Speak and you shall be heard

Speakers' Corner is not the only place where freedom of speech is positively encouraged. Jack Shamesh visited the Conway Hall, which also prides itself on stimulating debate
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The Independent Culture
in the corner of red lion square in Holborn, hidden by a rather lumpish modern office building, stands a small church-like building with heavy wooden swing doors.

Despite its humble appearance, Conway Hall has a special place in the life of the capital. It is one of the last bastions of free speech in London; the place where minor political parties, anarchists and assorted rebels meet and talk about changing the world.

Inside the building, whose walls are clad in the beige-coloured marble which was so popular between the wars, there is a variety of rooms. These range from a large theatre to a small hall, where most of the fringe meetings occur, with a couple of smaller meeting rooms upstairs.

At a recent meeting, one member of the Green Anarchist Collective - a man with heavy boots, a combat jacket and straggling ginger hair - explained how we would soon be living in self-sufficient communes, scratching a living out of the earth. During the question-time which followed I asked whether, in the future, I would be allowed to have a television set. "Only if you could make it yourself," he insisted.

The large theatre plays host to many of the better-organised meetings. Ethnic and national groups can often be found there. Until a couple of years ago London's branch of the Militant Tendency held its major gatherings there in the theatre, with heavy security in the shape of bouncers to deter interlopers.

The fact that so few of these groups have ever found success does not seem to diminish their resolve. "This has often been uncharitably described as the `home of lost causes'," Steve Norley, manager of Conway Hall for the last five years, admits. "But I find their optimism quite refreshing - even if it sometimes seems misguided."

The hall is run by the South Place Ethical Society - a humanist organisation which emerged in the last century as a forum for free-thinking. The Society built the hall on its present site in 1929 and maintains its policy of renting out rooms at affordable prices. The theatre, with 500 seats, costs around £165 to rent and the small hall costs around £40, considerably less than any comparable venue in central London. "Without somewhere cheap to meet, you can't have freedom of speech," Norley argues.

In the past, the hall was associated with legendary figures of the left, such as Fenner Brockway, whose statue is at the far end of the square. Brockway, who until 10 years ago was a major speaker at CND and anti-apartheid meetings, had an office during the 1930s in the ladies' toilet, and the small hall is still named after him.

During the Boer War the Society was the only organisation to host pro- Boer meetings while in 1975 the hall was the centre of a riot - the Battle of Red Lion Square - in which one person died when fascists, who had booked the hall, clashed with anti-fascist protesters.

Nowadays the hall refuses access to extreme right-wing groups. "We have a policy of not letting rooms to groups which advance racial hatred," Norley says. Despite this, the hall still hosts gatherings which are shunned elsewhere: the banned BBC film about the Zircon spy satellite was shown there and members of the Wolfe Tone Society are regular visitors.

The Conway is also booked for conventions. For the last eight years the building has been a haven for people dressed in Captain Scarlet or Thunderbirds suits, as they attend the Gerry Anderson conventions.

The annual anarchist book fair is usually attended by hordes of "crusties", resplendent in Doc Martens and combat trousers. The building is invariably heaving with large numbers of shaggy mongrels running loose - a situation which would be hard to imagine in Earl's Court or Olympia. "We impose very few stipulations," Norley says. "Last year one of the dogs crapped in my office, but that is a rare incident."

Five years ago Conway Hall had a narrow escape when a faction of the South Place Ethical Society wanted to pull it down and replace it with a conference centre. Fortunately the move was opposed and finally defeated.

Future events include a series of lectures on science and religion, a meeting to support the miners, as well as a number of bookings by ethnic groups and political meetings for the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Anarchist Communist Federation and Class War.

The Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, WC1 (0171-242 8032)

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