Let’s play a little game. It’s called “Guess Where I Am”.
The rules are simple. I will describe a scene, and we will see if you can guess where in the world I might be. Think of it like a sort of real-life “where’s Wally”. Shall we start?
I am standing on the outside of a circle of perhaps thirty highly animated men. Some of the men are in jeans and collared shirts; others in track-suits; yet others are wearing an assortment of sober suits or robes and head-coverings. Many, like me, have two-day growths, if not full beards. Most of the men in the group look to be of middle-eastern origin, so I blend right in.
In the centre of the circle stands a fierce-looking Muslim cleric. He has a graying beard, and a knitted “kufi” (Islamic skullcap) is covering his head. He is shouting loudly and passionately, and the words leave his mouth in a continuous, unbroken torrent. His delivery is so fiery that little drops of spittle fly out from the corner of his mouth as he talks. I find him to be captivating and terrifying, in equal measure.
For their part, the men in the circle around the cleric respond equally forcefully, arguing loudly, hands gesticulating wildly and their competing voices merge into a sea of noise. The men are packed in so tightly around the cleric it seems as if they are pushing and shoving each other, and the argument is so intense I worry that a fight might break out at any moment.
The men are all speaking in Arabic, so I cannot understand a word of what they are saying. I am able to pick out the occasional reference to Allah and the Koran, and given the presence of the cleric at the centre of the circle, I guess that I am witnessing a theological debate of sorts.
Off to the side, another smaller group of men are sitting on some low stools, puffing on a nargilah (water-pipe). One of the older men is wearing a full keffiah head-dress and is engaged in a heated debate with two other men. Again, I catch snatches of words from their conversation that register with me: Allah, Palestine, Yahudi (Jews, in Arabic).
Where am I?
You might at this point be thinking that I am somewhere in the middle-east. Perhaps I am in the courtyard of a mosque in Riyadh, or standing outside of an Islamic seminary in Cairo, or at a street-side cafe in Beirut.
If this is in fact what you are thinking, you are not even close.
Let’s move on. As I walk away I encounter another group of people engaged in yet more loud communal discussion. This group consists of both men and women. At the centre stands a tall, proud, almost regal looking African man. Besides him are several young African women, their hair tightly braided into neat cornrows. Behind them is a large sign, on which are printed the words: “Christianity is Satanism”. The women are chanting a song of sorts and shaking various tambourines and rattles. From time to time the African man shouts out something – I can’t hear what he is saying over the chanting and the jangling musical instruments, but each time he speaks, the crowd milling around him erupts into a cacophony of ferocious remonstrating and finger wagging.
Just along the way from this group stands a white-haired old lady, little more than five feet tall. She looks like a kindly old grandmother, in a neat dark blue skirt and twin-set. She has a small group of four people gathered around her, so I am able to move in close. She is speaking with a very proper English accent, suggesting she was educated at an exclusive private school. She is talking about Jesus, son of the creator, and how his love will heal all.
About five feet away from this kindly looking grandmother is a solo Asian gentleman, I am guessing Korean, standing on a ladder. He is rocking slowly backwards and forwards. He calls out repeatedly at the top of his voice “Jesus loves you, yes he does”. His face is a picture of pure concentration. However, no-one seems to be paying much attention to him. Every now and then grandma shoots him a dirty look – it appears that the Korean’s Jesus is in conflict with her Jesus, and this seems to irritate her enormously.
Straddling a nearby fence is a young man in his mid-20s. He is clean-cut and wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and a yellow safety jacket of the type road-workers typically wear. In fact, he looks exactly like an off-duty road-worker. Except that instead of a roadwork sign, he is holding up a teensy little sign, not more than 15 centimetres long, with one handwritten word spelled out on it in capital letters – “JESUS”. He sits in complete silence, and is virtually motionless. A few people pause in front of him, and one or two even try to talk to him. He just stares past them with piercing blue eyes, his lips sealed, and he says nothing.
Where am I now?
You might be thinking I am at an evangelical Christian convention? Although given the previously mentioned posse of middle-easterners discussing Islam, maybe I am at an interfaith gathering of sorts?
Perhaps, but now consider the next character I come across: a white-haired, stooped over old man, in a sackcloth tunic and with a cut-out gold crown on his head, of the sort that a kid might wear to a dress-up party. Dangling from a thick rope tied around his waist is a metal cup. He looks exactly like I imagine a weathered Christian pilgrim on the Camino De Santiago might have looked 500 years ago. But he is not interested in Jesus – instead, this guy is mumbling in a low gravelly voice, something about women being the mothers of humanity and their wombs being the source of all life (undeniably true, of course, but I don’t think our pilgrim was meaning this in a literal way).
