Sunday, July 24, 2011

Speakers' Corner

My sister and her husband are visiting. We're in Hyde Park, walking along the Serpentine. I've forced the youngest one to come along, and he is anxious to resume his television-viewing schedule.

"We should cross just here," he says, pointing to a bridge.

"There's a way across up there," I say, pointing straight ahead.

"But the car's that way," he says.

"We're not going to the car," I say.

My brother-in-law, who is Bulgarian, has expressed a desire to see Speakers' Corner. The youngest one does not take the news well.

"What?" he shouts, adopting the posture of a puppet hanging dejectedly from its strings. Even after I buy him an ice-cream, he continues to make his feelings plain, kicking a football ahead of him as we walk.

"You might actually find it interesting," I say.

"Why would I?" he says. "Just a bunch of hippies arguing."

"You don't know what a hippy is."

"You're lucky," my brother-in-law says. "I grew up under communism. We never had something like this."

Anyone looking to find democracy in action at Speakers' Corner is liable to be disappointed. It's now more of a showcase for religious quackery. A man in a cowboy hat with Jesus Is Alive embroidered on his trousers stands on a stepladder, berating a Muslim in the crowd while being incoherently heckled by three large young men, one shirtless, all mashed. The boy hands me his football.

"Hold this," he says. "I need to deal with this guy." He snakes to the front of the crowd and raises his hand. The cowboy tells his audience they're going to hell. Ten minutes pass. I try to catch the boy's eye, but he ignores me. My sister comes over.

"What's going on?" she says.

"Dunno," I say. "He appears to have a question."

One of the mashed young men picks up the boy and puts him on his shoulders, swaying alarmingly. His hand remains in the air. Eventually, I manage to snatch him down.

"Let's move on," I say.

"He totally ignored me," says the boy. "He saw my hand."

We stroll from speaker to speaker, but religion seems to be the only topic on offer. At some point I notice the youngest one is no longer with us.

"Did you see where he went?" I say. Behind me, I can hear the cowboy bellowing, hoarse with mock outrage. "How old are you? You're 12?"

"Uh-oh," I say.

By the time I get there, the crowd has formed a circle around them. Only the cowboy's voice is audible above the clamour: "Do you believe in evolution?" he shouts. "You do?"

Tourists are photographing the standoff. "Listen to him!" one yells.

"If you believe in evolution, what was here before the universe? Nothing? You believe in nothing?"

An onlooker raises the issue of the fossil record, and I manage to get the youngest out of the crowd before a band of three hovering evangelicals can convert him. He stalks across the park, eyes shining with fury.

"And you didn't want to come," I say.

"I shouldn't have told him my age," he says. "After that, he just dismissed everything I said."

"You can't win an argument with someone like that. He has a ladder."

"Everyone was on your side," says my brother-in-law. "You're my hero."

Later, watching the event on my sister's phone, I hear the boy's response to the argument that, because he believes in evolution, he believes in nothing. He pinches the bridge of his nose with two fingers and shakes his head. "Oh my God," he says. "You're being such an idiot."

by Tim Dowling

(to my son)

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