1990s >> 1997 >> no-1115-july-1997

Book Review: ‘Stilled Tongues – from Soapbox to Soundbite’

Soapbox to Soundbite

‘Stilled Tongues – from Soapbox to Soundbite’. by Stephen Coleman, Porcupine Press £8.95

First impressions leave us with the idea that this book is about street oratory in the major cities of this and other countries during the past two centuries and nothing more. But there is a great deal more. To be sure, there is a very good account of that astonishing phenomenon, the outdoor political meeting, which developed in Britain between the end of the nineteenth century and the years immediately following World War II. There is also an account of the development of these street parliaments in the teeth of ruling class opposition from the end of the eighteenth century.

Today the theatre of outdoor meetings, where the person on the platform had to defend his thesis in a free-exchange with the crowd or lose the audience, has been replaced by the spectacle of politicians and entertainers (frequently the same persons) who cannot be questioned—Kilroy and Matthew Parris, Brian Walden, David Mellor and Alan Clark.

The world of working-class auto-didacts who flocked to the public meetings places—”Speakers’ Corner at Marble Arch (frequently confused with Hyde Park Corner), Tower Hill, Finsbury Pavement, etc. in London and in all of the other cities of the country also attracted many who had benefited from a more formal education. Around the turn of the century dramatists and literary figures, Bernard Shaw, William Morris and many others did not shrink from sharing the platform with the great unwashed. And at election times even politicians emerged with the object of manufacturing another five years of consent.

Coleman’s selection of Methodist figurehead Lord Soper and raconteur Bonar Thompson as representative is arbitrary but he could not do otherwise. The scene he describes was so crowded with larger-than-life figures that his theme could easily have got lost in the welter. This outdoor university with its hundreds of academias-complete-with-dialectics in cities of this and other countries echoed the Greece of the Ancients. The students went away determined to read the recommended texts: Mutual Aid, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, Das Kapital, and mouthing the cabalistic names of the authors, Prince Kropotkin, Friederick Engels, Joseph Dietzgen, Karl Marx.

There was no such tedium for the second of Coleman’s orators. Bonar Thompson, with his soft Irish accent, spoke with the hope of collecting a few coins outside the Park after his stint, and relied on wit and paradox to entertain his listeners. The Rev. Donald Soper was, on the other hand, like most speakers, in earnest. He was a militant pacifist as part of his Christian belief and held the Socialist Party in great esteem for its anti-war stance, even to borrowing some of the socialist rationale to reinforce his moral repugnance for militarism.

The second half of Coleman’s book, titled: Oratory to Oprah, The Twilight of Public Discussion, deals with the subject as it was affected by developments from the late 1950s on. Sophistication of the media grew—the BBC of Lord Reith’s era had dropped the announcers with the cut-glass accents during the War. They could be too easily imitated by foreign propagandists who had been educated in English public schools. Reproducing the accents of Lancashire Wilfred Pickles or Hampshire John Arlott was another matter. But populism did not mean losing control. And television re-emerged from its primitive and privileged pre-war form ready-shielded from popular intervention. The coming of commercial TV should have duplicated the situation in the press where millionaires had long indulged their prejudices. But the drive to get viewers and raise advertising rates tempered this tendency. Nevertheless “Britain has seen an appropriation of mass discussion by remote and unaccountable media agencies, and co-extensive with this has been an etiolation of autonomous discussion which has been unmistakably disempowering.”

From the radio programme The Brains Trust of the 1940s to the end-to-end quizzing of experts in politics and economics on today’s TV programmes, there have always been no end of people offering to do our thinking for us. This book was published just before the election. The result will not call for any re-consideration of the conclusions drawn here—they are too profound. But the devastating scale of the rejection of contemporary politics without any compensating endorsement of anything else on offer cannot be of comfort to our minders.

Ken Smith

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