Fiction

The soapbox

(For Bruce Murray)

WARWICK LOVED HIS soapbox because standing on it he'd become the centre of attention for once, especially when he convinced his friends to come around and listen between games of cricket down the front drive. They didn't seem to understand much of what he said, but they were politely amused for time enough to have a lunch break.

The rough sides of the soapbox were smashed together with a few of Dad's biggest roofing nails. It had little steps, parts of which had once been bits of Mum's old stepladder that she'd used to get up to the top kitchen cupboard so as to clean out any unwanted groceries and pickle jars. His mother often dozed off in the afternoons and wouldn't listen to him, but when she did, she displayed anger because she was frightened for him and said, to his frustration, 'don't you get on your soapbox with me my boy'.

Warwick Moss always believed in democracy and that hadn't changed now that he was in England. As a boy in Australia, he'd jump up and down about the evil in the world and avidly read the newspaper in the morning so he wouldn't feel empty, unfulfilled, with nothing much to think about. His family said his obsessions were stupid, unnecessary and impractical. They felt that they couldn't afford him, because there wasn't much money and because no one had ever seriously listened to them. In England, he imagined, there would be a more eccentric idea about speaking out, and if one made a success of it, you could be at the centre of something, instead of seeing your words evaporating across a silent landscape.

At school he was an ‘intellectual', a small boy with serious intentions, in a rough state high school. And because no one wanted to listen to him, he built his own soapbox out of old fruit boxes and put it up in the corner of the backyard, next to the vegetable patch. From it he rehearsed his speeches and conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with a knife and fork.

School was tedious until first period in Year Twelve when Mrs May sat in front of the history class, behind a pile of books. She told them that they'd be studying stories, the people who told them and why, and in whose interests. She loved the historian Manning Clark, she said, because he spoke about Australian settlement in epic stories of good and evil, weakness and strength. And there was an Economics teacher who taught Warwick things he already knew when he watched his father come home tired and dispirited from work every day: that if you had no assets you'd become like the working class who lived in slums; that his family never had as much money as their rich relatives and there were people who could break you if you weren't subservient. Still, he persisted in believing free speech might make things fairer.

When Warwick arrived for the first time at university, the sight of the thousands of books in the huge library was too much to bear. He just wanted to know everything, and he could never understand why other people didn't feel the same. He just loved all those piles of useless knowledge.

From England, he remembered that time as a cicada summer during which the Labor Party had lost another election because it opposed the war in Vietnam. In 1966 its leader, Arthur Calwell, was injured by a man who said he wanted to be somebody and became it for a week or two. Yet there was a careless air, as if anything were possible, and underneath a feeling that ‘democracy' was, of course, only a partial story – that some people owned it (like most other things), and taking things seriously was as stupid as running in the heat or getting upset because Australians did not have foolish passions. The migrants were like that, his father would have said – you know the Greeks and the Italians – rather emotional – lovely people, but much of what they did was uncalled for.

Warwick wondered whether there was a place in Australia like Europe – where there was so much history there was sorrow in the stones. He had looked for European democracy in National Geographic magazines, but he couldn't find it except in photos. Democracy in Australia was as elusive as spinifex bushes in a long, flat place such as the Mallee. Europe, the home of the great philosophers, certainly wasn't a place where the next big thing was a wheat silo in a heat haze on the horizon, or the promise of a thin line of trees where there could be a creek, a sign of promise out of nowhere.

 

IN LONDON, HE was working for the Ministry for the Arts in a great stone edifice near Whitehall. They liked him at the interview because they said Australians, although sometimes abrasive, make things happen. ‘They work hard, like Rupert Murdoch,' the personnel officer Sally said, fingering a glass paperweight, her lips perfectly framing the words. Warwick watched her, careful that his awareness could be making her a cliché.

‘We want a project officer to take responsibility for the public speaking forums under our jurisdiction,' she explained, almost quietly. ‘Your experience in community arts in Australia will be most useful. We are looking for someone who is passionate about Western democracy – that it operates at grass roots levels and is seen to be vibrant.'

After she finished speaking, the details of their meeting faded in a great sweep like the time, years ago, when he had driven into the Mallee looking for cultural opportunities that could be cultivated. It had been hot, and thoughts (if you could call them that) melted like daydreams. But on this day in London he concentrated on the position statement. The '90s had done that much to the brain, he thought. ‘The position,' Sally said (he noted how interesting it was that she didn't say ‘job', in the way blunt Australians might), ‘is to facilitate and service our range of performers at the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park'.

