The Big Bang of Lunatic Slaves
by Michael Howarth
It’s a Sunday morning in July, and I’ve been touring London for the past few days, zooming around on the Tube with British pounds in one pocket and a fold-up map in the other. I’ve spent an entire afternoon wandering through the Imperial War Museum, and last night I watched Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I’ve shopped at Covent Garden, and I even spent a gloomy evening in Whitechapel, enjoying a slight buzz as I wandered through narrow streets and cobbled alleyways on a brilliant and bloody Jack the Ripper tour.
Having just visited Buckingham palace, I’m now walking through Piccadilly Circus when I remember a friend telling me that under no circumstances should I skip the weekly hoopla at Speaker’s Corner. “Trust me,” he said, “you have to check it out. It would be like going to Vegas and not hitting up a strip club or an all-you-can-eat buffet.” Apparently, Speaker’s Corner is one helluva freak show in a bowl, a must-do tourist attraction for anyone who’s grown tired of museums and pubs and cluttered souvenir shops, for anyone who’s craving some good old-fashioned, fire and brimstone drama in a beautiful outdoor setting. Preferably while drinking a pint of Guinness Extra Cold. Always interested in spiritual enlightenment, I decide to head toward the northeast corner of Hyde Park. I move away from the city, the electric hum of cars and double-decker buses fading away behind me as I stroll past the serpentine and wrought iron gates, past ornamental lampposts and oval stone ring fountains. Over the tops of the elm trees, I can see Marble Arch towering over the intersection of Oxford Street and Edgware Road, sunlight reflecting off the white Italian stone. It’s just past ten, and already the crowds have assembled in Speaker’s Corner, spilling off the path onto manicured lawns that overflow with deck chairs and picnic blankets. The spectators mill around in pockets of shade, pointing and grinning while zealots and protesters line the edge of the pathway with their ladders and crates and pulpits. While men in business suits sling placards over their necks and stand in the middle of the trail, reminding us that “Taxation is Thieving” and “Christ Died for the Ungodly.” While a young man in a blue, terrycloth bathrobe holds a British flag in the air and sings “London Calling” by the Clash, tilting his face into the sun as he shakes his fist at “working class blues” and “phony Beatlemania.” Free of charge, I can wander around here for hours at a time, swallowed up in a constant stream of rhetoric and religion, sharing history and tradition with a bunch of strangers who gather once a week at this philosophical pot luck for the common man. For some, this is the best entertainment that London can offer, a warped comedy show in which no topic is too weird or taboo. For others, this is a public forum dedicated to weekly demonstrations of free speech. After all, this is the spot where Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin once spoke, where George Orwell and Winston Churchill dazzled the crowd with politics and predictions. Every Sunday, the self-imposed righteous hurl their personal agendas into a crowd of rowdy hecklers, provoking heated debate while they push their way through jeers and taunts, peddling religion and culture with catcalls and catechism, their angry threats disguised as selfless acts of mercy. Other speakers just want to be heard, and they walk amongst the crowd with smiles and handshakes, handing out advice like they’re waiters serving expensive hors d'oeuvres at a lavish cocktail party. Weaving through the crowd, I watch Socialists argue with Marxists and Catholics debate with Muslims. The pro-life rebels scream obscenities at the pro-choice party, some of whom are disagreeing with members of the Communist party, which is beginning to fight with supporters of the Dalai Lama. Pointing and yelling, they all seem as frantic and crazed as the angry mob that threw rotten eggs at Cromwell’s corpse as it hung inside a cage three hundred years ago, just another judgment for Londoners to gape at. Across from me, a black man stands atop a soapbox, sporting plaid shorts, yellow sunglasses, and a New Orleans jazz fest T-shirt. He wears his tattered cap backwards, red plastic horns glued to each side. He talks about corporate prisoners and lunatic slaves, jiving with the crowd as he swishes his hands to imaginary turntables. He hopes to enlighten us on the nuclear arsenal in Kazakhstan, on Burmese monks who were shackled and killed by their government.
He says, “I’ll tell you when to dance, how to dance, and who to argue with.”
