Almost everyone in London knows about Speakers’ Corner, yet few have actually been there. Indeed, many will be surprised to find that it’s still going today.
While neglected by Londoners, Speakers’ Corner attracts a great number of visitors from all over the globe. It seems that there are many places around the world where people still regard this place and institution as the epitome of the right to freely speak and assemble.
Yet Speakers’ Corner today is probably better known for its assembly of eccentrics, fervent preachers and perceived nutcases.
The first thing that will strike you is the passion with which speakers and clusters of seemingly random people argue their cases and debate issues of all kind. Orators, preachers, hecklers and attention-seekers shout at each other (or no one in particular). Eccentrics mingle with tourists, groups of teenage school children and Sunday afternoon strollers.
No microphones or megaphones are allowed here. Speakers have to find other ways to make themselves heard and to fend off vociferous hecklers. Unlike the internet, this is not a place where one can remain anonymous. And although violence is surprisingly rare, speakers have to be prepared to get pushed off their ladders when words are no longer powerful enough.
How much of this passion can be captured in a photograph? That’s what I have been investigating with these images.
Heiko Khoo has been speaking at Speaker’s Corner since the 1980s. A long-time Marxist activist and expert on Chinese politics, he covers a wide range of subjects.
You are speaking at Speakers’ Corner pretty much every Sunday. Is it a big part of what you do? What does it mean to you as an institution?
It’s a place where I can test out what I’m thinking; where I can check if I’m able to communicate those ideas to an audience and whether they are able to understand what I’m talking about. And it forces me to follow the news. It allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the world and connect with people. My main specialty is China. If it weren’t for me going to Speakers’ Corner, I might just get lost in that and not be able to talk to anybody.
There are people at Speakers’ Corner who’ll give me the feedback I need. And most of the people I know in this world I met at Speakers’ Corner.
When you speak, in how far do you consider it a performance? Are you becoming someone else when you stand on a ladder?
Yeah, you’re always performing in some way when you’re speaking. A friend of mine recently watched a video of me speaking. He said, “That’s not how you normally talk!” You’re playing to a crowd, you learn how to deal with a crowd, and it becomes a performance.
At one time, I studied all the [Russian actor and director Konstantin] Stanislavski stuff. Then I got really into [Bertolt] Brecht. I tried to use elements of their techniques and combine it with oratory. I’ve tried various theatrical methods at Speakers’ Corner with positive and negative responses.
Sometimes I do songs, connect it with a war theme or something like that. Sometimes a bit of poetry. I create a format, refine it over time, and once it works, I can draw on it whenever I need to. For example, when I speak about the Iraq war or the history of September 11th, I’ll construct a narrative that will allow me to speak anywhere on these subjects, and I will get a crowd.
Once you know how to do this, you can create like a hundred different stories or themes, each with a powerful impact. Because I’ve tried them out on people, seen the response, amended and adjusted them, found the right tone of voice. It then becomes something you instinctively draw on. You pull together stories together and create a flow. But normally I avoid doing all that because it becomes just performance rather than talk, rather than discussion.
Originally from Florida, Steve Same spent four years as a missionary in the Philippines with his wife, Tina. In 1992 they moved to London to open a new ministry. They converted an abandoned pub in Rotherhithe into the London Outreach Centre.
Why the cowboy outfit? What does it allow you to do or say that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do?
When I came to London with Dirk Wood [founder and director of the Arise & Shine Evangelistic Association] in 1992, Dirk said, “I feel like God wants us to dress up as cowboys.” I said, “You’re kidding me!” I told him, “I worry about that one. Why would we do that?” There didn’t seem to be a lot of meaning in it other than he felt that God told him to do it.
I had never been to England but when I asked people who had been, they said, “Oh yeah, there’s cowboys in England.” So I said, OK.
Here we are, 23 years later and I haven’t seen a single cowboy, except in the mirror [laughs]. But that’s what we did, we started dressing up as cowboys every time we’d go out preaching – on the buses, the Underground or in the market in Poplar, where we lived at the time.
At first it was hilarious. But it felt like we had a target painted on our backs. First of all we were Christians, we would get mocked and abused for that. Secondly, we were Americans. Especially at that time, Americans were seen as God’s policemen and so we’d get blamed for all kinds of things. The third thing was the cowboy gear. But the one word we heard all the time was, “Christian!”
You sometimes come across as quite confrontational. Do people sometimes feel offended?
Oh yeah, a lot of times. I try to be sensitive but I make mistakes. But often I will do it on purpose. If I want someone to be honest about where they are at, I’ll challenge them and that might come across as confrontational.
It doesn’t take much to provoke somebody. If I say, “You’re a sinner,” that will provoke most people. They’ll say, “What are you…? Don’t you ever call me a sinner!” Just in the last couple of weeks, a mother came up to me and said, “How dare you call my son a sinner?” I replied, “You mean he hadn’t told you?” It doesn’t take much to offend people.
Most people don’t want to say anything. They think they are safe if they don’t say anything. But yes, there is quite a lot of confrontation.
Serious Conviction, The book
A book about the people of Speakers’ Corner, Serious Conviction presents the spectacle of a place ostensibly populated by eccentrics, oddballs and fanatics. Large-format photographs document the startling variety of characters that bring Speakers’ Corner to life today and make it unique in the world.
Serious Conviction is a book of stories. Interviews with five long-standing speakers offer another – very different – perspective on some of the individuals that we might be quick to label as nutcases.