Spending a day of precious travel time being told how horrible you and the rest of humanity are would not normally be a recommended way to allocate your finite vacation hours. But then again, Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park in London is not a normal place. The average person would probably tell you that they enjoy their days to be confrontation-free and they would prefer to not have their beliefs questioned in the loudest, and often, rudest manner possible. I'm here to tell you that you should not let these things scare you and you should make Speakers' Corner a must-see destination during your travels through merry London.
My friend Dave has been in London for multiple years now and was kind enough to host me and play tour guide on my journey through his adopted hometown. I'm not sure I would have made it to Speakers' Corner without him constantly insisting that the trip would be well worth it. He claimed the spectacle is something that is totally unique to London and much like NBA jerseys and breasts, although fake versions have popped up all over the globe, nothing can match the quality of the real thing.
As we exited the Marble Arch Tube station, I arrived with my hopes up high after being regaled of stories about the heated exchanges of often incredibly intelligent people, often incredible unintelligent people, and often people who are completely unintelligible (the best kind for people watching I was told). Although Dave was an otherwise excellent host, he forgot to ensure the best day of the week to visit Speakers' Corner and thus we ended up visiting it on a Saturday morning. After all the hype, we showed up to a completely empty park with no speakers. I took a dumb photo of myself pretending to give a speech at Speakers' Corner and we left the park. As we exited I thought to myself that perhaps Speakers Corner is relic of a past era in London. With less and less to protest against in this liberal western democracy, maybe Speakers' Corner has faded into Bolivian. I hoped I was wrong.
I tried not to let my disappointment temper my mood on a lovely fall day in London and we instead made our way over to a Millwall soccer game. That story probably deserves its own post but if you want a quick preview, envision the following: drunk men, possibly drunk children, no women within a 25 mile radius of the stadium, swearing children, swearing adults, swearing adults beaming with pride over how proficient their children have become at swearing, and a whole lot of drunken fist-shaking at the opposing teams fans. It's amazing how much more powerful a curse word becomes by throwing the word 'bloody' in front of it and it doubles in power when said in a drunken, English accent. But I digress.
We arrived home on Saturday night to find out that the proper day to visit Speakers' Corner is actually Sunday morning and we decided that we had no choice but to get up early and go check out it out. My dream of watching completely irrational, ideological lunatics on both sides of the spectrum of an argument was about to come true. Of course I could always just watch C-SPAN, Cable News or ESPN and make that same dream come true, but this seemed like it would provide much more entertainment and would probably be equally as informative.
For those who are unaware, the history of Speakers' Corner is quite fascinating. Tracing its origins all the way back to 1855, Speakers Corner' has become a cultural institution in London. The area near the Marble Arch in Hyde Park has become the de facto meeting place for not only speakers to give speeches about any topic of their choosing, but also for lively debate and large scale protests. In the illustrious history of Speakers' Corner, people as influential as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell have all spent time there listening in on the topics at hand. As you can probably guess from that list of names, the topics tend to skew in favor of the proletariat. Many people claim that the reason Speakers' Corner is located where it is stems from the fact that the public execution of dissidents used to be held on that very spot. Now that you can say you learned something from this article beside the fact that British soccer fans are taught how to vulgarly and hilariously heckle opposing fans as infants, let's move on.
You know those rare moments in life when something completely lives up to your lofty expectations? That Sunday morning in the park was one of those moments for me. I listened to many reasonable, intellectual people discuss matters important to them and important to society and I listened to many more completely insane people discuss matters that are important to no one at all. I joined large crowds as we listened to speakers tell us why everything is evil and I must admit, I loved the whole experience. Eating meat is evil. Men are evil. The monarchy is evil. Democracy is evil. Capitalism is evil. White people are evil. Being fundamentally good is actually evil. Puppies are the evilest of them all. You name it, someone was ranting against it.
I'll always remember the man who had literally no one listening to him but he still passionately continued on as if his speech on the merits of Atheism was being delivered at the UN General Assembly. I will remember the sweet old man who preached on the importance of feeding vegetables to the obese children. I will clearly remember the incredibly articulate, well-dressed man who stressed the importance of Pan-African nationalism to a large and energetic crowd, and I will absolutely remember the man wearing a full SS storm trooper uniform. But I certainly won't remember that anti-Semitic bastard fondly.
My experience that day is one I will remember my entire life and I strongly encourage anyone visiting London to go check out this historic ode to free speech. We spent multiple hours wandering from speaker to speaker agreeing with some, disagreeing with most and being thoroughly entertained by almost all. After enough opinions to last a lifetime, we finally departed the area to go process what we had just heard. And by process what we heard, I clearly mean we went to a nearby pub because as we all know, a bar is the actual proper venue for obnoxious, ill-informed debate.