CYRIL MAY was one of the most formidable orators of the 1940s and 1950s, when outdoor public speaking was at its peak.
CYRIL MAY was one of the most formidable orators of the 1940s and 1950s, when outdoor public speaking was at its peak. He was one of the main voices for the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and could command audiences in Hyde Park of more than 1,000. More than a dozen organisations, as well as the occasional eccentric, would be represented at Speakers’ Corner each Sunday, and crowds gathered in anticipation. But while his party’s more emotional orators, such as Harry Young and Tony Turner, were known for taking on the hecklers, May was renowned for his clear diction and ability to make a case sound reasonable. He could talk for two hours and retain the crowd's interest. The audience gradually thinned after the early 1950s, and during the following decades was increasingly composed of tourists. May delighted in impressing them: needing little sleep and keeping himself well-informed, he could always relate his theoretical learning to a detailed knowledge of the countries from which the crowd came. By the late 1960s the era of outdoor speaking had drawn to a close and May devoted more time to the party’s organisation. The middle child of five, Cyril Ernest May grew up in London and attended North Paddington Central School, where the skills he learnt included accountancy and bookkeeping. He left at 15 after the death of his father, a chef at Lord’s who instilled in him a love of cricket, and began work at Winkworth estate agents. At the start of the war he helped to make inventories of country houses that were to be used by the military. In 1940 he abandoned his Methodist upbringing when he joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain — which he had himself come across in Hyde Park. The party, founded in 1904 by about 100 members of the Social Democratic Federation, follows Marx and aims to establish, by persuasion and argument, a world without borders, classes or money. Unlike the Communist Party it argues that Soviet-bloc countries were not genuinely socialist but “state capitalist”. Along with other party members, May was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, on the ground that he would not fight fellow workers. He spent several months in Wormwood Scrubs, where he tried to convert others to his cause, before he was sent to work on the land. The party helped him to argue for socialism by teaching him its political ideas, as well as the means of communicating them. During and after the war May and his comrades spoke at spots including Tower Hill and Lincoln’s Inn, seeking to seduce people as they took lunch, as well as in Hyde Park. At first May’s role was to open a meeting and allow the party’s more experienced speakers, among whom there was fierce competition to get on to the platform, to take over. May became one of the party’s “accredited” speakers in 1944. He served several times on the propaganda committee and for many years was an effective central organiser of the party, whose membership peaked at around 5,000; this elected position gave him responsibility for meetings, dances and conferences. Latterly he produced literature for the party and made contact with sympathetic groups in India and Ukraine. Outside politics, May was engaged in many activities. For more than 30 years, starting in the early 1950s, his work involved dismantling, moving and reconstructing prefabricated buildings, which he did with one of his comrades. Fie had a plant nursery, refusing to sell to those he believed would not care properly for their purchases, and himself grew vegetables near his bungalow in Norfolk. Recently he helped to teach the children of South Harringay Junior School to read. After his party was reconstituted in 1991 he helped in its organisation with the vigour of a man half his age. He lectured at public meetings and summer schools, spoke in Hyde Park this summer and sold literature at the recent TUC conference in Brighton. In 1988 he married Alison Assiter. She and their son survive him. Cyril May, orator, was born on December 1,1920. He died on October 8, 2003, aged 82.