothing else to do.’
Sounds from the Park is organising a reminiscence event at the Bishopsgate Institute on 8th December for everyone with memories of Speakers’ Corner.
Sadly, it is not what it once was :).
Great piece, Watts. I used to go quite regularly with my piano teacher, a Trotskyite from Bombay who was a regular at Speakers Corner and and a hilarious heckler. In the mid 1980s, when I first went, it was split between religious nuts and political nuts 50/50 (possibly 60/40 at a push). There were also just random guys talking about philosophy, getting into huge ontological debates. The last few times I went it was entirely religious. Which is a pity. I miss the kindly SPGB guy, the anarcho-syndicalists, the hardline tankies and the eccentric animal rights activists. I even miss the posh Thatcherite libertarians and the right-wing anarchists.
Incidentally, I recently had an argument with some idiot who claims that Speakers Corner has been shut down because of EU directives. I’m not sure where this rumour has come from.