A soap-box in cyberspace

Britain has a long tradition of open-air speaking, often in the face of police harassment. Now, in the age of the sound-bite, the voice of democratic debate is muted by TV. But the spirit of the outdoor rhetorician survives on the superhighway, says Heathcote Williams
In these media-saturated times, it is hard to cast an overloaded mind back to the genteel bleakness of England in the Fifties and early Sixties. There was but one television channel - a hazy, flickering black- and-white parish pump, devoutly unifying an increasingly sedentary country with transmissions of Come Dancing. The finer points of human relationships were left to a flatulent soap-opera, Crossroads, set in a Birmingham motel; and Panorama would occasionally address a controversial theme with an anaesthetic pomposity.

The electronic curfew had begun. As the battery-chicken dwelling-units - the tower blocks - penetrated the heavens that no one was inclined to believe in any more, so the old communities on the ground disappeared, and the spectral pseudo-communities of the airwaves arose in their place, as if to compensate for their loss.

In Hyde Park, however, there was an alternative station: destined never to be tied to the subtle blackmail of advertisers, and free from the enervating royalty-mongering of the BBC. On Saturday evening, all day Sunday, and Sunday night, you could surf 20 or 30 flesh-and-blood transmissions for as long as your legs would stand it, and for as long as the cardboard- flavoured tea from the pagoda-shaped tea stand would keep warming your bones.

Here were the germinative and liberating tribunes of what was shortly to become the "underground", the alternative society. The messages from this alternative parliament were avidly downloaded by incipient subversives. There simply wasn't anywhere else, or anything else like it.

The hand-cranked broadcasts took place on a windswept piece of tarmac at the end of the plutocratic purlieus of Park Lane. The programme planners were no more than the muses of human inspiration - encouraging the raw articulacy of anyone who felt like standing on a battered tea-chest, an overturned bucket, or, occasionally, a customised stand to air their views and to let them run the gauntlet in a grass-roots ratings war between rival speakers.

The speakers had to be resilient, and physically fit. They could be attacked, sometimes hurled from the platform; they were half drowned out by traffic noise; and at each deep oratorical inhalation they took in volumes of lead-polluted fumes.

They were constrained by the Hyde Park bye-laws from collecting money in the park, so that those who depended upon speaking for a livelihood were starved out; and they all had to suffer the officious scrutiny of the police in case their speeches contained seditious or blasphemous material. Even the most mildly disrespectful reference to a member of the Royal Family could result in immediate arrest and confinement in the special police station that served Speakers' Corner.

The Royals were still an untouchable totem in a deeply class-ridden society. Hyde Park was officially a "royal park", and it most particularly offended the powers that be to have the Royals insulted there. This was the archaic reason invariably given by Marylebone magistrates as to why collections could not be taken in Hyde Park. The offence of an itinerant wordsmith, who was vulgar enough to ask for a donation at the end of a meeting, was construed as a form of lese-majeste. Had he not subversively sung for his doubtless subversive supper not a stone's throw from the alienating splendour of Buckingham Palace, whose cosseted inhabitants would be dining in comfort, secure in the knowledge that the Royal Parks police were arresting anyone unwise enough to beg on the Royals' patch.

All these strictures, as Stephen Coleman points out in his engrossing new book, Stilled Tongues, were echoes of ancient and much more extreme injunctions against free speech in a mandarin society - a society that thought freedom of speech might happily be permitted to adorn the port- stained lips of gentlemen in their clubs, but should be watered down for the man in the street, in case it proved a more pro-active blessing.

In December 1656, the House of Commons debated for several days whether or not to bore a hole through the tongue of the pacifist Quaker James Naylor. They decided to do so and then had it done. It was disclosed that Naylor's voluble tongue had been unrestrained enough to preach that "God was against the covetous cruel oppressors who grind the faces of the poor and needy", and it had been seditious enough to proclaim that God, the celestial democrat, had "made all men of one mould and one blood to dwell on the face of the earth".

At present, when freedom of speech has become a commodity in the gift of media monopolies, it is forgotten how great the contribution of open- air speaking has been to extending the "limits of the expressible", in Chomsky's phrase.

The outdoor rhetorician may nowadays be seen as risibly anachronistic: the idea of carting a hefty and unmanageable speaker's platform - replete with steps and display panel - on and off a bus, on and off the Tube, ill contrasts with the cosiness of a hospitality suite in a studio, where the interviewee may field-test his latest sound-bite with a pampering make-up artist, unlikely to heckle, and whose powder and make-up brushes are less threatening than the night-sticks of the police prowling the park on the look-out for the trigger-words of sedition.

It is of course much neater and much tidier to have people who may wish to give vent to anything disturbing boxed up in a cube, like Damien Hirst's sheep. Disembodied, tucked away inside what is, after all, only a piece of inanimate furniture that people have got into the habit of staring at, or even worshipping as if it were a techno-Shinto shrine. But there is no interaction. You cannot heckle a goldfish bowl.

