The Jury Room  (Week 5)                                                                                                                                          Posted 3rd May 2014

A dinner where the nouvelle cuisine of social behaviour is the main thing on the menu.

An evening out with designer radicalism.                                      From The Herald : Sat 18-Apr-1998


I bring a couple to the Jury Room, late in the evening.

They have sometimes been referred to affectionately by some of our mutual acquaintances as Eloise and Abelard. I don't know who rechristened them and the names have always puzzled me. All I can think of is the difference in ages. Abelard, who works in television, will be in his mid-forties and Eloise is an accountant in her late twenties. (Surely it can have nothing to do with the fact that Abelard and Eloise led cloistered lives?)

They have asked me out for a meal because I have done a little work for Abelard without payment. We happen to meet outside the restaurant and it is then I realise that the evening may not be one of joy unconfined. I hold the door of the restaurant open for Eloise.

Thank you, she says, but I prefer not to be patronised.

I dutifully go on ahead, with that not unfamiliar feeling of wondering what the hell I am doing here.

(I can't open the door for her? I've been opening doors for people all my life, men, women and children, and they've been opening doors for me. I thought that was what people did for one another. If people dismiss the whole grammar of your nature, how are you supposed to communicate honestly with them?)

Situations like that, when your most natural gestures must be constrained as if by a seat-belt, make me feel that I'm trapped in some kind of social aeroplane, going somewhere I never asked to go in the first place. My ears get sore listening to irritating noise. I don't breathe freely.

I only know two ways to react. One is to hi-jack the evening and force it towards some wild and unforeseen argument that galvanises gentility into outrage, the conversational equivalent of Take me to Cuba. The other is to bale out. (Jeez, I've just remembered. I'm supposed to be visiting my Auntie Bella in hospital. They reckon she won't last the night. Listen, let me get this. You can get the next one.)

But these reactions usually come late on. This is early doors to be wishing you'd brought a parachute. It promises to be a bumpy ride.

And so it proves. Conversation is a minefield and only Eloise knows where the mines are laid. Talk becomes so hobbled, it's like trying to do the Charleston in handcuffs and leg-irons. The whole thing turns into a test which I seem to be failing, despite agreeing to sit in the non-smoking section.

Did I say 'girl'? Don't I realise how condescending the term is? (I don't labour the point that the person I was speaking about is fifteen-years-old). Veal? I am ordering veal? She hopes I have the appetite to enjoy it, given how the meat was arrived at. (Thank God I passed on the pate.) No, I am wrong about Mrs Thatcher. If I were a woman, I would realise that. She is simply a wonderful role-model for women. (Dear Spice Girls, I apologise for not appreciating your profound insights.)

I begin to wonder if I am going soft. I can remember an incident recently at a press launch for a television series. I was talking to a friend about someone we both knew, who had got spectacularly pissed at a party.

By this time, I was saying, his mouth had declared independence from his brain - when a woman neither of us knew suddenly interrupted me.

How dare you! she said, staring into my face.

What? I responded, with not quite the witty aplomb of Oscar Wilde.

How dare you speak so arrogantly about another human being.

I had one of those moments of disorientation when you're wondering if the Martians have landed. But I recovered quickly. I told her that the man I was speaking about was a friend, that he had been drunk and that I had used the same expression of myself since I, too, had been known, on amazingly rare occasions, to be ranting drunk. Also, I had no recollection of anybody asking for her name and number in this conversation. Also, if she wanted to be a professional eavesdropper, she would have to train harder. She would have to learn to earwig the whole conversation so that her cheeky interruptions were at least in context.

I think her expression meant that she was letting me off with a caution.

(That's the thing about the thought police. They're always there when you don't need them.)

This sort of reaction has tended to be my common response to those charmless linguistic pedants who seem to abound these days. With little that is colourful to say for themselves, they want to drain the colour out of everybody else's speech. Let's all live in a monochrome universe. They are the puritans of the word. Their idea of Utopia would be an emotionally sterile unit where no impure thoughts or dubious impulses could survive. Don't they know that such a place is already waiting for us? It's called death.

Confronted with their arid quibbling, I tend to become a kind of Highland Light Infantry conversationalist, whose only tactic is Charge! There was a time when they were getting on my mammaries so much, I thought I might soon have inverted nipples.

But in the restaurant I stay polite, partly because it's a habit I sometimes find hard to break and partly because I can see that Abelard is getting his share of the stick. He tends to smile benignly at her, as if to say, Isn't she a case? (For some kind of treatment perhaps?)

I am finding that my tongue is becoming the chief ingredient of my meal. I have bitten it to beef-hash by the time the bill comes.

But that wine is like Pangloss, constantly convincing us that really all is well, and I carelessly invite them back to the pub on the way home.

As we come into the Jury Room, there are three men I haven't seen in the place before, sitting at a table near the door. One of them holds out his hand to Eloise and she shakes it. He doesn't release her hand.

Hullo there, he says.

Being a practised urban woodsman, I read the signs at a glance - perhaps wrongly but I read them. These men are very well off and they are bad news bears. They will probably be in their thirties. They will probably be in business. They are certainly unpleasantly drunk.

One is slumped in a smug stupor. The one who is shaking hands has a big, wet, leering smile hung fixed on his face, like a placard that might as well read I pinch women's bums. The third has an expression like a government health warning: Making a Lot of Money Easily Can Damage Your Brain. As Eloise stays to talk, Abelard walks on towards the bar. I follow him, thinking they must be business friends only of hers.

We meet up with the Purple Sage and Matt the Mesomorph at the bar. It is about five minutes before Eloise joins us. She seems just a little muted. In another five minutes the three men are leaving, the smiler waving to Eloise as he goes.

Thank goodness they've gone, she says after a minute or so.

It seems she has never met them before tonight and they have been showing her a photograph of fellatio and asking her if she knows where they can get a similar service. Not knowing how to handle it, she has endured it. Once fellatio has been translated in Matt's more basic terminology, he wants to go after the men but Eloise and Abelard dissuade him.

That's when the dam breaks for me. I cannot resist saying that I am disappointed that a woman who won't allow you to call a fifteen-year-old a girl in her presence hasn't found a way to express outrage at being so demeaned (how about walking away?), that, if the only place you can express your demands for proper social attitudes is in polite company, all you're engaging in is designer radicalism (We will fight at the dinner table, we will fight in the unintended implication, we will fight in the subordinate clause - but to hell with those beaches), that assumptive arrogance and pride in yourself are not the same thing (one is a mannerism and the other a living force), that political correctness is obviously not a way of dealing with social problems but a way of not having to confront them.

I try to say all this pleasantly but perhaps the anger shows. For soon they have to go. I thank them for the meal and suggest I return it sometime. They say they will take a rain-check.

Fine, I say.

But I suspect there won't be any rain to be checked. I foresee between us a more or less endless period of very dry weather.