The man in the dock makes a doleful exhibit. He is a carpenter in a smart grey suit reserved perhaps for weddings, funerals-and now for court appearances. He has never been in trouble before. He sits behind a glass barrier. It seems permissible-necessary even-to stare at him. But what can a face tell? He has broken the nose of a “friend” at a party, in the suburbs of north London. There is no dispute about the nose or his responsibility for breaking it. But was he acting in self-defence? Or protecting his girlfriend? The story that builds over three days-the carpenter’s barrister managing to rise above its bathos-is unrelievedly British. It involves indecent quantities of alcohol and a dog-with a little sexual jealousy on the side. If this case were a play, I’d describe it as an unexpectedly successful tragi-farce with an ingenious narrative structure made up of conflicting voices-a vicious triangle.
I had been wondering if jury service would resemble my job as a part-time theatre critic. I was looking forward to it-and amazed by all the people who asked why I did not try to get out of it.
Admittedly, the first morning at Wood Green Crown Court (a hyperbolically fierce building) was discouraging. The jurors all carried the same expression: a slightly oppressed look, as if about to be found guilty. The atmosphere was penitential, as if there were already an unspoken sympathetic affinity between jury and dock.
But once in the waiting room, I was content to wait. It was like being in an airport in which all planes have been grounded without explanation. (In his excellent book The Juryman’s Tale, Trevor Grove points out the attractions of jury service for book readers. He has even recently tried-in vain-to persuade the Old Bailey to open a bookshop.) Wood Green had a canteen, called The Willows, but there was no obvious sign of food. We were handed out fliers promising “Lunchtime Allowance Special: Plain Jacket Potato, Willow’s Coffee and One Bar of Confectionery FOR ONLY ?2.25.” But Willows staff were seldom roused by the bell to serve us.
Before the case begins, the judge makes a point of correcting each juror who trips over his vows, as if, in his pedagogical way, he thinks sincerity may be secured by correct elocution. Perhaps it is his way of making us focus on the gravity of what it…