Josna Rege

347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

In 1970s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on October 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from



It must have been during our stay in London in the autumn of 1973 when Andrew and I were visiting Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, that 150 year-old emblem of Britain’s commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly. On our previous visit we had encountered a succession of people making impassioned speeches, heavily peppered with oddballs ranting about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. Along with the other passers-by we listened politely for a short time, perhaps asking a question or accepting a flyer before edging out of their line of vision.

This time it was an altogether different scene, so weird that it refuses to come to focus in my mind’s eye. I see not one, but a group of people, mostly young, who have set up some sort of table—dining table, operating table, it isn’t clear—on which is set what looks like a monstrous loaf of bread baked in the shape of a phallus. They are cutting it into slices and offering a piece to any and all takers brave enough to sample it. For they declare openly that, quite apart from its priapic form, there is more to the loaf than meets the eye: marijuana has been baked into it. Further, they insist that they are not advocating the recreational use of this substance—which would be illegal and actionable, even at Speakers’ Corner—but rather, that they are partaking in a religious sacrament.

9780374289331Here’s where my memory gets even more hazy. The group claimed direct descent from Robert Graves, long-resident outside of England in Majorca, Spain (then known to me only as the author of I, Claudius, which was on my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood and which I had read surreptitiously and with considerable bewilderment). They were even flourishing some kind of founding document with Graves’ signature on it, bestowing authority and legitimacy upon them. As I recall, they were a revival of some sort of ancient fertility cult, perhaps one of those described in Graves’ work, The White Goddess. Somewhere, in my old five-drawer file cabinet or buried deep in a box in our basement, I may still have the flier that we brought away with us. I didn’t ingest their offering, though, and cannot testify to the veracity of the group’s claims, with respect to either its ingredients or their origin myth.

Robert Graves regularly comes up in my teaching, either as the author of the autobiographical Goodbye to All That (1929), or as a mentor in to younger writers like Alan Sillitoe in the 1950s and 1960s, or as a character in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration. It was only once, in a contemporary British fiction class, that I ventured to tell my students the story of the phallus-worshipping fertility cult at Hyde Park Corner purportedly founded by the man himself. Their jaws dropped and the room fell silent.

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

This would just be a colorful tale from my chequered past if it were not for the serious threats to free speech around the world today, even in the nations that enshrine this sacred principle in their own origin myths. In country after country, United States, Britain, Australia, even Canada, free speech is being curtailed in the name of security, swept away as the spectre of terrorism is conjured up. In India as I write, the leadership of the ruling party is refusing to condemn the recent murders of writers who held views, such as rationalism or atheism, that run counter to the crusading beliefs of the Hindu Right. In so doing—or rather, in refusing to do so—the Center gives the extremists tacit license to kill. In such a climate, people who practice minority religions or hold dissenting views are afraid to speak out, indeed, afraid to be who they are.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free, even giving utterance to certain words online, let alone out loud, is sufficient to put one on a watchlist, or worse. Nowadays, simply being on a watchlist, whether or not the suspicion has any foundation, gives the government license to kill, and to get away with it.

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

It seems that the time-honoured tradition of free speech at Speakers’ Corner is under threat as well. It is incumbent upon us all to uphold free speech by exercising it, refusing to be silenced in a climate that has cast a chill over our fundamental human right. Thinking back to that performance in Hyde Park more than forty years ago with its flagrant, joyous disregard of convention, I may gently tease, but will never trivialize the open society that permitted it.

P.S. Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Scrooby, whose photographs of Hyde Park in Candid Impressions sparked this memory.

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  1. Loved this 🙂 loved the ending….gently tease but never….

