The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

My New Favorite Thing

Consider yourselves lucky-- I feel blogarific today.

I had quite an interesting and exhausting day. First I got up at 8 to take Hannah to the train station--she left today to go back to California, having been here since Thursday. We had a really good time together and yesterday we met some friends of hers from the internet who took us around central London and then along the South Bank. I had been to the Eye and the Tate Modern separately, but I'd never walked along the South Bank itself, and though it was quite cold with the wind blowing in off the Thames, I enjoyed it immensely. The whole area is about modern art, and everywhere you look there is art being created, interacted with, and enjoyed. One example is the row of Living Statues just past the Eye. I love living statues anyway, and some of these were quite good. I took pictures of several of them and will post them soon. Past the statues there was a man sculpting sand in a tiny strip of beach on the Thames. The sculpture of the day was a bunch of giant rats entitled "Rat Race." Then there was a mini-skatepark with layers and layers of graffiti; I saw a few 11 year olds adding a bit of their own. Then a theater or two, and finally the Tate Modern. It was a lovely, if chilly, walk, and later we went back to the Metropolitan for dinner and drinks and (delightfully, surprisingly) discussions on feminism. Ta.

But anyway. Today I walked Hannah to the train station (a bit of hike, Regent's Park to Victoria Station, but not bad). We said our goodbyes on the platform and it was all very emo, and then I walked back north to Hyde Park. I walked along Rotten Row and the Serpentine a little bit, then noticed a sign pointing towards Speaker's Corner and realized I'd heard about it before, and that it was, in fact, a Sunday. Lucky me! I've found a new Favorite Thing. It doesn't quite trump Books, but it comes in a close second. I spent a good 5.5 hours a Speaker's Corner and met more than one nice chap. The first one was a smart-looking young man to whom I made a comment about the juvenile nature of one of the resident hecklers. Some of them are quite good, but this one just wandered 'round all day with a giant can of Budweiser in his hand, flinging about silly comments (some of which are funny and some of which are stupid) which usually resulted in a sort of "your mom-" or "I know you are but what am I-"caliber exchange. I muttered to the nice young man next to be that I felt like we were all in the second grade again, and he agreed. First he spoke to me in an English accent, but after we exchanged a few more phrases he fell into an American accent. I have met a surprising number of Americans in this way; they speak originally in an English accent, and then once they hear my American they fall (unconsciously, I think) into an American. When I ask them about it they always say that they didn't even notice. Mostly it's because they've lived in both places at various points in their lives or have been in England a very long time. In any case, the man (I didn't get his name but let's call him Alex) and I then proceeded to move on to the next speaker, an Iraqi "Doctor" of some sort who may or may not have formerly worked for Saddam Hussein (this information came from a resident heckler, and the Doctor didn't actually deny any of it). The Doctor had posters up of Iraqi children who have been killed in the war and various news stories and photos about the war. He was ranting about the atrocities that are committed in Iraq and his posters said "end the occupation of Iraq," but he never actually said what it was he wanted. He never stated a clear goal, and he never said "I want Bush and Blair to do x, y, and z" or "this is what I want to see happen" or even "This is what all of you should do," etc. Alex and I noticed this and heckled him a little. I asked him his name so that we could google him and see if what the heckler had said about him was true or not. He would not say. I told him that we all know that war is terrible, and most Americans, including myself, would like to see an end to it, but what did he want us to do about it? I asked him directly about three times what it was he wanted us to do, or what he wanted to see happen, and he would not give an answer. He just kept spouting off about the horrible things the British and American soldiers have supposedly done. Alex challenged his claims, pointing out that many if not most of the deaths are due to terrorist extremists; suicide bombers and insurgents within the country killing innocent people. The Doctor would not respond to this either. When the Doctor talked about how the Americans are oppressing the Iraqis, Alex heckled him about how homosexuals are oppressed throughout the region, including in Iran. The Doctor welcomed questions and pretended to engage with us, but he never actually answered any of them directly. We stayed a bit longer and then moved on to Diane.