Not far away I spy another grown man in fancy dress: in this case, a muscle-bound six-foot-four black man with a shaved head and goatee beard. His outfit of choice is a coarse, dark brown priest’s cassock. Nothing unusual in this, apart from the almost knee-high skinhead leather boots he is wearing as well, and the huge sign suspended in a frame from off of his back. The sign has an oversized black swastika printed on it, crossed out with two big red strokes of paint. He is babbling incoherently at the top of his lungs; all I can make out is that somehow in his mind the subjects of police brutality, “the black man’s freedom from slavery”, and us all being God’s children are inextricably intertwined.
Another man is dressed in what looks to be a perfect replica of Joseph’s coat of many colours. He is leaning on a pole, on which he has stuck a rainbow-coloured sign that reads: “Bliss – the solution to sex addiction”. There is some small print below the headline. I pause for a split-second to read it, which is a split-second too long. Joseph literally launches himself at me, thrusting his face to within six inches of mine and takes hold of me by my shoulders. He stares directly into my eyes, and I notice that his have a certain maniacal quality to them. I am so shocked that I am momentarily paralysed, during which time he explains to me that modern life has turned me into a whore’s sex-slave, and only through achieving bliss can I become free.
Now, tell me, where the fuck am I? Did someone surreptitiously slip a tab of acid into my cappuccino, plunging me down the rabbit hole to emerge at a modern-day equivalent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party?
Close, but no cigar. I am in fact in London, and it is a slightly overcast but otherwise ordinary Sunday afternoon in May, 2012. I am at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, near the corner of the very sophisticated Park Lane and Oxford Street, in the shadow of Marble Arch.
Every Sunday, for the past 150 years or so, this north-eastern corner of Hyde Park has been designated as an area where anyone – and I do mean anyone, no matter who they are or what they may have to say – is welcome to stand on a soap-box and speak their mind. No holds barred. Spectators are free to heckle, jibe and argue back. Here, speaking is elevated to a contact sport, and the democratic ideal of free speech literally comes to life right before your eyes. In the internet age, where the weird and wacky have largely taken their views online, Speaker’s Corner is a refreshing throwback to a time when the spoken word ruled the world of ideas.
In the mid 1800s, London’s working classes began using Hyde Park as an assembly point for mass protests. Over time, this morphed into demands for a “right to speak” in the park. Sunday was the only free day of the week for most working class people. And so the tradition was born of unrestricted free speech in a corner of the park, every Sunday. A law was passed in 1872 to guarantee the continued existence of Speaker’s Corner, and ever since then, on any given Sunday, it has been attracting all those who feel a burning need to share their point of view with the world at large.
Indeed, Speaker’s Corner has been described as “a window on the ebb and flow of popular opinion, a microcosm of the population”. Historically this meant that it served mainly as a classless forum in which new political ideas were thrashed about. Many of the great ideologies and issues of the last century have been grist for the Speaker’s Corner mill – universal suffrage, socialism, communism, women’s lib. Some of the greatest political and literary minds of the past century – including Karl Marx, Lenin, and George Orwell – were supposedly regular Sunday speakers.
Nowadays, or so it seemed to me at least, the whole enterprise has been hi-jacked by the religious and the insane. Maybe, however, it is just an accurate sign of the times. As one speaker quite eloquently told me: “with the death of Communism, religious fundamentalism has filled the void, and how to address the rise of fundamentalism is the big question of our time – that’s why everyone here is obsessed with religion”. I thought this was a surprisingly insightful comment, notwithstanding that the person making it was rather ridiculously wearing a Union Jack waist-coat, propeller bow-tie and bowler hat.
Back in the late afternoon throng that was now mobbing Speaker’s Corner, I decided the time had come for me to join the fray. I was drawn to a short man with an American accent and a Dali-like moustache, which he had waxed into two sharp points. He was holding a big sign that said “OCCUPY”, and was droning on about the evil Wall Street banker-capitalist-devils who, evidently, are oppressing us all.
As if specifically designed to goad me into responding, he launched into a convoluted fugue about capitalism, Wall Street, big oil, and the evils of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to extract gas from underground shale reservoirs, which has transformed the global energy equation, but which has sparked a furious “us and them” environmental debate across the world).
Well, I am a capitalist. I have worked on Wall Street. And thanks to my day job, I am intimately acquainted with the subject of fracking, more so than is probably healthy. What better intro could this odd little man have given me? So I waded into the argument, and politely enquired of my Occupy friend: “do I look like an oppressive capitalist fracker to you?”
What followed was 20 minutes of the most heated, aggressive debate I have been involved in since my law school days. It was like hand-to-hand combat, and a group of onlookers gathered around us, chipping in their own two-cents worth from time to time. It was utterly delicious. I was free to be completely and totally obnoxious. Two days earlier Facebook had floated on the NASDAQ, and at one point in the discussion I even found myself justifying why a twenty-eight year old deserved twenty billion dollars (Mark, please take note, I will happily accept payment in Facebook shares for having so valiantly defended your honour).
