John Webster (orator)

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John Webster (December 1913 – 15 December 2008), aka Mo(u)hammed Jon Webster, or more simply just Webster, was a soap box orator and public speaker who principally plied his trade at Speakers' Corner near Marble Arch at Hyde Park, London and beneath the Moreton Bay Fig trees of The Domain, Sydney from the early 1950s till the late 1980s. He also made sorties into the then wilds of Arabia, Tasmania, Melbourne's Yarra Bank and various other outposts of the erstwhile British Empire. Webster, who almost exclusively referred to himself in the third person, cultivated a provocative oratorical style of delivering a wide-reaching and eclectic philosophy in a hybrid carny barking cockney/Australian accent. He was the most prominent and listened-to of all long term speakers at the Sydney Domain. Journalist John Edwards wrote in 1971 "The only (modern) force is the inimitible (sic) Webster who, lately returned from England, is responsible for most of the popularity of the (Sydney) Domain."[1] Nene King observed of a day spent at the Sydney Domain "Webster (no first name, no mister) commanded the largest audience as he waved a verbal flag for the British Empire - 'We Englishmen are God's gift to the whole world.'"[2]

Early life[edit]

Webster was born in London in December 1913. His father battled alcoholism and his mother was in The Salvation Army. His grandparents were Irish. As a teenager, Webster was a Salvation Army soldier and worked in dispatch at the Army's Trade Headquarters. At the age of 18 Webster became disillusioned, left The Salvation Army and became an atheist.[3]

Ideological Development and Weltanschauung[edit]

Webster, by his own confession, navigated the whole gamut of ideological spectra from the centre to the far left, then over to the extreme right and back to the middle again. A communist rabble rouser in the 1940s, he went on to subscribe to the anti-semitic views of the British fascists, until he was approached by Sir Oswald Mosley who told him - inter alia - in 1947 "we can use the Jews." This prompted Webster to reassess his own ideas and he subsequently wrote a letter of apology to the Jewish Chronicle of the times expressing his regrets about his former views.[4]

The deployment of the famous name of the prophet of Islam in one of Webster's monikers hails from a time wherein he, having received the honorary title of Sheikh from the Hazhar University of Cairo while married to a Jewish woman, embraced the Islamic religion in order to marry a Moslem one. This marriage to a Persian woman in 1963 was as brief as his previous marriage to the Jewish lady. He told journalist Linda Hornsey that he had been working for the Ministry of Information when he suggested on a television programme, amongst other things, that the Arabs should make peace with Israel: "After that I made a quick but quiet retreat from the Middle East".[5] He told the same journalist that he had once been a "card-carrying member" of the Communist party, then a fascist, a mystical Moslem of Sufistic leaning before evolving into a "simple" humanist. He had come to see adherence to doctrinaire creeds as dangerous, and planned to set up an "ecological workshop on religion", where anyone willing could come to have their religion "tested".[6]

Oratorical style and technique[edit]

Webster was wont to claim that his purpose in orating was to inspire people to think for themselves. His method was one of deliberate provocation, conscious deployment of irony, "verbal cartooning" and a razor edged wit attested to by all commentators of the time. "I have never yet heard Webster bettered by a heckler, nor stuck for some kind of answer to a question."[7] "It could be argued that the greatest demagogue in Australia today is a 53-year-old Cockney named Muhammed (sic) John Webster" wrote Sydney Morning Herald journalist Gavin Souter in 1966, "There is no one in the Australian Parliaments to match him, and in Sydney's Domain he has no real competition."[8] "Webster insults, abuses and ridicules his audience. The response, in laughter and applause, would be the envy of any television comic" observed Jim Oram.[9]

Personal life[edit]

Though he was married twice he had a number of gay relationships.[10]

Passing and Legacy[edit]

The late Reverend Ted Noffs, founder of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, New South Wales claimed "Here at the Chapel, Webster has helped to make what we call the Family of Man a reality."[11] The Uniting Church of Australia's Reverend Bill Crews (clergyman), host of a free restaurant catering to the poor and indigent in Ashfield, New South Wales, made frequent visits to Webster's domicile in Webster's declining years. He remarked that "He (Webster) influenced so many people, taught us how to think in lots of ways...I think he thought he'd live forever"[12] Webster died quietly at a secret retreat in Launceston, Tasmania shortly before his 96th birthday, leaving no immediate heirs.

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Edwards: The National Times, Dec 27th 1971 p. 5
  2. ^ Nene King: The Sydney Morning Herald, June 28, 1971 p. 8
  3. ^ 'An Interesting Life, Lived to the Full' in On Fire Magazine, 2008
  4. ^ Richard Mckenzie: Sunday Telegraph, July 20, 1969 p. 37
  5. ^ Linda Hornsey: The Weekender, May 25, 1974 p. 27
  6. ^ Linda Hornsey: "Now, get on your Marx" The Advocate, May 17, 1974 p. 3
  7. ^ The Society Spy, Daily Telegraph, April 23, 1968 p. 26
  8. ^ Gavin Souter: "Sydney's Muhammed is also the Greatest": The Sydney Morning Herald, July 21, 1966 p. 6
  9. ^ Jim Oram: "Meet the Sunday spruikers" PIX Magazine, August 31, 1968 p. 30
  10. ^ Stevens, Tony (17 December 2008). "Anarchistic demagogue has the last word". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 September 2011. ...Webster was gay and had several male partners after coming to Australia in the 1950s... 
  11. ^ Video on YouTube
  12. ^ Video on YouTube

External links[edit]