‘You may be aware that in recent years the number of voluntary speakers at Hyde Park have been dwindling, perhaps due to people getting older and the internet, among other cultural factors,' Sally said, delicately moving her reading glasses from her forehead on to the table in front of her.

Warwick felt envious of Sally's assurance, her peachy cream complexion. When he was drawn into conversation with her, he heard himself sounding rough. Sally framed perfect sentences before she began to speak: ‘The government feels that it has a responsibility to both our local constituency and the increasing number of tourists who have come to regard Speakers Corner as an icon; an essential part of London's cultural landscape.' With that and some discussion about salary, he had the job.

Warwick lived in Hampstead, in a house leafy enough to be spacious, which offered the anticipation of dreaming of backyards, but was raffish enough to bring forth the knowledge that London is full of desperate people who have little style to speak of. Warwick was glad of the job. His Masters in Politics hadn't brought him very much other than the heartache of knowing that he knew so little, and desired too much, and he was jealous of academics who had assembled a body of books. Yet the ones he knew seemed tired, especially in London, because no one could ever claim they were making a New World.

Warwick found out on his first day in the job that the previous cultural development officer had been a dud, a Cambridge-trained man who'd been too stiff and inflexible, and had little idea of how to motivate his speakers, let alone hold them.

Hyde Park Speakers Corner was a relic, its list of professional speakers reduced to one Pentocostalist and two animal liberationists. If it hadn't been for the Japanese tourist buses that followed the city guide brochures printed by the Ministry of the Environment, it would have been forgotten years ago.

He remembered Maggie Thatcher's words about there being no society, only self-interest, and his predecessor believed volunteering was the sort of thing people did when they went on hunt club rosters or played discreet games of sub-county cricket. But he was going to set up a series of paid speakers who could talk about anything, so it was out with a refined volunteerism promoted by chaps and in with some aggressive marketing from a flaxen-haired Antipodean.

The speakers hadn't been turning up – it wasn't the weather, even though in typical English style it had been lousy. The passionate Trotskyite became an evangelical Christian preacher in Manchester, and the only knowledgeable Marxist went off and became a mathematics teacher on the internet. People said it was the new technologies that had replaced face-to-face storytelling, and whereas once a place like Speakers Corner could be said to be quaint, there were now other cute places to contend with.

Perhaps the problem was that there wasn't an actual meeting place in the park: a raised symbol of some description, a platform (like his old soapbox) that people could at least reject. He desperately wanted to imagine that there could be a boundless electronic community unencumbered by narrow gossip.

You can have opinions about the internet in private, he decided. All the smart people were chatting on the internet so he advertised on his website the highlights of the ensuing week, but the crowds weren't any more than twenty people on a good day.

On another windy wet afternoon in Hyde Park, as usual Warwick made position under the fattest oak tree next to the entrance at the gate. Past him, the traffic on Pall Mall streamed past, every second car a squat black taxi, their occupants barely visible as they sped off into a city of a million laneways and destinations. He realised, for once, that he really didn't have his heart in the project. His blunt assertiveness (which he'd often thought of as charming) wasn't working well enough. Somehow, he'd managed to increase the number of speakers from the meagre assortment he'd inherited when he'd first taken over to about fifteen, but it was the usual suspects who covered a cross-section of opinions and positions, a template for his old ideas about ‘democracy'.

Whenever Warwick raised his concerns with Sally, she was, it seemed, blissfully confident that he would rescue the old English institution. He told her that he didn't think that he was being in any way successful, but she waved it away with an aristocratic swish of her delicately preserved English arm. He was attracted to Sally for all the reasons he detested himself. She was a standout from the pack, like the spires of Oxford and exquisite, secret places that would never become ordinary and everyday.

 

THE SPEAKERS WERE quite cheap because their payment was a commission on top of their dole. Mostly, they were recent graduates of some of the better red brick universities, and to add some difference he'd managed to attract a fair sprinkling of mature-age characters who added a more modulated and earnest tone to what Sally kept calling ‘the event'.

Failure didn't seem to upset Sally at all, he imagined, because she'd just go home to the family seat in Shropshire where the library was lined with so many classics it didn't matter all that much whether there wasn't a clear future because the past was so inspiring and comfortable.

They had, of course, been seeing each other – to use one of those cool expressions of the late 1990s, in between meetings for polite, seductive conversations, and after hours for ‘the sex', as people called it. He was a poor bugger, because he thought of it as making love; it seemed a better way to sum up his feelings but she laughed and he realised just how powerless most men were in the face of such beauty. ‘We are physically attracted to each other,' she announced matter-of-factly. Australia, he thought, had made him practical – even utilitarian to the extent that sex at home had been more like a job of work. But in England, the avenues for foreplay were classier, more restrained (hidden away), and her soft skin was a glorious canvas, which he was allowed to caress and then add to with the flick of her hair from a shoulder that harder men then him would die for. The sex was good, because they'd never spend enough time together to bore each other, and she would leave for Shropshire, and he'd eventually go home to Australia, to a flat place of some description. To be fair to her, he had some kind of power as he gazed at her extraordinary figure, her manicured hands, and fantasised that he could consume her.

