The Jury Room  (Week 1)                                                                                                                                     Posted 22nd March 2014

The Jury Room                                                                                                       From The Herald : Sat 21-Mar-1998

The Herald today introduces The Jury Room, an innovative weekly column in which leading Scottish author William McIlvanney explores the dubious ideologies of a dumbed-down society through some extraordinary yet familiar characters.


In the Jury Room things are quiet, as they often are these days. A European football match is playing without sound on the big TV screen. Two sets of strange-coloured jerseys are in conflict over possession of an eerily white ball. Nobody seems to be watching. The images run on like soundless ticker-tape that might be reporting a war taking place on another planet.

Stare-at-the-wa is, surprisingly enough, staring at the wall.

Last night, OU Wilson says in a sepulchral voice.

It sounds like the beginning of a ghost story and perhaps, in a way, it is. For these days OU is himself a kind of ghost. Wilson is his first name and the OU has been added not because he is attending the Open University but because his wife is.

Samantha (known respectfully by some people in the pub as Samantha Very Sapiens) is in her second year there and the steady burgeoning of her intellectual interests has left him confused. He has sometimes admitted dreading her return from what he calls mysteriously the meetings. These are apparently unofficial seminars in a bar with other students, although he makes them sound like something that takes place in catacombs.

At such times she will say things like Renaissance Art or The Victorian Novel or Anomie In Contemporary Society. And once she asked him what he thought of Dada. When he realised she wasn't talking about her old man but a movement in the arts, he nearly choked on his decaffeinated coffee, which is the only kind she will buy now.

He is a good and honest brickie who finds it hard to understand what is happening. His strongest sense of identity seems currently to be that he is definitely the man who is trying to work out who his wife his. His confusion hasn't been helped by the dismissive explanation of his problem offered by Gus the Guru, aka the Purple Sage. (Anybody, Gus said once, who marries a woman called Samantha is askin for trouble.)

Last night, OU wilson says again in the unsteady voice of someone who needs to talk to convince himself that he is really there. Watchin TV, like. A game show. Know what Ah noticed? Ah kept bein desperate for the adverts to come. So that Ah could go for another can of beer. It seemed that long between them.

He must be feeling he really is a ghost. Nobody responds.

It seemed that long between them, he repeats as if someone may be interested. Ah don't think Ah could watch a programme without adverts now. Ah've been - he is looking, it turns out, for one of Samantha's words - conditioned. Conditioned, that's what Ah've been. Ah've got a concentration span about 30 seconds.

There is a brief pause.

Sorry? Dave the Rave says. I forgot what you said there.

What age are you? Gus the Guru asks.

Ah'm 38, OU Wilson says.

Can't be hardening of the arteries, Gus says.

Wait a minute. A game show? There's yer answer. Your brain was just desperate for the comparative stimulation of an advert.

Drinks are stared at.

Naw, but he's got something, Dave the Rave says. I know what he means. I've had that feeling.

You, Gus says. How do you think you got yer nickname? You've been shakin yer brains into mince for years. The amount of ecstasy you've swallied, it amounts to a DIY lobotomy. You concentrate for 30 seconds, Ah'll get you into the Guinness Book of Records.

No. But he has got something, Greyman says.

Greyman is an ex-teacher who took early retirement. He has the desiccated appearance of the prematurely aged, a condition he claims is the result of watching the end of civilisation as we know it.

How many young people read these days? Greyman says. You might as well ask them to climb the Eiger.

His remark resonates among us.

Right enough. (Gus has become thoughtful.) But it's not just reading. Think of it. Every medium is being simplified and trivialised. That Channel 5's like Hello! television, isn't it?

Suddenly, the awareness of the shallowing of our culture is shining on all of us, or nearly all of us, like a bright light. Examples abound.

Tabloids've been getting more tabloidy, Dave says.

And broadsheets less like broadsheets, Greyman says. The last time I looked at the Observer Review - a while ago - it was laid out like the old Eagle comic.

And remember what comics were like before the Eagle? Gus says. The Wizard. The Hotspur. The Rover. They were full of words. Now it's cover-to-cover pictures. Sound-bite politics. Meaningless action films with minimal dialogue and less character. Pop songs for the hard of thinking. And those 60p Penguin selections from classic authors, like fast food literature. And fast food. What is happening to us?

I realise that we have moved closer together, like people who suddenly sense that they are surrounded by a conspiracy against them.

OU's right, Gus says. They're out to numb our brains. That way, we're just consumers in the market.

He outlines a dark vision of the future of literature - libraries abridged to a shelf of pamphlets; War Without Peace, A Tale of One City, The Canterbury Tale. The Really Holy Bible.

Other suggestions are being made. In my head I am working on an example of my own The Brothers, Karamazov as an annual, like the Broons book - Dostoevsky as a regular Christmas present. The comically illustrated doings of a lovably eccentric Russian family, Paw Fyodor Pavlovich and his boys and the hilarious things they get up to - patricide, blasphemy, and nihilism.

I have my idea almost ready for public consumption when Matt the Mesomorph changes the subject. He would. He is a physically formidable man who could probably tear a paperback War and Peace in two with his bare hands and might as well, given how unlikely he is to find any other use for it.

What teams are they? he says.

While the others exchange exotic Spanish names, I wait. But the moment has passed. Soon I am arguing about football myself. We don't return to the scandalous political and commercial conspiracy to limit the concentration span of the nation.

I think perhaps none of us can remember what it was we were talking about.

Gus outlined a dark vision of the future of literature. They're out to numb our brains, he says. We're just consumers in the market.

(To read The Jury Room - Week 2 click here.)