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Hyde Park on a Sunday Morning

(by R. Daglish)

I once took a foreign friend of mine who thought the English a restrained and silent race to Hyde Park Corner on a Sunday morning. With its old, spreading trees, its wide stretches of carefully mown grass, its solid bandstands and asphalted paths, Hyde Park is like many another London parks, but there is a corner of it, near Marble Arch,* the like of which is not to be found anywhere else in England, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

* (Marble Arch - a London monument; a triple arch, set up at the northeastern entrance to Hyde Park. Originally intended to serve as a gateway to Buckingham Palace, it was erected there in 1828. Designed by John Nash after the Arch of Constantine in Rome; bronze gates by S. Parker; sculpture reliefs by E. H. Baily and R. Wastmacott.)

Here, on wooden stands and soap-boxes and even on ordinary park chairs (if the park-keeper doesn't spot them!) all kinds of men and women stand up and give their views on subjects that range from politics and religion to cures for rheumatism and the best way of getting on with your mother-in-law. When we arrived, a lady of about forty, quite well dressed, was explaining to a knot of onlookers why she had never been understood by her parents, a story ihat began when she was about five years old. Not far away a dark gentleman with flashing eyes was expounding the principles of some obscure eastern religion.

Large crowds were gathered round some of the stands With notice boards indicating allegiance to various political parties. A Communist speaker was telling his audience about what he had seen in the Soviet Union and attacking the capitalist press for hiding the facts. On the next stand a student from the West Indies was speaking in support of a league for the protection of the rights of the large numbers of his fellow countrymen who have recently emigrated to Britain in search of a better life. And at a stand further on, marked "Anarchist", a bearded speaker in a dark shirt was displaying all the tricks of oratory in tearing the various governments of the world to shreds. Whenever a voice from a crowd raised a protest at some bitter attack, he would turn blandly to the protester and say: "Just a moment, son, I'll be dealing with the people you don't like next."

A century ago this little corner of London's largest park used to be a favourite place for duelling. When it was that Englishmen gave up settling their differences with sword and pistol and decided to use their tongues instead, the historians do not tell us. Probably the tradition became established at the end of the last century, when the great political movements of the time had spread the desire for debate to all classes of the population. Writers differ about the usefulness of Orators' Corner* to democracy. Some regard it as a "safety valve" for releasing discontent, others say the "safety valve" should become a more effective instrument for political action. Certain it is, that Hyde Park Corner shares with Trafalgar Square the honour of being the gathering place for many great meetings of protest against injustice and war.

* (Orator's Corner = Speakers' Corner (read text on p. 235).)

Among the park's orators there are serious speakers and cranks, jokers and fanatics, and some have no particular theme at all. We found ourselves standing in a group round a speaker who had just asked the crowd to suggest a subject for him "to chat" about. It was then that my foreign friend fell into a trap. "I want you to tell me about England," she said. "Aha," said the speaker, noticing her foreign accent, "what made you ask that question?" And the next moment he was making her talk about herself and the country of her birth. So reader beware! Should you came to Hyde Park one day, you may become an orator too.

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