Diane was a very fierce, stern looking white-haired lady. She was probably around 60 but was fully of energy. Bitter, bitter energy. I listened to her for a good 30 minutes or more and still I couldn't tell you what it is she is so angry about, or what it was she was trying to get across to her audience. She was dressed in a long, green dress in a style that looked like something for a modest church-lady in the 50s with a brown blazer over it. On her lapel she had a yellow flower, but there was nothing sunny about her. Her hair was wound and pinned back, and held back further from her face with a light brown headband, but little wisps of it would get pulled free by the wind and blow in front anyway. If it weren't for the venomous expression on her face and the bite in her words, you might mistake her for a very sweet old lady if you saw her on the street. Basically she was going off about immigration, and who's Truly English, and the Protestant Church. She believes, I think, something to the effect that the only true God is the God of the English church, Catholics are evil, no one should travel at all and certainly not immigrate to a foreign country, and the only people who deserve to live in England are those who are Truly English. As for who's Truly English, from what I could gather apparently it is only her and the Queen.

While listening (half-heartedly) to Diane I started talking to an older gentlemen who had also been at the Doctor's corner. He was Indian/British and a catholic, and talked to me at length about war and peace and Christianity and the Bible. It was a very good and helpful conversation for me, and he even gave me a biscuit. He showed me some books he was reading (Plato's Republic and a book of poetry about the character of God) and we laughed at Diane together. She was really so off-the-wall steaming mad about everything it was quite funny, and she insulted everyone in the audience constantly, which was also quite funny. I asked her for a summary of what she was trying to get across, since I couldn't make heads or tails of it, and she refused me bitterly. She didn't like me either because I'm American. The best, though, was that there was this Irishman who would wander around in the open circle between her and the crowd and trade barbs with her. It was absolutely hilarious. She'd rag on the Irish and he'd just laugh and laugh and make Irish jokes and then jokes about everything. It was great.

There were other speakers, one of whom was very angry indeed, shouting about the history of slavery and the evils of European Colonization of the southern world. His name was Ishmael, which I found oddly appropriate. He didn't think there was really a genocide going on in Darfur, but rather a conflict, and the only reason the governments care at all is because they want the oil of that region. There was a rather nice and intelligent Marxist who, unlike almost all the other speakers, didn't shout at all. The crowd gathered in very close around him and asked questions and we all spoke together with him like civilized people. I talked to him and the others engaged in the conversation about how I didn't think the US would invade Iran because the American people are so sick of war and in two years we're going to elect a completely different administration. Perhaps this is a bit too optimistic (the Marxist certainly thought so, he didn't think it mattered who we elected because all the politicians can be bought out) but I still hope that in 2 years we'll elect someone completely different and the direction of the country, especially the foreign policy, will change. You know who I'm talkin' about.

There was a whole group of Nation of Islam members in uniform, complete with the guys who stood all around the speaker in the middle facing outwards, wearing sunglasses and keeping stony looks on their faces, frowning out into the crowd as if to say "I just dare you to try to approach us." It was pretty much exactly like all the pictures and movies I've seen that feature the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. They stood around looking very scary and shouting about God and Oppression and all that. I would have listened more closely but I couldn't get very close because they were quite popular with the crowds.

Most of the others were just evangelists, in various states of Rage, although there was one very nice guy who stood up on his stepladder (they almost all had stepladders; if they didn't it was an actual soapbox) holding a sign that simply said "Free Hugs." And then people would approach him, he'd get off the stepladder, and give them a free hug. Once in a while he'd leave his post to walk around the area handing out cookies and cakes to the crowds and other speakers. It was quite amusing when he tried to give Diane a hug.

Aside from the speakers themselves, I loved Speaker's Corner because of all the different kinds of people in the audience. The audience was basically a cross-section of the entire world. Ishmael, when making his point about Colonization, went around the audience and asked several people (all of them non-white, of course) what country they were from in order to demonstrate how many countries have been colonized by Europeans at some point. Just from his brief survey, it was revealed that several nationalities were present. India, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, etc etc etc. What this means is that not only were dozens of different nationalities of people showing up to the same event for the free exchange of ideas, but also that when one of the Christian Evangelists went off on how Islam is a demonic religion, they got challenged by an actual Muslim. That *never* happens in Springfield.

So yes. I have found a New Favorite Thing. And I will be back every single Sunday I'm in London until I go home. And then I will dream about it.

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