Next to him, a young man in a cowboy hat claps his hands to the beat of a Gospel song. He kicks his steel-toed boots into the air and dances around on a wooden crate, his gold necklace thumping against his chest. Brandishing a King James Bible, he showers us with white supremacy and the blood of Christ. He says his name is Andrew and that he’s flown across the ocean to give us a message. He tells us he’s from Texas, and that the end is at hand. I’m not sure which admission is worse. Andrew reaches into his back pocket. I almost expect him to pull out a slab of top sirloin or a dead armadillo. Maybe even a flattened tumbleweed. Instead, he holds up a tiny, silver crucifix, pressing it against his forehead while he closes his eyes and holds his other hand high in the air, waving it back and forth as if he’s trying to hail a cab. In a high-pitched voice, he screams out that we are all God’s children. He tells us that Armageddon is a clearance sale, that the rapture is affordable if we choose to imitate Jesus and perform good works. He’s barely finished warning us when a middle-aged man dressed in jeans and a leather jacket pushes his way to the front of the crowd. He stomps his feet and stares up at this cowboy for Christ. Then he spits on the ground and slams his hand into his liver-spotted fist. “Go back home to your country bumpkin, two steps to the slap boot, bullshit propaganda,” he yells. Andrew holds out his crucifix and makes the sign of the cross. He doesn’t look pissed off, or even embarrassed, which surprises me. If it was me up there, I’d be chewing off my fingernails or picking clumps of lint out of my belly button. I’d be calling people “cock gobbler” and “douche bag,” any semblance of calmness abandoned in favor of baseless immaturity. If it was me, I’d chuck my soapbox into the crowd and kick up some gravel. Then I’d flip them off and yell, “Insult me all you want, ass clowns! But I’ll have the last laugh when I’m chillin’ out at the Pearly Gates and all you little fuckers are burning up in the bowels of hell.” To his credit, though, Andrew is smiling and winking at the crowd, slapping his knee with the King James Bible. He’s tipping his hat to the ladies and speaking in a relaxed voice, like he’s having an offhand conversation in the produce section at the supermarket. Now he’s leaning forward, beckoning everyone closer, asking them to listen to his crucial message. Some people are clapping and making the sign of the cross; others are taking pictures with their iPhones. I’ll be goddamned, but Andrew really seems to be loving every second of his community theatre production. Still holding the crucifix, he tells the heckler he’ll pray for his deliverance. He tells the man he should embrace Christ and reject Satan. That maybe, if Jesus takes pity on his poor, tortured soul, the man will be spared eternal damnation. That maybe, if he lives an examined life, he might someday rejoice with others in the glorious kingdom of God. The heckler spits again, then he shakes his head and turns away from the crowd. “Bible thumpin’, barbeque grillin’, crucifix totin’ moron,” he says as he shoves past with his elbow, addressing me directly, as if I’m a world renowned authority on Texas dogma or its grilling methods. Andrew kisses the crucifix and returns it to his back pocket. Then he points to the heckler as he huffs off in search of further frustration. “That sinner is scared to hear my message,” he tells the crowd, “but it is a message of redemption. It is a message that the Lord wants all of you to hear. And that is why he has brought you here today, my friends. Because he loves you. Remember, the Lord is our protector. He wants to meet all of us in heaven when our time on Earth has finally come to an end.” I’m trying really hard not to roll my eyes and double over in hysterics. But more than that, I’m finding it difficult to believe that grown men and women are taking Andrew so seriously. Half the crowd is ready to stick a crown of thorns on his head and follow him around London. The other half is just pissed off because we don’t like being told how to live our lives. Some might call it a cult. Others might call it a religion. But the only difference between a cult and a religion is the level of popularity. Looking around, I figure a lot of these people have been scared into really believing, while the rest of us just believe that we’re really scared. Still, laugh as I might, this fevered display is church without guilt, a university without exams, a therapy session without fees. I might not say my prayers at bedtime, and I might not get on my knees to beg for forgiveness, but I can appreciate the energy that’s rippling through the crowd right now. It’s the smell of fresh air and the sight of green grass, the comfort of park benches and Victorian lampposts. It’s the excitement of debate and the volume of voices. It’s all these strangers coming together in one place, sharing their personal beliefs and being part of a temporary