Twelve budding novelists in courtroom drama

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ANYONE whose name has ever appeared in print underneath a newspaper article, or on the spine of a book, receives letters from people wanting to know how they can become a writer. I know this to be true not only because I have replied to many such letters over the past couple of years, but also because a long time ago I wrote a couple, too. I don't really know what I expected from these - probably a phone call from Martin Amis (or Tom Wolfe or whoever it was) to say that he had actually had enough of writing, and would I do him the honour of replacing him as one of the English language's leading prose stylists? - but whatever it was, it didn't happen.

The only advice that would have made much sense to me would have been that I should, well, write: somehow I didn't realise that it was something you had to practise at home before anyone would give you a job doing it. I thought you just waited for a vacancy to come up on the Guardian Media page ('Unknown novelist wanted by leading publisher. Must have Booker potential') and then hoped for an interview. But there is something else I can now add to this short list of tips, and though it may sound flippant I do not intend it to be so: do some jury service.

It is not just that a couple of weeks on a jury would provide enough material for your first three novels or movie scripts, especially if you padded it out with some acute psychological observation, descriptions of trees, etc. You learn about all sorts of other things, too: about narrative structure; about the importance of detail; about how easy it is to stereotype people, and why you should avoid doing so at all costs; about how suspense can be found in the unlikeliest and most unpromising material.

Visiting American screenwriters charge thousands of pounds for this sort of information, and yet here it is available courtesy of the state; it even pays your expenses. Who says the British Government has no interest in the arts?

My case was a straightforward assault: a couple of young white guys stood accused of beating up a young black kid at a London nightclub. But even during the first few minutes of the first day there was plenty to awaken one's curiosity. The defendants had obviously taken great pains to invite a couple of black mates along, just so that we, the (multi-racial) jury, should not impute any racial motive to the attack; these mates sat in the public galleries exchanging cordial chit-chat with the (black) mates of the victim. And one of the defendants, the one with the alarming and indisputably prejudicial skinhead haircut, had engaged the services of a young, black, beautiful, and obviously brilliant female barrister. I wouldn't have been smart enough to script any of that.

It wasn't, in truth, much of a case. The only defence witness was a cousin of one of the defendants and she got her story muddled up anyway; and the prosecution witnesses, many of them passers-by with no conceivable axe to grind, were articulate and plausible, despite being rubbished and mocked by the second barrister (an unwise move which made the jurors bridle with sympathetic outrage: why call a man who has stopped his car to come to the aid of a complete stranger a liar, unless you have something to fear?).

The lesson I learnt about suspense was as follows: it doesn't matter how mundane your material, you can still get a gasp of excitement from an audience if you tell your story right. Our big moment, for reasons too complicated to explain here, came when somebody said that he hadn't been to the toilet, which might not sound thrilling, but which, in context, almost brought us to our feet. And what I learnt about narrative was that, if you take a whole complicated section of life to pieces, even if that section is only of 40-odd minutes' duration, you cannot put it back together again.

The jurors were never in any real doubt that the defendants had assaulted the kid. We believed the victim's story and those of his companions that evening, implicitly; similarly, we knew that we had been fed a pack of lies by the defendants. Except that even some of the lies had some elements of truth in them, and the truths had been embellished and sanded down and partially recalled . . . and you think of all those 'definitive' biographies, and those definitive reviews of definitive biographies, thundering on about errors of fact and of judgement, and you realise that if people cannot construct a coherent narrative out of 45 minutes of a life, what chance has anybody got with a whole one, even if they feel they know everything there is to know about it?

In the room where we were to ponder our verdict, the foreman of the jury dropped a clanger. He wanted to know what kind of a character the victim was; he thought that the victim's mates should be able to provide us with some sort of a clue. 'Do they look all right to you?' he asked. 'Or are they a rough old bunch?' The question, I realised to my horror, was not being addressed to all of us, but to our one Afro-Caribbean member, a quiet, grey-haired woman of pensionable age. It was a textbook example of a certain kind of contemporary racism, where the offender has no idea that he has offended, and would be horrified and defensive should anyone accuse him of racism; but racism is what it was.

If I were writing the subsequent scene, it would have gone something like this, I think: middle-class liberal (ie, me) wrestles with his conscience, then reluctantly decides that he has to say something or reluctantly decides that he can't be bothered. You've seen or read something like it before, hundreds of times. What actually happened was this: all the other jurors in the room, Asian, white, middle-class and working-class, turned on him - except the black woman . . . and me. 'That's a bit racist, isn't it?' said one. 'Why should she know?' said another. 'You berk,' said a third. When you are clever enough, and generous-spirited enough, and optimistic enough, and sophisticated enough, to predict a reaction like that, then you have a promising literary career in front of you; I went home simultaneously buoyed and chastened.-