However, when I suggested to the American Occupist that he was a hypocrite, and if it wasn’t for people like me he would be living in a cave without electricity or even an iPad on which to propagate his archaic views, he almost blew a gasket, and croaked hoarsely: “you are in league with Lucifer”. Without meaning to generalise, I find that with Americans religious extremism is often lurking not that far below the surface. In any case, with the debate having now moved into heaven and hell territory, I decided that it was probably better for me to move on…..
Of course, the very next speaker I bumped into would have to be Hyde Park’s very own Jewish nutter-in-residence. He was decked out in a blue Adidas track suit, chunky blue and white trainers, and a blue baseball cap. A heavy chain hung around his neck, rapper style, on the end of which dangled an over-sized Star of David. He had a Jewish prayer shawl draped over his shoulders. His eyes were dilated and blood-shot, like he had consumed just a few too many hard drugs with his cornflakes at breakfast. Several gold teeth glinted each time he opened his mouth. In short, he looked like a Jewish version of Ali G.
He spoke like Ali G as well. I had to strain really hard to understand his ramblings, which were on the subject of “de definition of de son of God”. I thought initially he was going to turn out to be a Jews for Jesus devotee, but he quickly debunked that notion when he loudly told all those around him: “Jesus is not de king, and ‘e is no’ sit-in on de frone”.
Jewish ornamentation aside, I realised that this fellow’s knowledge of the Talmud was not quite up to par – let’s just say I am fairly confident that he had not come top of his class at Rabbi school. At one point in his stream of consciousness monologue, he said that Jews believe that Abraham is the son of God. I gently tried to correct him, pointing out that this is patently not so. He paused, glaring at me with a look of pity and dismay, and spat out: “and how would you know?” I told him that I was Jewish, that I was reasonably certain that it does not say anywhere in the Bible that Abraham was fathered by the Almighty, and that perhaps he was confusing things just a little with another relatively well-known God-is-my-father story.
I was expecting an explosion in response, so what came next was entirely unexpected, to say the least: the Jewish Ali G shouted out at the top of his voice – “me bruvver” – and grabbed me, hugging me closely to him, as you might a long-lost relative. I swear there was even a tear in his eye, although, as I mentioned before, that may also have just been the effect of the drugs wearing off.
I milled around in the crowd for the next hour, watching, listening and occasionally heckling. Eventually, I paused to eavesdrop on a discussion taking place between a youngish-looking man and a woman in a hijab (head scarf). They were debating the correct way to follow the word of the Prophet Mohammed. The man spoke in a measured voice and with great authority, and looked very much like a studied man of religion – a long flowing black beard, small round glasses, a full-length white robe, and a skullcap.
Just then, a group of English lads were approaching, waving blue and white flags and chanting “Chelsea, Chelsea”. The night before, Chelsea had defeated Bayern Munich to win the European football championship, and the boys were obviously still celebrating their team’s victory.
The man in the white robe, seeing the boys approaching, paused in his argument, pumped his right hand into the air and called out to them in heavily accented English: “We are the champions”. As he did so he slightly tugged at the neckline of his robe with his left hand, to show us all that underneath, he was wearing a blue Chelsea T-shirt.
The boys whooped with delight, and as they walked past, I was privy to a sight I never thought I would see in my lifetime: a group of teenage English football louts, clearly drunk, high-fiving a bearded Muslim cleric, all of them jumping up and down in unison chanting “Chelsea, Chelsea”. I am sure somewhere in this little inter-cultural moment there is a profound observation to be made, but it was getting late, and I was beginning to shiver in the cold, and so it was time for me to leave.
Walking away from Speaker’s Corner, I pulled out a pen and scrap of paper to jot down some of my experiences from the past few hours – there had been so many of them I was scared I might forget. As I did this, I was approached by a ruddy-faced Englishman. His clothes were shabby, his hair was unkempt, and he smelled like he hadn’t bathed for several days. He had a lapel-pin on his frayed jacket collar that said “Artist“, and I had heard him speaking earlier that afternoon on the subject of transcendence and the new paganism (I do not pretend to have even the slightest understanding of what that might mean).
He glared at me as I scribbled my notes, and asked: “do you work for MI-5?” I assured him that I did not, but he was not convinced. He tilted his head slightly and with considerable suspicion in his voice he said: “You look a bit dodgy to me mate. You’re not what you seem”.
A crackpot at the Speaker’s Corner lunatic supermarket thought that I looked a bit dodgy? I left the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party just like the Cheshire Cat did, grinning from ear to ear.