William Morris regarded the outdoor meeting as being of paramount value in communicating opinion, and deeply resented the bourgeois fetish of tidiness, so obstreperously enforced by the police. He commented on their "arrogant petty tyranny" and decried the fact that, "They would clear the streets of costermongers, organs, processions and lecturers of all kinds, and make them a sort of decent prison corridors, with people just trudging to and from their work."

Now, thanks to a demonic consumerism, the street as meeting place, the street as open university, the street as festival, are all brushed aside once more in deference to the monocultural street reduced to an extended assembly-line for conspicuous consumption. The street is tyrannised and conquered by the automobile, whose pollution of the body politic is much more lethal than the exhortations of even the most misguided street "lecturer" who ever threatened the Queen's peace.

The traffic of the mind that took place on numberless street corners has been supplanted, squeezed out of existence by the upholstered traffic of impervious people in cocooned and carcinogenic pods, who watch Friends and Neighbours but do not know who lives next door.

"Reclaim the streets", of course, valiantly embraces this tradition in defiance of the "arrogant petty tyranny" as embodied in the Criminal Justice Act, and the neutering of public gatherings. None the less, it requires a considerable leap of the imagination to visualise London as it was between the wars, in the days of the great anarchist speaker, Bonar Thompson, Sean O'Casey's protege.

These were the venues available for an itinerant speaker, such as Bonar Thompson: Highbury Corner, Finsbury Park, Brockwell Park, Victoria Park, Peckham Rye, Clapham Common, Parliament Hill Fields, Jack Straw's Castle, Hampstead; the World's End, Chelsea; Jolly Butcher's Hill, Wood Green; Beresford Square, Woolwich; Golden Square, Soho; Catherine Street, Croydon; and Howland Street, off Tottenham Court Road, in addition to Tower Hill and Marble Arch. There were legions more throughout the country: the Bull Ring in Birmingham, Glasgow Green, Bigg Market in Newcastle, to name but a few.

Michael Foot declared himself an "addict" of Bonar Thompson, and "in the midst of the strident ideological confusions which abounded in the 1930s," he came to believe that "Bonar Thompson's scepticism was, I suppose, the sanest thing in the land".

Thompson's pacifist war cry was: "Half the misery in the world is caused by ignorance. The other half is caused by knowledge." He was a fierce opponent of militarism and would say, with provocative relish, immediately after the First World War: "When a monarch, or president, a premier or other national leader announces that he will fight to the death, he is generally in dead earnest. He is referring, of course, not to his own death, but yours."

Donald Soper, still speaking at the age of 94, took up the pacifist cudgels in the Second World War, courageously enduring the bear-baiting of uniformed soldiers on leave. (On one occasion, in mid-sentence, the Bible was blown out of his hand by the blast from an incendiary bomb.)

Coleman conveys a sense that these men and women, rather than just blowing in the wind, were fine-tuning the cogs and balances of social cohesion - and in the majority of cases they were doing it for free (unlike the grasping TV gurus and guru-ettes of push-button la-la-land). His freelance orators revitalised the Zeitgeist with their insights - they were often martyred for so doing - and because what they were saying was spontaneous and impassioned, it remained in the mind for far, far longer, giving the audience the feeling that they were present at a unique and unrepeatable event. They couldn't catch it again on video.

Hyde Park was, and is, man speaking in tongues, speaking in the wilderness; the Sermon on the Mount, the trickster, the fanatic, the holy fool. By contrast the Palace of Westminster is the democratic Vatican. Both strands are of equal importance but there have been 18 years of viral attack on the communities. All hands are required on deck.

Dr Stephen Coleman is the director of the Hansard Scholars programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Not uninfluenced by his own background as a long-term observer of Hyde Park in action, he is now instrumental, with others, in bringing "armchair mavericks and eccentric ideologues", and anyone else who cares to participate, out into the open through "UK Citizens On-Line Democracy" (http://www.democracy.org.uk), which is, in effect, a virtual People's Parliament, where the rough and tumble of the hustings can be incarnated in cyberspace, and where those old, urgent voices long stilled by vehicle traffic, may be heard once more on the information superhighway - a virtual parliament, which could, if accessible enough, turn into an ongoing deliberative democracy broadening "public space" to nigh-on infinite proportions.

Elitists and dyed-in-the-wool Luddites alike will be aghast; but, if nothing else, the great Web differs from Cobbett's great Wen in that it remains mercifully, anarchically, and perhaps even utopianly unresponsive to the devilish talons of the media moguls who have all been obliged to retreat from cyberspace, their greedy claws blunted by frustration.

'Stilled Tongues: from soapbox to soundbite' by Stephen Coleman (Porcupine Press, pounds 8.95).