    • Glad you liked it, Erica. Never know how it’s going to end, but wanted to make sure readers understood that upholding the necessity of a Speakers’ Corner is of critical importance, no matter how crazy some of the speakers can be.:)

  2. A clarion call for the fierce defence of what most of us hold dear, Josna, the freedom to express ourselves.

    I agree it seems to be getting worse in Western-style democracies, though that may simply be because of the proliferation of ways to express ourselves — so different from what was available ten, twenty, thirty years ago. How did we express disagreement and discontent half a century ago? We didn’t have social media, mobile phone technology, we couldn’t access petitions online, we couldn’t have live streaming or YouTube to access alternate views or blogs like this to communicate almost instantly across tens of thousands of miles.

    No wonder governments — who often seem to exist merely to control our actions and thoughts — are running scared and plugging up all the holes in the dykes that they can find. Let’s keep them guessing!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response one that makes blogging so rewarding for me. You point out that they monitor us because they CAN; by the same token, we continue to speak out because we must, as we must keep taking advantage of all the holes in their desperate dykes.

  3. Well said Josna. The curtailing of free speech everywhere, is deeply disturbing, especially in countries who have championed it for so long.

    • What worries me further, Don, is that as with the increasing violations of privacy, people aren’t as outraged as they ought to be about this violation of one of their basic rights. In fact, there’s even a developing common sense that if people don’t want trouble, then they shouldn’t cause it, or bring it upon themselves, by speaking out.

  4. I’ve been meaning to write about what I see and hear. On Facebook, for instance, people I regarded as friends, folks who I met online and I see as being well-educated, some living in foreign lands, have suddenly been exposed as radical believers in this right wing philosophy.

    I see people of Indian origin, some who are no longer Indian citizens, supporting and actively preaching the half-baked religious ‘culture’ that is is anti-free-speech and clearly misogynistic.

    I made it a point to go out early and vote in advance in our Canadian election because the Harper administration has already made me into a second class citizen, subject to increased surveillance, because I’m not “old-stock Canadian.” I am liable to be stripped of my citizenship if some bureaucrat sees fit to do so and I will have no recourse to any court of law to appeal that decision.

    I see the US and I cannot believe that with all the issues facing the country today, the lead item is Roe vs Wade and a woman’s right to choose.

    Clearly, the world has lost it’s collective mind.

    • It’s alarming, isn’t it? A wake-up call, perhaps. Yes, important though disturbing to see it happening all over, as you point out. The outcome of your Canadian election gives at least a glimmer of hope that there is some sanity left!
      What you say about educated people showing themselves to be right-wing sympathizers has been my experience as well.
      We can only keep calling it as we see it and maintaining, as you do, a sense of humor through it all. Thank you for your comments.

    • Thank you for this. Yes there seems to be a general degradation of some of the basic rights human, and a resurgence of some of the most retrograde thinking that we once thought, perhaps naively, had been done away with in the modern era. Sadly, the silence we see on the part of the Indian leadership in the face of this recent spate of violent attacks seems to be being echoed among Indian Americans, despite–as you note–their generally high level of education. I hope that the newly elected government in Canada will take a strong stand to protect all its residents. Some of us in the States take heart every day from the comparative sanity that reigns there.

  5. Hi Josna
    I think citizens – even in a democracy – still have this underlying fear that there could be negative personal consequences if they express opinions contradicting the Establishment viewpoint. Even reasonably-expressed opposition to the ruling viewpoint is accompanied by the concern that one may well become a monitored person. However, I try to access courage at least once a year and express my right to freedom of speech! It is one of the ‘duties’ of a citizen as, equally, there are ‘rights.’ We have, in my view, a duty to vote and a duty to defend the common man.

    • I may be wrong, Evangeline (and L.), but I don’t think that that fear was so strong in the past. In Britain, for instance, an outraged citizen could (and would) fire off a strongly-worded letter to the Times without a second thought. Same in post-Independence India, where the Fourth Estate has historically been very robust. Somehow I don’t think that government surveillance and the threat of retaliation generated the same degree of self-censorship at any time in the second half of the twentieth century, except in dictatorships where one could be “disappeared” by the secret police. I agree with you completely about the importance of continuing to speak out and commend your courage and sense of duty. Rights have to be fought for and, once achieved, to be asserted.

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