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Sounds From the Park: An Oral History of Speakers’ Corner

Sound and some fury

Sounds From the Park – An Oral History of Speakers’ Corner. Bishopsgate Institute exhibition (till 30 April), London, with associated free booklet, website and local radio broadcast.

Partly financed through the Heritage Lottery Fund, this is an attempt to explore and record the open-air speaking and debating forum that arose at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, from the late nineteenth century onwards.  The project makes the point that open-air speaking is something of a dying art, and Speakers’ Corner is arguably the last example of it, certainly in the UK.

The right to meet and speak freely in Hyde Park was enshrined in the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 and it has been a popular venue for political protest and debate ever since. As the booklet explains, ‘between 1885 and 1939 there were around 100 open-air meetings every week in London alone. After the Second World War they gradually disappeared, in parallel with the rise of radio and television, leaving Speakers’ Corner as the sole survivor’.

The project involved interviewing speakers, hecklers and regular visitors past and present. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the project is that there are very few audio or visual clips of the speakers themselves speaking or dealing with hecklers in the Park, and the material relies mainly on the interviews conducted, which gives it a more reflective and passive feel than might have been intended.

Of the four outputs, the website (soundsfromthepark.org.uk) is probably the most impressive, with pages on various noteworthy interviewees, including three current members of the Socialist Party. Several other Party members from the past are featured in reminiscences (like well-known orator from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s Tony Turner) and in photographs (such as the wonderfully evocative picture at the exhibition of Steve Ross on the platform in the 1970s). As might also be expected, the Methodist and pacifist speaker Lord Donald Soper – who spoke at the Park tirelessly for decades – features prominently too.

The Socialist Party has long had a noticeable presence at Speakers’ Corner – indeed, we are the one political organization that has maintained a regular presence there for the majority of its existence. Many of the Party’s most well-known orators who featured in an article on open-air speaking in the June 2004 centenary edition of the Socialist Standard cut their teeth in the Park, and for all its faults Barltrop’s The Monument contains as good an analysis of this phenomenon and the Socialist Party’s role in it as can be found. Also Steve Coleman – a former regular Party speaker in the Park himself – contributed usefully to the discussion of this phenomenon in his Stilled Tongues, From Soapbox to Soundbite.

Today, many would argue that Speakers’ Corner is something of a shadow of its former self. The Socialist Party maintains a sporadic pitch there and other political speakers still periodically appear too (such as the anarchist Tony Allen – who wrote a book on the subject called A Summer In the Park a few years ago – and Heiko Khoo from Socialist Appeal). But the crowds are now ever more composed of tourists from the hotels of nearby Park Lane and Bayswater and the speakers are predominately of a religious bent, with as many Muslims as Christians. This tendency towards domination by religious demagogues is a shame, because as a rule they rely much less on an analysis of current events than the political speakers, making instead a timeless appeal to faith that disregards reason and evidence. It can also be argued that the comedic value of some of the contemporary speakers often lies less in their wit and originality (as was previously evidenced in deliberate entertainers like Norman Schlund and Martin Besserman) than in their near-hysterical religious sectarianism and general lack of self-awareness.

The sparks of controversy and repartee generated by Speakers’ Corner are now more often found in other arenas for discussion, including online. But this project has played its part in chronicling something that has been of real use to the working class movement over time and which has served to introduce many to a distinctive socialist viewpoint that can stand out – head and shoulders – in any crowd.

DAP