We catch the tube and pop out of the underground at Hyde Park/Speakers Corner. In past centuries this is where the condemned would be hung before a jeering crowd. However, your last wish is granted and you are allowed to speak your mind, whether it be about the king or queen or about religion or politics.
This corner of Hyde Park is still a gathering spot for all manner of orators. On a positive note, nobody is hung here anymore. We choose to spend our last day in London at Speakers Corner and enjoy the crowd of people.
Early Sunday afternoon people start to show up some carrying soap boxes, some carrying step stools and step ladders. At any given time 6 to 10 different people are speaking on various topics and we get to choose to listen to those who might have an interesting topic.
We have just taken the subway (the tube) seven stops to get here and while traveling here we noticed the catatonic look on peoples faces, much like the big city indifference while waiting in an elevator. We fully understand the behavior, no eye contact and no interest in any subway passengers. This behavioral trait is universal in big cities throughout the world but at this subway stop called Hyde Park….things change. We pop up out of the subway underground into the cool and breezy October air of London. People are looking for engagement, people have an interest in what others are saying. Complete strangers engage with others in a wide assortment of topics. We are looking for people we have met here in past visits to this place, they are locals that enjoy this place.
Speakers Corner seems to serve a function in this beautiful city, this park is a societal pressure relief valve in a city of 9 million. All manner of people show up, Professors of Philosophy, Preachers, Sinners, learned and not so learned and even some mentally ill. Some espouse tolerance some espouse intolerance and everyone has an opinion that they are willing to share.
As the crowds gather we survey the situation and decide what looks interesting and take our stroll. We encounter a mullah thumping the Koran with all the passion necessary to gather a crowd of listeners and on lookers. A few steps farther down we encounter a anti-Darwinist from Texas wearing western hat and pants that praise Jesus. The crowds number in the hundreds but not thousands, its a chilly day and you really have to want to be here to spend more than an hour.
The orators find a spot that they feel comfortable and climb up on their makeshift podiums. All have heartfelt convictions and are not shy about offering them to the crowd. The crowd is also not the least bit shy and will question and heckle the speaker if they feel inspired to do so. The speaker will have to defend his postulation and at times they nearly get shouted down. Everyone here has a part to play, you can be a passive listener, you can be the heckler, you can be the speaker. It is not for the timid or faint of heart.
The Muslim is defending his Koran while some shout that it is the book of the devil. The Texas preacher is being taunted by an atheist that asks him….”are his prayers… thoughts with magic powers? “ We find ourselves listening to a rather polite Norwegian student that must be a geneticist. He is explaining to the Anti-Evolutionist how his logic is slightly flawed. He is bantered by the man on the step ladder and the dialogue goes on. Crowds cheer one and then the other, conversation goes on spontaneously though the crowd of people that previously would not look at each other on the subway. It is Londoners and out of towners getting together in a place that is acceptable to create dialogue with complete strangers. This is Speakers Corner….they would have it no other way!
Down toward the Marble Arch we see some younger adults getting up and speaking, it looks odd, because they have note cards? Oh, this is a big FAIL! nobody At Speakers Corner has note cards!! We walk over to find out that they are from the USA and I shout to ask them where they are from? Wisconsin, is the reply, it must be a college class trip. They have picked topics that they think are controversial. Alas, they are in London and not to many people care about gay rights anymore …..thats so old school and its history over here.
We’ve noticed that philosophy gets second billing to religion around here. Religious pride has been piqued over the past decade with the advent of numerous wars. More Bibles, more Korans, more burka’s than in past years, yet the crowd is amicable. Police casually stroll through the park looking for pick pockets. No matter how heated the debate, everyone has a modicum of respect for each other. It is London at its finest.
The arguments heat up and the speaker calls out one of his hecklers who has just turned to leave in disgust. He shouts “don’t leave here, answer me!” ”don’t let your emotions get in the way of your thoughts and judgement!” The man turns back around and they continue to debate. I am mindful that this is not part of the Univ. lecture circuit and the people that garner the biggest crowds tend to be the people with the loudest voices, but many people can vent and air their concerns.
We find that we have been bumping into a number of people that have been enjoying the same speakers as ourselves. Two of them are people with whom we share a common friend in London and the other four are from all over the world.
The sun is starting to set and we’ve spent the entire afternoon enjoying the cacophony of this special place. Its getting quite dark and yet we continue to visit with our new found friends, one is a soldier from Croatia, another from Algeria and the Saudi has his young children with him. They ask us where we are from and we proudly proclaim USA. The Algerian asks if he can ask me a question about my country and I warmly agree. He smiles and looks me in the eyes and says ”How would you feel if Muslims invaded your country and some of them brought Koran’s with them to convert your citizens? ” “we have been here thousands of years” I smile and realize that he has deeply held convictions regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”You disregard the United Nations, the very organization that ensures mutual trust throughout the world, you find nothing, no weapons of mass destruction.” ”You came in as cowboys and no regard for others!” Hmmm, this was a bit more than I had bargained for in the dark shadows of a park in inner city London. My country has good and honorable intentions and we can all find fault with each other, what do we have in common? He smiles and l see that he is not dangerous! We continue to exchange views on all manner of topics, each of us having our own heartfelt perspective. It is now completely dark and the crowds have disbursed and the cold has set in. The Saudi wants to introduce me to his children, they have never met an American. We are all cold and chilled to the bone, yet we are all confident in our exchanges with each other, they were warm and genuine. We exchange business cards and agree to meet here again sometime. Speakers Corner-2012-Bill Keitel