London Day One: The Big Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

My wife would have hated Oxford Street, Bank Holiday Monday.

The streets were swarming with every conceivable shape and colour of humanity. I was constantly moving through swathes of  conversation held in loud, unrecognisable languages. Unknown words passed before me, around me, over me. She would have had no problem with that, its just large crowds that she has an aversion to.

Jostled and often thwarted in my random meandering by both human and motorised traffic, I sought refuge in Hyde Park. Everywhere I looked sunbathers had staked a claim to their own chosen patch of grass, as the warmest day of the year so far had summoned them out from their enclosed, pale slumber.

But despite this crowd of simmering flesh, this is where I feel most comfortable, with the verdant stretch of grass and trees declining towards a lake in the distance,  my vision expanded to take in distance and sky. I instantly began to relax despite the odd close encounter with a wildly aimed frisby-seemingly the standard requirement of the recreational Londoner.

Combating dehydration in the heat with a tepid bottle of water, I headed towards the section known as Speaker’s Corner. This is famously where open air speaking and debating  is allowed, crowds gathering to hear numerous speakers on all manner of subjects. As  this normally takes place on Sundays, today there were just two vocal rhetoricians, yet with the whole of the arena to themselves they had decided to set up shop directly facing each other. One was Christian, holding aloft a leather bound bible as beads of sweat gathered upon his brow. The other was Muslim, waving his arms in the air demonstrably as his voice rose over the heads of the thirty or so people who had gathered between them.

Take your pick, casual audience, who will you turn and listen to?

The Muslim: “Why do you let your children dress as they do, when you know that there are pedophiles everywhere, with cameras, taking photographs? ” ‘What did he say?, one woman to another.

The Christian: “You are running out of time, and who are you going to blame?” A puzzled frown on a photographing tourist.

The ghost of a woman, drifting and weaving through the gathered listeners, would occasionally shout over the shoulder of a flinching observer “Jesus was, and is, a Jew!” Sometimes in the direction of the Christian, sometimes in the direction of the Muslim, who was now holding up a book of his own, entitled Women In Islam, to mirror image his fellow preacher waving his bible.

He singled out a woman who was stood by me. “Beautiful American woman-do you want this book?” I’m from Austria. “Forgive me, do you want a copy? It is free.” I only came for the politics, but I got the day wrong.

It was intriguing in a detached way, and bypassers would slow and mingle with those already hooked.

In a jousting cacophony both speakers began addressing each other directly. “There will be a Judgement, don’t be among those who burn.”

“Indeed there will be Judgement my friend, and you will burn.” Fingers pointing, heads swiveling.

Some children giggled, watching an Irish Setter dog running playfully behind the gesticulating Christian orator, chasing yet another frisby with an unbridled joy in its ignorance of judgement.

“Your God is a God of hate! My God is a God of  love!”

Splinter groups formed among the audience, all thrusting and parrying. I heard a Japanese man saying “Jesus has nothing to do with your Jesus in Pakistan. God will not recognise you.”

Your God, My God, Your Jesus. It seemed everybody was claiming ownership of the Divine. Possession is nine-tenths of the problem.

My head hurt, whether with the sun or the rhetoric or both. I left the melee behind me, with one final “Jesus was, and is, a Jew!” hurled after my quickening gait.

Outside the gates a man who reminded me of the elderly Bill Crosby sat playing an amplified guitar. A permanent grin fixed upon his face, his eyes occasionally closed, he shone with the great delight he took in sharing his musical gift with everybody.

I waited awhile.

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