community. Here, at Speaker’s Corner, I can wander in and out of enlightenment, gazing at these oratorical snapshots like I’m channel surfing on late-night cable. Here, I can listen without obligation, and I can walk away from the pulpit without having to offer an explanation. I don’t feel pressured to agree with everyone, and I’m not expected to donate money or sign any forms. Everywhere I turn I am dizzied by cultures and convictions, all exploding outward in a big bang of opinions and ideas. The crowd gazes up at Andrew, who is now staring into the sky, one palm open as if he’s expecting drops of rain. “I’ve sinned,” he yells, clutching the Bible against his chest, his knuckles white from the strain of his words. When no one says anything, he shouts it again. “I’ve sinned, brothers and sisters. Do you hear me? I’ve sinned.” He pauses and leans forward, perhaps expecting us to whoop and holler, to congratulate him on his well-earned descent into evil and wickedness. “I’ve strayed from the laws of Moses,” he tells us, “and I’ve been burned under Satan’s heel. I’ve broken God’s trust, and now I’ve suffered because of it. Look at me, people.” He holds up his hands. “This is what suffering looks like.” Aside from being clean-shaven and sporting a tapered haircut, Andrew is wearing a polo shirt, a pair of khakis, and a pair of classy leather shoes. Not to mention a white, felt cowboy hat that looks brand new. Upon further inspection, I spot a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, and a few gold rings weighing down each hand. If Andrew is suffering, then at least he’s doing it in style. He must be suffering with the right bank account at the right department store. Poor guy. Bored with Armageddon, I walk up the pathway, stopping to take a picture of a man in his early twenties. He’s standing under an elm tree and wearing what looks like a toga fashioned out of a bed sheet. He seems rather lonely, everyone brushing him off like a bad idea, so I snap another picture just to make him feel noticed and appreciated. I almost expect him to look up and smile, but he continues to stare down at the ground, his eyes glazed over as if he’s just smoked a massive joint and then washed it down with a fifth of tequila. He’s holding an enormous white sign that reads “Don’t Believe Anyone, Including Me.” Directly across from him, on the other side of the trail, a middle-aged man holds a sign that has nothing written on it except a huge black question mark. I wonder what mysteries he’s trying to unravel, or if his cryptic message is some half-baked marketing ploy. Maybe he’s hoping to attract a large enough crowd so he can introduce himself, drop the sign, and begin an hour-long rant on some obscure, controversial topic that never seems as exciting as when it’s wrapped up in frenzied guilt and hand-delivered to wide-eyed tourists on a Sunday in the park.
He catches my eye and beckons me over. “Come listen to me,” he says. “I’m very clever. I know everything. My word won’t wait.”
I smile like an idiot, not wanting to be rude, but also feeling the need to run away from him as fast as I can.
And on and on the parade goes, dozens of men and women displaying all sorts of interesting signs. They stand quietly on their cracked wooden crates, content to hide in the shade of leaner crowds and less rousing rhetoric.
“Christian Atheism: To Follow Jesus Reject God” Or: “It’s Going to Get Worse” Or: “I Need Money for Alcohol Research” Or: “Christianity Created Capitalism: It Must Now Destroy It” My personal favorite is hands down the sorriest sign I’ve ever seen, held high in the air by a creepy bald man who’s wearing lime green sweatpants and a T-shirt that reads “I’m Not a Gynecologist, But I’ll Take a Look.” With half his teeth missing, and the other half rotted and stained, he looks like he belongs near an elementary school, loitering near a tinted van while enticing kids with free tootsie pops. Smiling, he holds up a piece of crumpled white paper with a handwritten note that says “Free Lingering Cuddles.” Farther up the pathway, the schoolmarm perches atop a white stepladder. Decked out in her pink-flowered dress and white high heels, she begs us to listen, her words quick and hurried as if she’s trying to beat the apocalypse. She introduces us to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, delivering an all too familiar fire and brimstone sermon, each lengthy pause punctuated by that chubby index finger she brandishes toward the crowd like a sharpened knife. She tells us that it’s now or never. That she knows everything but sin. That tomorrow will be too late. “It’s just fiction, you dingbat!” Some teenager yells through his cupped hands as the schoolmarm raises her leather-bound Bible into the air. “It’s just crazy ass, cult, got-out-of hand, fiction.” The schoolmarm glares at the teenager and continues shouting a string of proverbs. She asks us to bind kindness and fidelity around our unholy necks, to reform our lives