A Summer in the Park: A Journal of Speakers' Corner by Tony Allen
I devoured this book in just two sittings, and loved every page. It has its laugh-out-loud moments, and is witty, engaging and charming throughout. What makes it so compelling?
Perhaps it's just me. The book is a diary of Tony Allen's experiences as a speaker and heckler at Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park. For a joke, he applied to the Arts Council for a grant to continue his work there as an "advocate heckler". They went for it, and this book is the result. It's hard for me to be objective about it. I've being going to Speaker's Corner on and off for about five years, even taking a brief and unsuccessful turn as a speaker. I'm familiar with the world he is describing and am friendly with many of its characters, so I know just how well Tony has captured its unique atmosphere. At its best, there's no place quite like it in the world: a cross between street theatre and what Question Time claims to be, but never is. As Tony puts it:
"Nothing can prepare you for the Hyde Park speaking experience. The performance dynamics are unique. The close proximity of other meetings and the robust heckling tradition make Speakers' Corner unlike any other forum of public performance. Having an audience of easily distracted browsers harbouring hit and run snipers demands a house style of 'dramatic conflict' raw and obvious. A take-no-prisoners gladiatorial confrontation with the speaker as devil's advocate remains the preferred tried and tested format. Even the rough-house of street theatre is subtle by comparison."
At its worst, however, Speaker's Corner is frustrating and depressing – little more than the tourist freak show that its critics claim. Tony captures both the best and the worst sides brilliantly, which makes the worst of it seem all the more bearable – and human.
Once you've read this book, you'll understand why a talent like Tony Allen would bother to hone his craft at such an unlikely venue. And I doubt you'll be able to resist a visit to the place yourself. Give it a chance, and you may yet understand why people fought and died for the right to speak there. With this excellent book and the talented speakers it describes, the fight to save it from degeneration is very far from lost.