Free speech at the Speakers Corner (P. G. Wodehouse on offensive speech)

When we visited London for the first time two years ago, we didn’t want to leave without visiting Kensington Gardens and the adjacent Hyde Park.  Kensington Gardens was a priority because James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, had frequented its gardens and ponds (like Round Pond, shown above) from his home just north of the park. (Read Emsworth’s review of a recent Barrie biography at this post.) And we wanted to visit Speakers Corner at Hyde Park on a Sunday morning.

In all Christendom there is no finer symbol of freedom of speech than Speakers Corner. Since the 1870s, socialists, radical priests, Muslim extremists, and crackpots of all varieties have been coming to this patch of grass to exercise their lungs for anyone who will listen.

And so a Sunday morning in May found us gawking rudely at perhaps half a dozen such speakers, all standing on their soapboxes telling little groups of Londoners and tourists what was wrong with the world and how to fix it. In our quest for local color (or “colour”, as the Brits quaintly would have it), we got our money’s worth at Speakers Corner.

One fellow, a tireless talker, stood over a Socialist Party banner, looking just as a socialist ought to look, preaching to a dozen listeners that Britain had fallen abjectly short of achieving true socialism. Subsequent research by Emsworth identified him as Danny Lambert, a perennial candidate for local public office.

Another man in colorful attire seemed to be speaking on behalf of an Islamic group of some kind. He was explaining that the United States was in Iraq solely because Americans hate the Muslim religion and because the United States government is controlled by the Jews (not by “Jews”, but “the Jews”, if you catch the distinction).

Yet another speaker was readily identifiable as a professional leftist. He was enthusiastically slandering George W. Bush and the United States, while holding up Hugo Chavez’s thuggish regime in Venezuela as a model. We knew his type, adept at following his party’s marching orders and sticking to talking points. In the seventies, when we did time on an upstate New York university campus, his leftist counterparts were giving exactly the same speeches, except that it was Castro they were pimping instead of Chavez. In the sixties, it was Mao, in the eighties; it was Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas.

Yet why should we try to describe Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, when no one can improve on P. G. Wodehouse’s description in his short story “Comrade Bingo,” from The Inimitable Jeeves? The story begins, as Bertie Wooster tells it,

in the Park — at the Marble Arch end — where weird birds of every description collect on Sunday afternoons and stand on soap-boxes and make speeches.

On the edge of the mob farthest away from me a gang of top-hatted chappies were starting an open-air missionary service; nearer at hand an atheist was letting himself go with a good deal of vim, though handicapped a bit by having no roof to his mouth; while in front of me there stood a little group of serious thinkers with a banner labelled “Heralds of the Red Dawn.”

Not much has changed at the Speakers Corner since Wodehouse published “Comrade Bingo” in The Strand in 1922.

But we still have with us the question of how to deal with highly offensive speech. In Canada, as I noted sourly in an earlier post, the government has installed speech police in the form of “human rights tribunals,” with authority to punish people who offend the sensibilities of religious and ethnic groups.

The Wodehouse approach is better. In Wodehouse’s story, one of the Heralds of the Red Dawn begins to berate Bertie Wooster and his aristocratic companion, Lord Bittlesham, with hilarious invective. But instead of complaining that there are no laws against such diatribes, Lord Bittlesham simply turns his back:

“Come away, Mr. Wooster,” he said. “I am the last man to oppose the right of free speech, but I refuse to listen to this vulgar abuse any longer.”

Wodehouse was to politics as a eunuch is to sex, but his policy concerning offensive hate groups and authoritarian figures cannot be improved upon. When he did not ignore them (as did his character Lord Bittlesham), he mocked them without mercy. The closest Wodehouse ever got to a political theme was the creation of Roderick Spode, a nemesis of Bertie Wooster in several stories, most memorably in Wodehouse’s masterpiece The Code of the Woosters, written during the second World War.

In the 1920s, Wodehouse surely ran across characters like the Heralds of the Red Dawn in “Comrade Bingo,” foolishly infatuated with Russian socialism. In the 1930s, Wodehouse must have been appalled to see so many Englishmen attracted to Hitler’s national socialism. One such misguided person was Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, upon whom Wodehouse’s character Roderick Spode is modeled. Spode is a outlandish figure with a Hitler moustache who loves to hear his own voice, makes his sycophantic followers wear black shorts, and dreams of becoming Dictator.

No amount of laws against fascist ideology could have damaged the cause of fascism more effectively than the sort of mockery and ridicule that Wodehouse brought to bear on Roderick Spode. Today’s thought police ought to take a lesson from Wodehouse.

“What a curse these social distinctions are. They ought to be abolished. I remember saying that to Karl Marx once, and he thought there might be an idea for a book in it.”

— P. G. Wodehouse, in his novel Quick Service

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like your musings on today’s “Thought Police”, and I agree wholeheartedly!

  2. Hello,

    I am very interested in using the 6th photo from the top for educational purposes and I was wondering if you could provide me with some contact info for copyright purposes. Any help with this would be greatly appreciated!

    Roberta

  3. Mr. Riordan:
    I feel torn. I took out the apostrophes when another reader, Mr. Reinhard Wentz, told me there shouldn’t be any. Wikipedia has the apostrophe, but one can hardly take that as definitive. Naturally I want it to be right.
    Emsworth

  4. Surely – “Speakers’ Corner”?

  5. Mr. Wentz, I am much obliged. And this American stands corrected on the apostrophe — thank you.

  6. An excellent little essay on P G Wodehouse, Free Speech and Speakers Corner which I will refer to in a forthcoming ‘Reader’ on Speakers Corner, London.

    Ceterum Censeo: I believe there should be no apostrophe in ‘Speakers Corner’.

    Reinhard Wentz


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