By Ishmael Annobil

If you strayed into Hyde Park’s famous Speakers Corner and had no knowledge of its history, you might mistake it for a mere religious parley suffused with jesters and cranks. Forgive me, but you’d be actually watching a sweet vestige of British democracy, and its inherent checks and balances, at work. It lacks perfection, its grates often, and it infuriates, but it still embraces all peoples and ideas.

Admittedly, the agenda has shifted somewhat in recent years. It has moved on from the lofty idealism of the epoch straddling the last two great wars, and the formative years before. There isn’t the spectacle of Cromwell’s cadaver hanging up in a cage to discourage republicanism, no William Morris, George Orwell, the Suffragettes or Marcus Garvey. No Karl Marx or Fredrick Engels assaying the mood of the hoi polloi for future treatises on social organisation. And there is no one to take up the mantle left by the venerable Lord Soper, the Methodist Minister and peer, whose legendary oratory on serious social matters jolted consciences from 1942 till his death in 1998.

Today we have Christians, Jews and Moslems and composites of all three foaming at the mouth, haranguing and parrying their public like medieval knights on some old world hustings. There is also a loss of innocence in this hallowed place; things seem too organised at times –Islamic speakers arrive with their bearded guard that specialises in sizing up photographers with the dredging eyes of paranoia. Theirs is almost always a comparative rather than resolving exercise. Then there are the Christian advocates with their air of forcible humility, which invariably turns their messages into mere murmur. It’s a battle between the plain rude versus the obsequious. The rude wins but falters on refined principles.

If war were a unifying force, then it has failed to do its job at Speaker’s Corner. Moslem speakers here tend to speak only for Moslem countries– never against –, making it awkward for a non-Moslem to join them. It’s all there in their speeches, mannered as though to keep out “infidels”(it’s a personal matter, not a global one). Their foot soldiers, too, make out they are an elite order paving the way for the pure to enter heaven. To make up for it, the others take to ‘political protest’, a form that neutralises religious difference. There are no firm meeting grounds or comprehensive debates in evidence anymore.

Nowadays, soap boxes are placed far apart from each other, never side by side or opposite each other, because each speaker wishes to divide and rule. For balance, the audience has to shift from one disparate speech to disparate speech. And so the delirium continues. But the tendency for highfalutin discourse is still here. On a good day, you’ll hear glimpses of it here and there. But it is mostly muddled by sophism and reckless debate. The more fanatical the speech, the less intellect it displays. But thank God for the jesters and harlequins in the midst. They are the Avant Garde of oratory. They hold forth deliberately on tenuous premises, invariably coaxing the audience to retort for the sake of its sanity. And soon we have a pantomimic sideshow that overshadows the fervour of the religious.

That is not to say the sideshow is wholly studious; there are apparent psychiatric and quixotic symptoms on display, too, which makes it all the more exciting. Interestingly, though, the ‘odd-balls’ are the only people holding on to tradition, the art of attrition that, if cleverly executed, would make even the sanest person doubt their own sanity. It is deliberate schizophrenia; it is a mesmerising art form.

There is for instance the Asian speaker who advocates war and famine on the grounds that the world’s resources are too limited to support us all. He wears a hat with three horns, two red ones and a middle one that arc back like a harlequin’s. He is obviously a deft symbolist who knows and understands his chosen role well. There is also the old West-Indian Afro-futurist who insists on the natural superiority of the African, drawing on historical precedent and fact, including the true identity of The Christ. He is a near replica of Miles Davis in his later years, decked as he always is in Afro regalia and dragonfly shades.

Somewhere in the melee is the watchful presence of a Marcus Garvey apparition, dressed to the nines in a manner suggesting a eureka of consciousness. Cosmopolitanism, that is. is kilt, long hoses (no, pink tights and longs socks), necktie and impressive white hair command your attention. His quiet acquiescence beside any speaker makes you suspect he is the sponsor, merely watching over and breaking in his acolyte for the future.

As if for a resolution of all stances, there is the Judeo-Christian Jew, who wears the emblems of the two religions on vantage points of his clothes and he professes Jesus’ Judaism and vice versa. He receives the loudest upbraids from listeners for his avowals about heaven and hell, and yet he declaims feverishly, baiting people, ducking questions, his intelligent eyes hardly darting from the fevered attacks. For good measure, he occasional presses home his Messianic authority: “How can I save you from damnation if you continue denying the Lord?”

The uncultured would call this eccentric or even nonsensical. But who cares, this is political heaven for the truly liberated mind. It overrides the censored or self-censored agenda of television. It is the true escape valve of Britain, and it is just lovely to see it at work. Shame, however, that Speaker’s Corner is an actual corner. Beautiful Hyde Park could offer more of its acreage for this noble cause. It could even decide to wait on it with an alfresco restaurant and stalls and, if truly eager, it could throw a ‘poets corner’ into the mix.

In the meantime, Speakers Corner needs something special to rejuvenate it: an open-air discussion between Tony Benn and Rev Jesse Jackson, for instance? For it is obvious this hallowed place is dying on its feet.

Photos by Ishmael Fiifi Annobil

Graphic Design by Ishmael Annobil/  Web Development by Ruzanna Hovasapyan