Peter Alexander extends his mini-stepladder and plonks it down on
the rain-dampened pavement. He looks heavenward.
"I hope that's the last of the rain," he says. "Rain makes people
take refuge in coffee shops."
He unravels a ball of string and ties homemade placards,
laminated in rain-busting plastic, to his stepladder. One warns that
the end of world is not only nigh, "it is happening RIGHT NOW."
Mr. Alexander has been coming to this corner of London's Hyde
Park every Sunday for the past year. A video producer on weekdays
and a "revealer of truths" weekends, he wants to alert people to the
fact that "the world is ending as we speak."
He adds: "You can see it in the freak weather incidents, the wars
in the Middle East, the credit crunch.... And all of this is being
"By them." He nods in toward central London.
Anyone overhearing might half-expect to turn and see "Matrix"-
style men in black and shades ready to haul him away in a van with
no-number plates. But there is only a smattering of tourists and
Londoners, umbrellas at the ready, listening to speeches on
everything from Greek democracy to fast food to Armageddon.
The clouds spit down some drizzle, and Alexander observes
seriously that even though the US government experiments with
weather control "I don't think they'd deploy it just to keep me from
He ascends his stepladder, and starts speaking. Before long, 20
people have gathered, some listen intently, others heckle wildly.
* * *
Since it was set up in 1872, Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park has
been one of the world's best-known forums for public debate - and
public displays of intellectual eccentricity.
It's big day is Sunday,and the likes of Karl Marx, Vladimir
Lenin, and George Orwell have come to listen. Intended as a space
for free and open discussion, anyone can turn up and speak on any
topic - so long as they don't swear excessively or incite hatred or
violence. Police officers stroll through the corner every hour or
so, to keep an eye - and an ear - on proceedings.
Now, a new charity - the Speakers' Corner Trust, whose founding
patron is Vaclav Havel, the playwright and human rights activist who
was the first president of the post-Communist Czech Republic - wants
to breathe life back into civil society in Britain by setting up
many more corner-style spaces where citizens can engage in face-to-
"Our aim is to get people exchanging ideas," says Peter Bradley,
codirector of the trust.
"Rights are like muscles," he says. "If you don't exercise them,
they become weak and flabby. And British people are not exercising
their right to free speech. It's the mark of democracy to have
active debate - and we want to encourage people to discuss the big
issues with each other."
The trust tested a new Speakers' Corner in Nottingham, England,
earlier this year. Mr. Bradley says it generated "excellent debate
about politics, climate change, family life." A space is being paved
and landscaped for a permanent Speakers' Corner in Nottingham's
historic Market Square. It's set to open for the business of loud
and rowdy debate in the autumn.
The founding of the original Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park is
intimately bound with the birth of free speech and democracy in
Britain. In 1866, the Reform League - which campaigned for the right
of all men to vote, rather than just the posh and privileged -
organized a public meeting in Hyde Park. Thousands turned up, broke
through a 1,700-man police blockade, and took over the north-east
corner of the park where they held impassioned discussions. This led
to deliberation in Parliament about the right to free speech in Hyde
Park - and in 1872, the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulation Act was
passed, giving over that park corner to public speaking.
But in recent years, Speakers' Corner has been more zany than