Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Soapbox speakers

(Published in June 2002. I haven't been to London since the late Sixties. Hyde Park Speakers' Corner was then an exclusive British institution devoted to freedom of expression, of cranks, windbags and other unemployables. I read that some years back, they tried it out in Singapore. Wonder what its current status is; if the Singapore's soapbox orators still have their corner. Would any of our Singapore familiar folks - Capt. Anup Murthy, Mrs. Vidya Nagaraj - know ?)

My friend and Zine5 writer Padmini Natarajan says that her Wednesday feature 'This and That' is her 'soap-box in the corner of Hyde Park'. By making such declaration she has licensed herself 'to wax and wane, grumble and groan, cheer and cry', blah blah blah. This, despite some 'skillful arm-twisting' by her editor. At the real place they are known to have done much else, unedited at that.

At the Marble Arch end of London's Hyde Park there is a corner meant for soap-box orators. I was a regular there, initially as a passive listener , and eventually, a back-row heckler, on Saturday afternoons in the Swinging Sixties. The Speakers' Corner attracted all sorts, from the world over - petty politicians on dole, dissidents in exile, extremists, evangelists in search of a congregation, cranks and other windbags. The thing about the speakers' corner was that it gave commoners (in terms of freedom of speech) the type of immunity MPs enjoy in the House of Commons. What made the place a prime source of Saturday afternoon entertainment for Londoners and visitors alike was that the speakers represented all creeds, colours of skin, shades of opinion and degrees of madness.

Michael Foot in his book Debts of Honour - a collection of essays on the personalities to whom the author felt indebted - refers to Bonar Thompson, a Hyde Park orator who valued his freedom so much that he refused to earn a living and lived on what others gave him in the name of freedom. N'Khrumah, several other leaders of newly independent African countries and our own Krishna Menon had graduated from the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

It took lung-power, wit and guts and a fairly thick skin to survive as a soap-box speaker. Those with king-size egos were cut to size by the sharp and highly interactive audience. Your voice should be loud enough to drown the noise coming from hecklers at the back row; and it helped if you had something sensible to say.

Some senior soap-boxers, however, were exempt from this criteria. There was this pathetic, but delightful, basket case who had collected, over the years, a band of faithful listeners who were so accustomed to his senseless and repetitive speech that they would not accept anything fresh or sensible from him. This crowd knew his script by heart and checked the speaker if he departed from the text and prompted him if the speaker skipped a phrase or fumbled for a word.

Then there was Sam, who said he could have been Billy Graham, if only he had taken to golf. It was golf, said Sam, that had brought Billy Graham close to LBJ and Nixon. It was at a game of golf Cecil B Demille invited Billy Graham to go into the movies. He declined the offer because, as Sam put it, "Billy boy was already making a fortune as special envoy to the president of the universe." But then Sam didn't approve of those who became disgustingly rich - "I am proud to be on dole in Britain."

Sam then went on to caution the audience of the wrath to come, despite, nay, because of the likes of Billy boy. "I warn you," said Sam, "there will be much weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth." An old woman in the audience yelled, "But Sam, I have no teeth!" to which Sam responded, "Don't worry, madam. We will get you dentures under the National Health Service scheme."

At the adjacent soap-box George held forth on how his lousy set of teeth had kept him away from serving his queen and country. He claimed that he would have been in the royal navy during the War, had it not been for his rotten teeth. "In London those days bombs fell all over the place," said George, "and I had planned on getting away from it all by joining the navy."
But the doctor at the naval recruitment board held that George didn't have a chance.

"Why, doc?"

"Your teeth are bad, George, that is why."

George got furious. "What have my teeth got to do with this, doc? Can't you see, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them."

An African soap-boxer who claimed to have been on dole ever since he came to England took delight in deriding the British - "Britain is a nation of inventive geniuses; they make 40 different types of electrical plugs, none of which work satisfactorily." Britain, he said, was a nation of chips-eaters - "They have fish with chips, beef curry with chips, baked beans and chips, pie, pudding... you name it, they have it with chips. Why, presumably, they even have sex with chips."

Heckler : "Tell me, do you still eat people who visit your country?"

Speaker: "Oh yes, we do. But don't worry, we no longer eat Englishmen. Because the last one we put in the pot ate all the potato.


Vidya said...

