The Jury Room  (Week 8)                                                                                                                                         Posted 17th June 2014

Not a good time for words that rhyme                                         From The Herald : Sat 9-May-1998 


What's up with you? Greyman says to me. That woman annoy you?

No. Not especially.

She certainly hasn't meant to annoy me. She is one of a group of five, three women and two men, who have come into The Jury Room with a kind of tourist air about them. As they sit at a table, looking round and laughing, they give the impression they are taking the place in, as if it is just one part of an evening's fun itinerary. Then she comes up to me.

Excuse me, she says. Do you mind if I speak to you a minute?

I don't mind, except that for me her attractiveness is slightly marred by a certain missionary zeal around the eyes. I tend to avoid missionaries, mainly because their reception-system has usually packed up completely and they are on permanent transmission. It can be like trying to shout meaningfully at the television, which I probably do more often than is healthy. Both missionaries and the television just keep saying whatever they are going to say anyway.

This is why I have developed a pretty effective body-swerve for when I am confronted by one of those young women with clipboards, whose eclectic dress-sense (anoraks, long frocks and boots) I find equivalent to a placard round the neck reading  I belong to a funny sect. This is why when an earnest-eyed young man said to me in the street once, Say Gourrounga, I replied, Say Cheerio.

There's something I've been wanting to tell you for years, the woman says. (And I think of the Ancient Mariner in drag). I've read your books and it all became so clear to me. You're really a poet. You should have written poetry. Why did you never write poetry?

She is smiling benignly at me, unaware that what she means as a compliment - I think - is about as pleasant as being kicked in the genitals by a drayhorse. I have to tell her that I have written poetry for 40 years, have published several books of the stuff and have even done countless public readings.

Hm, she says. I never knew that.

That puts you on a par with the rest of the known world. But thanks anyway.

She goes away. This is when Greyman inquires after my state of mind. She has left me thoughtful about where my past went.

Lately, I've been thinking about the increasing marginalisation of the book in our culture, superseded by film and TV and pop and computers. I've been pondering the outdated folly of my commitment to the carving out of words on paper.

Sometimes, sitting at the page, I imagine what it must have been like for a medieval monk working on his illuminated manuscript. He pauses and raises his head. Strange sounds can be heard outside the monastery. What he is hearing is the whir and clatter of the printing presses starting up. Gutenberg has arrived. What those of us who have believed in the book as it was are hearing is the hum of cyberspace - that black hole into which words can disappear and from which they can be recalled but where they can't be held in the hand and mulled over in continuous cross-reference and allowed to become permanent friends of the mind.

So what? The printing press was one of the great engines of democracy. It extended the horizons of people's imaginations. Won't the computer simply extend them further? And if ownership of computers is drastically limited at the moment, wasn't that also true of books at first? Increased access will surely come. Shouldn't we just be celebrating? Well, before we open the champagne, I think we should pause. Effective democracy is dependent not only on the quality of transmission of the truth but on the quality of its reception. And I believe that no other medium of communication develops our capacity to think for ourselves as effectively as the reading of books.

With electronic communications, you plug yourself into the machine. The book plugs into you. The visual media present you with an external reality at which you may look on. You make the reality of the book internally. You submit to the time of a video. A book submits itself to your time.

You control how a book may affect you since it can only function at the level of your imagination. This means that, since it is made from your own imagination, a book can't con you in the way a film or a television programme can. The book can't exist for you outwith the collaboration of your mind. A film, for example, can be a passive experience to an extent impossible with a book. A book needs your imaginative force to generate its own. It empowers the reader by the nature of the reading process.

That's why I'm keeping the cork on the champagne for the time being. The further the book recedes from the centre of our culture, the more fears I have about our continuing ability, individually, to control our understanding of our own experience. The missionary woman has reminded me of these fears and of the innocence of those times when I thought books were still accepted as the most important medium we had. Nostalgia strikes and, there in The Jury Room , I'm suddenly back at one of those early readings.

I am sitting at a table. There's a slightly refugee look about the few of us gathered in this small, base hall on a bleak night, like the diminishing adherents of a persecuted faith. What is it we're looking for? Perhaps an insight here and there or the conviction that there's more meaning to life than is expressed in soap opera?

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasant duty...   first came across his work ...since then...He sounds set for a long one. Feel like the support act here. He's obviously one of those chairmen who see the reading as merely a coda to their own performance. Scan the audience, like an early Christian looking for a vegetarian lion.

There's a T S Eliot lookalike staring at me steadily, maybe waiting to see if I'll atomise. Looks as if he doesn't have enough blood in him to feed a gnat. He doesn't look friendly. We're going to have questions after the reading. Bet he's the one who'll try to mention all the people I haven't read.

I assume you're familiar with Amadeus Bangelstein's later work. No? You surprise me. There are clear echoes of it in your own stuff. I'm thinking particularly of Letters to a Dead Friend. You should read it. Penguin have a translation. If you don't read Serbo-Croat.

If he even moves his lips, I'm going to keep the napalm handy.

I don't think you'll be disappointed ...  widely regarded as one of Scotland's most ...Give us a break, Jimmy. Shoot any more crap and I'll have to stand on stilts. The bigger the build-up, the more dramatic the anticlimax. Every time somebody says to me, Wait till you hear this, it's the funniest thing you've ever heard, my laughter muscles atrophy. Sit down before they all start expecting a few words from a burning bush.

I know we're all going to ...  prepare yourselves for ...  ladies and gentlemen –

Me? Oh no, the dreaded shammy mouth. It's a wee Gobi desert in there. You'd need to send in a search party to find a speck of saliva. It feels like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite? The lips are doing their limpets on the teeth again What about a glass of water? But the hand's rippling like a flag in a steady wind. And the so jerky, I'm liable to throw the water over my shoulder. Like the pilot in Airplane.

Here goes.

It could not have been other. Love abjures

All glamour, strips itself to the raw pores

And that is dangerous. We who adhere

In love's sweat to each other learn the art

Of bringing skin off with us as we part


You sure you're all right? Greyman says.

I find myself suddenly back in the reassuring brightness of The Jury Room.


You seemed to be muttering what sounded like poetry there.

Only sounded like poetry, I say. Really an ancient exorcism. For driving out the folly of the past. But my remark is just a defence-mechanism. I have been embarrassed by the woman's reminder to me of the insensibility of so many years of effort andby my involuntary recall of how my own missionary zeal for spreading The Word was strong enough to overcome a shyness about appearing in public. But the embarrassment is brief. I decide that our efforts to meet one-to-one across a page of words will never become redundant.

The truth is I believe that what those poetry readings most essentially represented will survive the triumph of the cyberpeople - the necessity to understand experience on your own terms.

I imagine a futuristic bar in which one man sidles up to another.

Psst! He says. Don't turn round.

The second man glances round the bar to make sure no one is watching. No problem. They are all staring at the multiple-screen TV.

Got some good stuff here, the first man says. Really blow your head. Make you see things in a way you never saw them.

How much?

A fiver. (Although the euro has been long established, social outsiders always convert it back into the old currency. It is a sign of subversion.)

The money and a package change hands. The second man is sharing a secret smile with himself, as he stands at the bar. He can feel in his pocketed hand the contours of a mind-state that no-one can interfere with.

It's called a book.