Bearded and balding, the elderly gentleman is delicately poised on his stool as he addresses the crowd in front of him. He will talk for hours and not tire; after all, he has fire in his belly.
The fire of belief that is. And that helps with the rant. We are all lost sheep; we have been torn off the track by society, by idolatrous beliefs, consumerism and all that makes up the modern world. Only through accepting Jesus Christ can we be redeemed.
Below him are a group of young listeners. Only one is angry, the rest are mocking. They heckle the old man mercilessly. They are all Muslim. At one point the man reacts angrily, having tired of their taunts. This is the response they were after; it emboldens them. Everyone else in attendance is laughing.
Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London at the end closest to Marble Arch is where this ruckus takes place. Cross Marble Arch and you’re in consumerist heaven Oxford Street, where the department stores are the new houses of worship and the throngs are plentiful.
Originally a site that saw the likes of Karl Marx and George Orwell address the crowds, in 2011 it’s religion that takes center stage while onlookers watch with bemusement at the pumped-up rhetoric and heckling.
The elderly man launches an attack on Islam, calling it a religion of evil. Soon after, a young Muslim man with a long beard and shades carrying a smartphone sets up a stool right next to our born-again friend. He’s hip, more cutting-edge as he will let us know. And while his Christian counterpart is all earnestness and fire and brimstone, he is suave and sarcastic.
The Muslim man proceeds to extol the virtues of Islam and condescendingly knocks the defects of his counterpart’s arguments. Meanwhile, the evangelist continues to say his piece.
In a group nearby, a young woman clutching a small Bible in her hand is having a heated conversation with a Muslim man with a long beard. Behind them is a much larger gathering where religion is not the topic. This group is comprised solely of Arabs and in the middle a visibly emotional older man speaks (in Arabic) about the uprisings in the region.
At one point a younger man asks if the older man is even Arab. The elderly man gets distraught and a fracas almost ensues, again to the amusement of those watching. To prove his identity, the man starts singing traditional Arab folk music, replete with a dance.
Speaker’s Corner is traditionally a place where people go to speak their mind about any topic they wish. Attendees believe that they are immune from prosecution for anything they say there, but that is not true. However, much leeway is given and if you can withstand the heckling, you’re free to say what you wish.
Tiring of all the religious back and forth, finally I find a group that is not running the gauntlet on theological idiosyncrasies or the so-called Arab Spring. A Marxist, who is a regular at Speaker’s Corner, is postulating that only through technological advancement will the working class be freed and Britain’s National Health Service fixed once and for all.
Yet it isn’t the topic being discussed that captures people’s attention. In the audience there is a very tall man in sunglasses listening to the debate. Something about him is off. He is very sharply dressed, as if he had taken the advice of a costume designer about what one wears when in England. He is of course, holding an umbrella, which he is resting, point down, on his shoe. He seems out of place among the rest and is very quiet.
My friend comes up to me and tells me, “I think that’s Ryan Gosling.” I’m not in the know when it comes to these things, but the name rings a bell and I can barely make out a face in my head and decide that yes, there could be a resemblance there. Even if he isn’t, there’s something about him that is hard to put a finger on, he’s too spiffy, too polished. He seems like someone who walked straight off a movie set looking for more material.
My friend approaches him and asks him if he is indeed the Hollywood A-Lister. He whispers to her so that it is hard to make out an accent that he is not, in fact Ryan Gosling but that he gets that a lot and is flattered by the comparison. We walk away convinced that he is, but was merely trying to maintain a low profile, while the rest of our group snicker about our conviction, much like the people we left behind at Speaker’s Corner.