In my late teens, back in the 1950’s, I often used to visit Hyde Park Corner on a Saturday afternoon to listen to the speakers on their soap boxes (milk crates or ladders).
I used to marvel at the way they held an audience and dealt with hecklers with humour and abandon, wondering what it might take to stand above the crowd and put sentences about anything together that would make perfect sense. Would I ever be able to do something like that? How would I have to change from the ‘shy’ young man I was then?
In the early 1960’s I used regularly to spend Wednesday dinner times, escaping from dull quill-driving, for far more than my allotted lunchtime break, listening to Donald Soper on Tower Hill: he always drew large crowds of regulars and dealt with every God-heckler in a way that combined humour with socialist Christian philosophy. His main message: “Look to Christ’s humanity, let the religion take care of itself…”
Though I have long got over my fear of ‘public speaking’, able to cope resourcefully with any paying audience, their responses, both keen & awkward, however they behaved, I would still find it pretty well impossible to stand up in a miscellaneous crowd and start speaking politics, religion, philosophy and so on.
It was quite comforting therefore to read in A Summer in the Park (Freedom Press 2004) , a vivid & amusing account by one Speakers’ Corner stalwart, Tony Allen, of how he still had to psych himself up to perform well.
“Are you going to speak?” says Nick. I am suddenly back in wobbly land and fighting off an attack of performance anxiety – the speaker’s fear of mass rejection. I’m looking round for reasons to be excused from duty. The sun is bright, the crowds are gathering and there’s even an available bread rack (wider but lower than a milk crate). There’s no way out. “Yeah, man. I’m there,” I say without conviction. We stand in silence for a short while and then, as a useless delaying tactic, I go through a bizarre little ritual of offering the plinth to each of them in turn. Nick shuns it as if it’s something out of his range. Bob has given it more thought, “No, no. I could never do it. I haven’t got the confidence.” I actually egg him on and tease him with it. Finally, I pull myself together and stop projecting my own fear. We all have our part to play. I couldn’t do what Bob does – stand around all day wearing a homemade sandwich board. I stake my claim to the bread rack, kick it and follow it across the tarmac for twenty yards drawing attention to myself.
I was surprised when, from extreme (what they called) shyness, it didn’t take me long to find myself fully capable of addressing a hundred raw army recruits when the need arose. True, I had three Sergeant stripes on my arm but I still had to stand before all those faces and hold forth for two years. Then I was a teacher for twenty-four years. Then I was paid good money to address executives for fifteen years. I’m never quite sure how I did it
At the end of a particular course I ran with my mate Ed for some years, we used to send people off at the end of three days withWagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing very loud. At the beginning of the course, what the troops did not know was that I was playing Ride of the Valkyries fff in my head just before saying, “Welcome! Glad you’re here!” They didn’t know I was already at the end of the course with a feeling of the relief of a good job done; I had psyched myself up at the beginning of it with a self-created feeling of relief which settled me into the first day. Tony kicking the ‘bread rack’ across the tarmac will have had the same effect, I guess.
One of Tony Allen’s favourite themes, which I warm to myself, is the information overload that’s come about via social media & 50 million references to something quite simple on the World Wide Web. He called this ‘infocide’ – death by information and distraction
I write this on a day when it seems that, to replace BBC iPlayer, whatever that is, the BBC will be launching Radio BBC Sounds, a new app (whatever that might be) which brings together the corporation’s radio, music and podcasts, hoping to entice more younger people to listen to the BBC. The app will offer 80,000 hours of BBC audio and would allow the BBC to ‘lean in to the podcast revolution…’ What revolution? Infocide… Will allow the BBC to warp relatively innocent minds.
Tony Allen knew that he tranced people out by the high-sounding phrases he used in relation to his attack on the computerisation of the world. He wondered what sense his audience would make of phrases like ‘Psycho-cultural Babel’ and ‘infinite archives of cyberspace’ which
…must sound bewildering if not disturbing. I look at the expressions on their faces. They must think we are some weird sect prophesying end times. And in a way I rather like to think we are.
“Listen! We are a visionary sect that believes that when our species built the computer it was attempting to build a facsimile of the human brain. When it developed the Internet it was constructing the first blockings of a facsimile collective unconscious – just stacking the shelves with all the shit. The dominance of the virtual will both separate us from our traditional communities and tend to spuriously unite us with inappropriate spectacle, celebrity and event. But do not despair brothers and sisters …” (I’m going gently into parody evangelist now. “…There is light. There is a flipside to the virtual and its fragmentation and false gods. We believe that there will be an equivalent paradigm shift at the other end of the spectrum. A paradigm shift in the quality of human communication itself – how we relate with each other in RL. RL – that’s Internet talk for Real Life! Any questions?”
