Mark Lawson ( Picador, £16.99)
‘Is the accuser always holy now?’ that stark quote, from The Crucible, appears before the start of this excellent, horrifying novel by Mark Lawson. In the world the novel evokes—not an imaginary dystopia, but Great Britain today, where anyone can be arrested under a claim of ‘historic’ sexual abuse and where a revered history don can be suspended from a university post under allegations of ‘bullying and harassment’— the answer appears to be ‘yes’.
the two fictional accused characters in the novel are Ned Marriott, a television historian, and his friend and colleague tom Pimm, non-politically-correct history lecturer at the University of Middle england, an institution in which students are known as customers and where what used to be Personnel changed its name to human Resouces, then to People and, finally, to Workplace harmony. In its campaign to stamp out anyone ever being allowed to offend anyone, Workplace harmony in fact stirs up hideous workplace discord.
Mr Lawson mentions in his author’s note that he himself suffered ‘one devastating experience of institutional group-think, baffling and contradictory management, false accusation and surreal sub-legal process’ and so has personal knowledge of ‘the damage to reputation, employability and health that can result from such an ordeal’. he stresses that this is not a roman à clef, but it’s impossible to read the novel without a strong sensation of the author’s personal experience.
the loss of health of the accused —the insomnia, the sweating, the wrecked digestion—is forensically described. the crackling brilliance of the prose and minute observations about contemporary Britain are shot through with disgust at the selfrighteousness of today’s accusing mobs. the accuser is always holy and mud (now that everything can be ‘Googled till doomsday’) has an alarming tendency to stick. Ysenda Maxtone Graham