As students in London in the early 80s, my friends and I did whatever we could to entertain ourselves on the cheap: labyrinthine, clueless but committed all-night arguments on political theory, parties gatecrashed in the hope of stealing a bottle or a kiss, hours of masturbation (intellectual, physical, mutual if we were lucky, solo if not), and even, occasionally, attendance at lectures or seminars just for the craic. One form of entertainment I was unable to persuade my friends to partake of was a Sunday morning trip to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner—hangover or inclement weather were the usual excuses—where one could huddle for warmth in crowds of pre-internet trolls as they heckled, harried, harassed, and humiliated the unfortunate few who had had the temerity to appoint themselves the focus of attention and source of enlightenment. I’ve always thought this ridiculing of the hubristic to be a valuable evolutionary tool in humanity’s development, a way to ensure not that anyone gets ideas above their station but that no station above or outside that of the community ever appears. And, to be fair, most of those who took the stage at Speakers’ Corner deserved the hard time they received: Proselytisers, Holy Joes, Holier-than-thou Joes, Prolier-than-thou Joes, Self-taught Vulgar Marxists, Untutored Vulgar Racists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Eleventh-Day Dreamers, Men in Straw Boaters, Strawmen by the Boatload. There’s a wonderful website where you can read about the varieties of crypto-religious experience to be had at this cathedral to free speech here.
My favourite speaker of all was a German anarchist known to me only as Willy, whose fractured English made his meaning no more or less opaque than that of the other turns, and no more or less funny, but it lent a certain charm to his Gestetnered magazine, News from Nowhere, never likely to be confused with William Morris’s utopian socialist text of the same name. Whenever I visited Hyde Park, I always hoped that Willy would be there, even though I rarely agreed with him—he was simultaneously too hippyish and too Stirnerite for my tastes—for he was a gentle and amusing speaker. He was also the only speaker I ever saw escorted off the premises by the cops at Speakers’ Corner, following some scuffles in which he played no part, for the content of his oration. Annoyingly, I don’t recall the subject of his speech, only that when he was helped down from his milkcrate by the constabulary, he was immediately replaced by a Marxist of a most boring and didactic aspect, who lost no time in losing the crowd’s sympathy, telling Willy’s erstwhile listeners that their attitude to work—they were against it—qualified them only for membership of the lumpenproletariat.
Willie died some years ago, I believe, but I still have a photo of him, courtesy of Invisible Threads, a large-format book of photographs taken by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died this weekend. A bereted Willy stands on a milkcrate wearing a homemade cardboard placard round his neck like a victim of Mao’s Red Guard. The text in felt marker relates to the Persons Unknown trial and reads “If it’s a crime to be an anarchist, then I’m a criminal.” Yevtushenko titled this photo “A Fragile Pedestal,” an apt comment on the willingness of hecklers to knock speakers off theirs, but less appropriate in light of the trial’s outcome: four defendants—Ronan Bennett, Iris Mills, Trevor Dawton, and Vince Stevenson—were acquitted. I subsequently met Vince on a number of occasions at the Autonomy Club, an anarchist community centre in Wapping that was financed by money from the support fund, and Ronan Bennett has had a successful career as a novelist, playwright, and, more recently, focus of media celebrity speculation.
I saw Yevtushenko give a poetry reading in Birmingham in 1979, an experience I drew upon for the date scene in Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love; actually, not so much “drew upon” as reproduced verbatim, though with Ivy as the protagonist. Yevtushenko was 45 years old at the time, this episode of The Book Programme tells me, ten years younger than I am today, yet he seemed to me already to be pensionable, perhaps because he wore a flat cap throughout the reading, and flat caps were indelibly associated for me with my own grandfather, already in his seventies back then. (In retrospect, the flat cap may have been a fashion trend among intellectuals of the late 70s; that same year, I attended a sociology conference at Lancaster University where I saw Tom Bottomore deliver an entire lecture without removing his cap once.) Yevtushenko’s dynamism belied his apparent years, however. He declaimed heroically, growling, prowling, staring, emoting, the archetypal poets’ poet. There were only two male students in my Russian language class at college—Brian Grogan and me—so we were used to being marginal, minority participants in lessons (the low profile, I feel, explains why we were never targeted by MI6, either for surveillance or recruitment). Brian was absent from the reading, meaning that Yevgeny replaced him as the only other male in the room (male, not man; I was 16 at the time). It was a virtuoso performance, albeit helped, I am sure by the unworldiness of his audience, bookish bespectacled ladies of a certain age, awestruck by his very presence. I remember very little of the night other than Yevtushenko basking in the worship of his audience and wondering what that flat cap was all about. Maybe he just had a bald patch he was concealing.
Had I any sense of the dramatic, my anecdote would end with “And that was the night I decided to become a poet,” but to be faithful to my recollections, I must instead report that I chanced my arm with one of my fellow classmates on the way home, asking her for a date in the naïve hope that exposure to Yevgeny’s lyricism had rendered her susceptible to the less graceful charms of a teenage Brummie. My hope was as baseless as it was base.
Perhaps I should buy a cap.