There is a pause, and then someone who hates pauses says: “Do you come here every day?” I should finish at this point.
Of course, just like in teaching, knowing how to start and when to stop is all-important. I recognise my own enjoyment of using words & phrases I know the audience will not understand – assuming one does not go into overkill, akin to the use of artful vagueness, it causes a desire to find out. If sufficiently alluring, strange words & phrases become group jokes or mantras.
Tony Allen didn’t learn lines but he had short sequences that were guaranteed to start himself off on a theme. One of his favourite starting points was a Gurdjieffian one:-
“…We all of us live in prisons – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual prisons. This is the weekly meeting of the escape committee….”
Sometimes when I come out with this sort of stuff it all comes across as if I’m trying to guilt-trip people into considering anarchist ideas. Which of course I am. It’s all pure projection and it shows, but that doesn’t seem to stop me. I usually get it wrong, but this time the tone of it feels right, because I also manage to express what I’m thinking.
“You don’t need some loudmouth in the park to tell you about personal freedom.You know better than me what it is that shackles your creativity. You know what’s stopping you. Duty? Commitment? Work? Mortgage? Relationship? Family? Something good on the telly?”
They don’t laugh; they listen. It registers with me. I’ve got them! I’m giving them something they didn’t know they wanted. I’m doing the business – the artist as opposed to the entertainer… having a moment…
And that’s important in teaching – ‘the moment when…’ All kinds of moments-when…
Without moving a muscle, I smile to myself and say impishly, “Carries on like this, we could be having a ‘shamanic’ moment,” which gets a quiet appreciative laugh from a section of the crowd. Probably unacknowledged by most, just a passing laugh line, but for me it is a shamanic moment and I want more. I’ve started off right, and now I’m flying. I elegantly segue back to the plot and now include myself.
“I know what it is that stands in my way – me! I’m my biggest problem. I’m a slob! I’ve got some really bad habits. Freedom is a full time career. I have to be always vigilant, otherwise my life can slip into some very slack ritual. Sometimes, I need a jumbo crowbar to get me out from in front of that telly. I mean, how much daytime television can one layabout watch? Or conversely, when I’ve made the effort and spent a day or two on the phone getting a crew together organising and delegating stage, lights and sound; when I’ve booked the acts and I’m there on-site, having gatecrashed my own fantasy – a sort of New Age Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca ? I’m sat round that campfire with a bunch of wacky mates, experiencing an all-day-all-night, post-mod, acoustic, cabaret party, I don’t want to be anywhere else. But they are the only options people. Slobbing out or getting it on. And getting it on is only a creative version of slobbing out. It ain’t difficult.”
It is difficult. Of course it is – and I know it. Nobody heckles or says anything so I force them in to it: “We can’t be wasting our time doing anything else, can we? We certainly can’t be wasting our lives ‘working for the Man’, can we?”
“It’s alright for some.”
“Yeah. You’re being paid to be an anarchist layabout.”
At last, they’re heckling.
It’s always such a relief when members of the group I’m teaching start, not exactly heckling but at least, talking or asking a question. It’s no good asking, “Are there any questions?” because usually there aren’t, or if there are they may not be what I want at that moment!
One can get such a kick out of the energy and enthusiasm that is often generated when a teaching session feels as though it’s going well: you’re on top of the world, you feel ‘in charge’ of all those brains, directing them in an ecologically valid kind of way. Suddenly in the middle of it you can suddenly feel the need to regain a sense of your inferiority. Faced with some kind of power craziness, Tony Allen was very conscious of what can happen
…when it is unchecked and seen as a strength and acknowledged without humility or humour. For a few weeks now, I have been speaking to crowds of between fifty and a hundred and my ego has run riot, my only course has been to explore ways of admitting it publicly, subvert the power trip, mock, enjoy and deconstruct it. That for me, an anarchist with a healthy contempt for leadership and ruling cliques, is a serious mission.
Often in the middle of some rave or the other, I have shouted STOP at myself for precisely that reason, knocked myself down and stopped talking altogether. People were known to ask me where I went when I stared out of a large picture window in a couple of places we taught in.