before we’re banished to the deepest bowels of hell. She says we are nothing more than Satan’s playthings, mindless robots programmed to sin. “No sex,” she tells us. “No drugs. No rock and roll.” “No fun!” I yell, and soon everyone around me is laughing and snapping pictures, trying to argue with this little old lady because it’s a helluva lot more fun than learning about judgment day, or why most of us won’t be tailgating with Jesus when the end finally arrives in a sudden burst of celestial light. The schoolmarm frowns and smacks the Bible with her hand, teetering on her stepladder as she tries to maintain her balance. “Jesus is real,” she yells, “and he’s coming back. You need to follow the word of God, not your own conscience. That’s why they’re called commandments and not suggestions.” A few people in the front start arguing with her, whereupon she opens the Bible and starts reading random passages, raising her voice as the crowd swells into a collective groan. Now she won’t even look at anyone. She just holds up the book and buries her nose in those thin pages, licking her thumb as she flips through centuries of violence and bloodshed, shouting into the heavens as she attempts to shut up the crowd, perhaps believing that silence is the same as conversion. The man next to me chuckles and takes a bite out of his Snickers bar. “You get all types here,” he says, and for the first time today I’m in total agreement. Laugh as I may, though, I can’t help but envy all these speakers who dump their beliefs into an unfamiliar crowd. I wouldn’t have the guts to stand up on a soapbox and break open my heart, not giving a shit what everyone else thinks. All of these speakers are so eager and confidant. They preach like condemned prisoners facing the gallows, determined to utter their last words, no matter how awkward or strained the conversation becomes. Every week they put themselves on a pedestal, doling out redemption like there’s an economic shortage. And yet, despite their wild rants and funny gestures, they ignore our constant jokes and growing disinterest. Then again, maybe I’m just impressed because every speaker arrived here with a purpose, unlike the rest of us who gravitated here seeking cheap entertainment. Amid a torrent of ridicule, they look straight ahead, gazing at a fixed point, while the rest of us wander around in fascinated circles, as mechanical and mindless as fish inside a glass bowl. Two hours later I return to the beginning, hot and tired from my wild pilgrimage. The cowboy for Christ has since packed up and headed back West. But the devil from New Orleans is still going strong. Almost two dozen people gather around as he pumps his fist into the air and flashes a peace sign. He’s jazzing people with a conversation on anarchistic economic modes. He’s cracking jokes about robber barons and high interest banking, tap dancing on his soapbox like he’s Fred Astaire at a Baptist tent revival. He throws up his hands and says businessmen are buffoons. He says celibacy is the number one cause of global market collapse and endless financial ruin. “Thank you for attending my party,” he yells as he wipes the sweat from his forehead, his red plastic horns quivering with each emphatic nod. Then he shouts “Woo hoo!” and jumps off the soapbox, pointing to his jazz-fest T-shirt as he blows an imaginary trumpet. “And remember,” he tells us, “your heart is only good for so many beats, so don’t waste time exercising. You want to live longer? Take a damn nap.” The crowd whoops and hollers as the devil from New Orleans starts break-dancing on the pavement, swinging his arms from side to side as he spins around to do a perfect handstand. Landing back on his feet, he claps his hands and screams, “Hallelujah!” Then, with one final flourish, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a wad of confetti, which he throws into the crowd with another exuberant “Woo hoo!” As colored strips of paper rain down around us, he takes one last bow and says, “Thank you, my friends. You have been my patient, and my doctor. I will get drunk, listen to progressive rock, and enjoy the rest of my day.”
© 2010 Moronic Ox Literary Journal - Escape Media Publishers / Open Books
About the author: Michael Howarth grew up in Falmouth, Massachusetts where he developed an affinity for the ocean and Hawaiian shirts. After earning his BA in English at James Madison University, he entered the MFA Program in Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage where he studied the novel and short story. Following his MFA, he attended the University of Louisiana where he earned his Ph.D. in Children’s Literature. He currently teaches Children’s Literature and Film Studies at Missouri Southern State University.
His work has appeared in such publications as The Southwestern Review, Flashquake, Farmhouse Magazine, DASH Literary Journal, Mud Luscious, Jura Gentium Cinema, and Interdisciplinary Humanities.
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