The speakers corner in Singapore is a bit of a joke actually... if one really wants to speak there, one needs to apply for a police permit, give a copy of your speech, have it approved, and then one would be issued the said permit. And then the notice would be posted that so and so had been given permission to speak, but NEVER THE TIME!! so people have been known to mill around for hours without a clue as to actual time of said speech. And then of course one signed a release allowing the authorities to record your speech...
Its populatiry as a forum never really took off.. not surprising...

Vidya said...

just a few intersting reads on the speakers corner

This particular Blogger, takes a few tongue-in-cheek digs at the govt. (Gah-men in Singapore's unique dialect ..hehehe.. )

Vidya said...

political freedom
Speakers Corner
more speakers corner
Mr Brown

i just realised that the links dont appear fully in the above comment... I apologise, Mr GVK, for cluttering up your space :D

Bhamy V Shenoy said...

We in Mysore also have speakers corner, not in Hyde Park style but desi style. This is organized by MGP and ACICM at Institute of Engineers when there are "burning" problems like water shortage, Makkaji Chowka, People's Park (it was stopped by the court), etc. Sad to state that despite wide publicity (all the needed information unlike Singapore), these speakers corners are poorly attended. Any suggestion to improve attendance?

Dr Y N I Anand said...

I fully agree with BVS when he says that the meetings at the Institution of Engineers are poorly attended despite wide publicity. Probably people accept fait accompli as in the case of Makkaji Chowk or autonomy to KR Hospital for example. That does not mean that we do not support such talks. Well, the politicians are lying low for the time being in the case of usurping space near Hardinge Circle in the guise of widening the road, which actually, is meant for parking the vehicles! Similarly GOK as to when they will take up the case of laying a cement road on DD Urs road at exorbitant cost! Yes, freedom is there to speak in this country unlike Singapore, but who actually cares?

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Interesting links there Vidya but first two links are from the SDP, the main opposition. Even then you are right, free speach is a serious issue for many here but taken for granted in India. We got a rude awakening from Madam IG in the 1970's and then again Dr. Singh and his unholy brigade recently when they banned all blogs.

Hyde Park is a gimmick and mostly attracts quacks and misfits. I have been to Hyde Park, watched some of them blow hot and cold on useless issues, its all entertainment. Blogsphere has made Hyde Park look like a poor second cousin. What is written and expressed in blogs is not allowed in Hyde Park and things can get abusive and obscene in blogspehere.

I agree with Dr. Anand, Indians don't give a hoot about their freedoms of expression. They don't get involved and so long as something does not affect them directly, they don't care.

Dr. Shenoy knows this better. As to how to improve attendance at their meetings, I have a sugestion. Offer free Mylari Dosas. People will come. Sorry for the poor suggestion but you know what I mean. Mysoreans are a sorry bunch of lazy dosa eating, afternoon napping, self centred boors. I can say that. I am from there. The last thing they will do is something that would benefit all. That group is a minority unfortunately. The rest of them need a whipping on their backsides to get them to move. Then they will move, but only just.

Ravi Asrani said...

I agree with Vidya - the Singapore government evidently and rightly feels that expressing one's opinions without any responsibility or thought is something that can be dangerous.

While I am all for complete fredom of expression, opinions so expressed must be done responsibly. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the level of maturity of thought to do so. The effects of misusing this right to expressing one's opinion results in the situation we have in India today - where the tail wags the dog, and not the other way around as it should be.

Vidya said...


I too used to slam the curbs on free speech in Singapore... but a Singaporean friend told me to look at it from the average Singaporean's point of view: the government has seen to it that none are denied basic needs, infrastructure etc are phenomenal, it's one of the most safe places to be. So if the Gah-men says to shut up, why not??


Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

True Singaporeans have very little to complain about. Just the opposite with India and thats why we need free speech.

I don't believe it is free speech that has ruined India, it is the public apathy towards development. I'd oppose any tweaking of free speech laws in India, I want more freedom and I don't believe you can club millions of people as being "immature, irresponsible and unable to handle their freedom". I've lived in countries that have more freedoms than India and I have lived in countries that have very little or no free speach and are farcical democracies, one where a single man has ruled for 27 years voting himself in.

It is lack of education in India, apart from formal education, that makes many susceptible to suppression. Free them and then see the difference. They don't want to (The Indian Gah-men)improve the whole lot of India because if they do, who is going to vote for these losers who run parliament? So afraid of losing their vote bank.

Freedom is in the genes of every human being and is not for another to try and suppress that. No one has the right to take away anyones birthright.