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Free speech alive and well in London’s Hyde Park

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LONDON – From milk crates to folding metal platforms, the soapboxes at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park are as diverse as the speakers who stand on them.

Patrick McEvoy’s is made of unfinished wood and held together by screws. He carries it disassembled in a backpack and uses a cordless rotary drill to assemble it before his speeches and to take it apart afterwards. He’s a carpenter by trade.

Today, as Olympic fans stroll by or stop to listen, he’s delivering a speech he calls “Mankind’s Progression,” about how Europe will eventually be its own country. To get ahead of the curve, he’s already started identifying himself as European instead of identifying himself by the country of his residence (England) or birth (Ireland).

McEvoy has been coming to Speaker’s Corner once a week for six months. Here, free speech and public debate happen on the most literal levels. People deploy their soapboxes and their opinions, and those gathered around them respond with a mix of applause, counterarguments, jeers and shrugs.

McEvoy usually speaks about socio-political issues. He regards himself as “industrially enlightened” and says he’s always had strong opinions but that he didn’t always share them like he does now.

“I kept my mouth shut and it nearly killed me,” he said. “It doesn’t do good for your mentality to have a view and not express it. I honestly believe – not to be too graphic about it – but it’s either I do this or I’m hanging off a rope.”

After working since he was 16, he found himself unemployed for four months for the first time in 22 years following the 2008 financial crisis. He says he couldn’t deal with it. He felt squeezed by his diminishing income, increasing mortgage and rising interest rates.

“Basically my government, they had no clear manifesto of what’s the plan,” he said. “I felt completely misunderstood. I felt nobody was representing me. I don’t know what we’re trying to achieve.”

Eventually his search for answers led him to Speaker’s Corner. His first speech was on the growth and development of China. He wrote it on sheets of paper and was so nervous he read it off the paper. He made three more speeches like that before he had the confidence to start speaking instead of reading.

“On occasion, somebody in the crowd will come up with a damn good question,” he said. “I’ve got to say, I felt like a juggler that dropped all the balls.”

After six months of speaking, he’s far removed from the man who pre-wrote, and pre-read, his speeches. But the nerves are still there.

“I find it nerve-wracking every time I come up here, but that’s good. I need that,” he said. “It keeps me alive.”