Mark Lawson’s latest novel, set in Britain in the recent past, presents us with a nation in the grip of ‘moral fever’. Here, the ‘giving offence to anyone at all over anything’ is considered ‘a capital crime’; the ‘post-Savile sexual witch hunt’ has trained people to ‘reinterpret heartbreak as violation’; and retribution comes not just in the form of established legal proceedings, but also of the ‘modern madness of amateur arraignment’.
Lawson wants to show how pernicious this culture can be. To do so, he presents us with two characters, both academics, who are out of step with it. Ned Marriot, a media don, is the darling of his university’s history department, vain, adolescent about sex, and a legendary pessimist (‘he adopted a strategy of insuring against ruin by expecting it’). Tom Pimm, also a historian, lacks the professional recognition of Ned (his closest friend), but he is a brilliant and committed lecturer, possessed of the rare distinction of never having slept with any of his students. Both men are dismayed by what they regard as the decline of the British university, where disputation and free inquiry have been sacrificed to considerations of offensiveness, students have been replaced by customers, and faculty live in fear of the ‘dark jargon’ of management.
Tom, who makes a lot of amusing noise about this, ends up facing allegations of bullying and harassment following an investigation by the university’s committee for Workplace Harmony. Ned, whose departmental conduct is more judicious than Tom’s, appears to be safe. But on the morning of his 60th birthday it transpires that he faces allegations of a different kind: two women from his past have approached the police with reports of ‘historic’ (a word whose misuse Ned and Tom spend a lot of time mocking) sex offences. Once these are in place, Lawson chronicles the attempts of the two friends to disprove the accusations that have been made against them. As he does so, he also shows us the unravelling of their lives and minds.
Lawson (who has faced allegations similar to those directed at Tom) devotes insufficient space to the possibility that his characters might deserve the charges they are facing (this can make the book feel like a rant), and he brings their stories to a close in a manner that is hurried and perfunctory. But the strengths of the novel outweigh its limitations. Lawson has a great gift for articulating the fury induced by contemporary cultural pieties; Ned and Tom (especially Tom) are vividly and memorably imagined; and the book as a whole is vigorous, intelligent, funny and provocative — hence certain to provoke an array of allegations.