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Bob Rogers At Speakers’ Corner

March 12, 2014
by the gentle author

“I’m old enough to know better and young enough not to care”

Despite the timbre of the message he has been wearing around his neck each Sunday at Speakers’ Corner for decades, Bob Rogers is not the lugubrious fellow you might imagine. Contrary to expectation, he wears it to cheer people up – as he explained to me when Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined him in the park on Sunday.

“It was the winter when British Rail reported ‘The Wrong Kind of Snow’ on the line and that became an Evening Standard headline. The next day, I saw ‘It’s Going to Get Worse,’ on the newsstand as I went through Piccadilly on a bus. So I jumped off and took it from the hoarding and put in my bag because I like the prose style of newspaper headlines,” he explained. “Then I came here on a Sunday in February and everyone looked so miserable that I took it out of my bag and held it up, and it made them all smile. It caught on to such an extent that I am pictured wearing it in guidebooks to London.”

A stalwart of more than half a century at Speakers’ Corner, always in his faded brown corduroy suit with a beret in winter or a bucket hat in summer, and the celebrated notice round his neck, Bob Rogers is an erudite historian and a self-appointed custodian of this celebrated British institution.“Unless I am very unwell, I always come here because it retains its function as a meeting place and you encounter people from all around the world,” he revealed to me, “I keep coming back because I know people here and they know me, so it has a social content as well as a social purpose.”

As if to illustrate this, one of Bob’s pals joined us and, realising I was doing an interview, he took the opportunity to make some points.”These days people are frightened of saying the wrong thing,” he assured me, rolling his eyes contemptuously, “It’s no longer about politics, it’s just a circus of religion – fifty seven varieties of Christianity and fifty-seven varieties of Islam and they all disagree with each other.”

The 1873 reform of the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 conferred legitimacy upon Speakers’ Corner, enshrining the right to give an address though not – as some assume – the right to free speech since speakers are still subject to the law.“I enjoy the weekly privilege of visiting the only place where people can gather without police permission,” Bob confided to me, lowering his voice and casting his gaze around,“When people ask me how many police undercover agents are in the park, I say, ‘Every third man.’”

“Over fifty years ago, I missed a connection on my bus and I looked over the railings and I saw all these people and what got me was the babble of their voices,” he continued, as we stood against the railings watching the excited crowds gathered around the speakers and the hecklers adding drama with their interruptions.“The Catholic Evidence Guild were here one hundred years ago and are here this week and that’s because this is the site of of Tyburn, the place of public executions,” Bob added, gazing through the perspective of time,“Even as we speak they are praying for the Catholic Martyrs.”

Then, swinging his arms wildly and intoning like a priest, Bob enacted the bizarre yet compelling performance style of Nutty Norman, the ‘arms-up’ man, one of the past legends of Speakers’ Corner. “You’d never know he was homeless, he carried all his possessions in a shoulder bag,” Bob revealed, protective of his mentor, “He inducted me to the night buses and sometimes he passed the night at Heathrow.” Gesturing to a charismatic speaker surrounded by an attentive gathering, Bob pointed out Heiko Khoo, a part-German-part-Icelandic ex-bus conductor who famously threw Sir Michael Joseph off his bus, declaring, “I’m not having any Tories on my bus!”

Even as Bob and I chatted, bystanders came over and formed an audience around us, in expectation of a colourful debate and making tangible the rare quality of this special place where we are free to speak with each other as humans, without the need to be introduced.

“Religious people talk about the power of God, I talk about Horse power!”

Omid Mankoo - “People’s lives are really fixated on the sex stuff and they’re neglecting everything else. I’ve written this book and I want to share my secrets.”

Matthew from St Albans - “Jesus told me to come here because the years of his blessing our nation are at an end.”

Christians praying

Christians spreading the Word

Thai people protesting against their corrupt government

Celebrating the Thai Royal Family

Proclaiming the Nigerian Messiah

“If that frightens you, give Jesus a call”

“Don’t be late like the foolish virgins”

Bob re-enacts the gestures of Nutty Norman the ‘arms-up’ man

Heiko Khoo - “I’m not having any Tories on my bus!”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Sounds from the Park, an exhibition of the history of Speakers’ Corner runs at Bishopsgate Institute until 30th April

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Moyra Peralta at Speakers’ Corner

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 12, 2014

    Nice post, brings back lots of fun memories – as kids we often went there for a fun Sunday morning. Good to see that some British Institutions still survive! Valerie

  2. March 12, 2014

    50 years a Londoner and I’ve never been to Speakers Corner. Having read this, it’s irresistible….

  3. March 12, 2014

    Yes, I also have my opinions and would really like to announce them at Speakers’ Corner. Would be a good chance!

    Bob, keep on taking the opportunity to make your points!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. tanya permalink
    March 13, 2014

    Great to see that Speakers Corner is still thriving. And that not everyone has taken to twitter to spread their views.

    Love the photos too.

  5. Milo Bell permalink
    March 13, 2014

    I used to wander down there from my place near Queensway, along the Bayswater rd almost every sunday.
    I liked the fact it was mostly the same speakers from week to week (‘Nutty Norman’ eh? I recognised him from Bobs gestures) and also the same hecklers.
    Autumn leaves, the smell of hotdogs, the great mix of peoples from all over…
    I do hope it hasn’t been entirely taken over by religious nuts…

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