The speakers tried hard enough. They were erudite and well read and really quite amusing. But, week by week, the number of people (other than the Japanese on the tour buses) who stopped to listen other than to walk their dogs or jog around the running track on the perimeter of the park wasn't any more then a hundred or so hardy souls. There was even an absence of healthy heckling.

Warwick became irritable and began to notice that ordinary English people, other than comedians and politicians, weren't really very funny, which was uncharitable of him, so he felt like quitting as he pined for dry Australian jokes and people who'd make Hyde Park funny for a few hours. Instead, there was only a collection of bag ladies and gaunt druggies trying to cadge coins.

He'd warned Sally that he'd soon quit. So on the Friday before the last Sunday of June, in fine weather (so there weren't any excuses for poor attendance), he cancelled all of his speakers with one definitive email written in plain language in a gesture that was an extreme move and a plaintive plea. He needed to try out something new and, due to the state of things in our democracies, silence might just be the best thing.

Sally did say, though, that he was a disappointment, and someone who never struck her as a quitter – that the job wasn't under threat due to funding cuts in the civil service and that, ‘in any case, the important thing was that things be seen to be done as much as being done'.

 

WARWICK WONDERED WHETHER his brother in Australia could remember how the old soapbox had been built, because when they became teenagers it had become embarrassing to behold out in the backyard. Sometimes, when it rained, they'd take it into the shed, but it was wonky by then, and out of shape, and a construction of children who should have known better. It was rough, of a type suggesting that anything much will do. If only he had put as much time into its construction as into his best speeches. He phoned his brother Peter, who said he remembered how it went and that he'd send the details in an email attachment the next day. In Melbourne Peter drew it as best he could, wonky bits and all. That brother of his was a stupid bugger, he thought. What on earth could he want it for?

Rebuilding it would be hard, because in England he was never sure that people kept old junk, particularly in London where the upper middle class predominated. Their lives seemed dedicated to the elimination of mess, and old useful junk was a working-class trait, and if there was any, it could only be found somewhere remote. It was bloody embarrassing hawking around London for relics, so he rang one of his ex-speakers who was a carpenter during the daytime – a relic in his own right, a master craftsman turning out beautiful furniture for clients with no taste. Harry said he could make it ‘big enough to stand on and small enough to be polite'.

There was silence at Speakers' Corner except for a few tramps wondering whether it was a public holiday from speaking. The tour buses arrived on cue, disgorging tourists who behaved as if there was still something to see, but being polite and Japanese they used their videos so they wouldn't waste film. It took two weeks to build the soapbox, during which time Warwick resigned from the Ministry and Sally told him that their relationship had concluded and was just no longer appropriate.

Harry made the soapbox the way Warwick imagined it, even allowing for the distortion of time and the fact that there weren't any black and white photos to go by. And Warwick performed his last act as Cultural Development Officer Class 2 for the Ministry for the Arts by digging some foundations in the park before dawn while Harry had it fitted just right so it would bolt into the new cement. By dawn they had it complete with the addition (for local conditions) of a steel grill and a sign, ‘Anyone speaking on this construction will be prosecuted'. It was brown and glorious in the early light, with little steps at the side in case anyone wanted to climb up and speak.

The funny thing was that, over the next few weeks, even after the structure was removed by council workers, there were reports of crowds returning to the place where the soapbox had been, marked only by the cement slab and sheered-off bolts. The Japanese tourists arrived, videoed the bolts and listened to the story of the soapbox told by one of the tramps who claimed it was a Western equivalent of a temple that had been too fragile to be left unattended.

But people also said they heard the beginnings of some great stories and at least one inspiring speaker – real stories in the park instead of relics told in transparent tones. The crowds were made up of people who talked to each other every day of their lives; it was just that no one had made them famous for something as ordinary as breathing.

Sally hadn't really cared if the whole Hyde Park venture failed. ‘That kind of success was such a silly idea anyway. When will you people realise that we create these things to keep you entertained?' she had announced the last time she saw him. Warwick, for his part, realised that he'd be better off working in a boring place like home, where he might never be important. He stopped stressing about whether anyone was listening and gave up on being ashamed of daring to dream.

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