By Mark Lawson, Picador, £16.99
In The Allegations, Ned Marriott, a television historian and university professor, is accused of two counts of historic rape by different old flames. Meanwhile, Tom Pimm, Ned’s fellow lecturer and best mate at the fictional University of Middle England, has a few accusations of his own to deal with. The wisecracking historian and linguistic pedant stands accused, via a department-wide investigation following the university’s very own sex abuse scandal, of bullying colleagues, looking bored in meetings and dishing out aggressively low marks to his students.
In the afterword Lawson writes that, as far as the Marriott storyline is concerned, he has “passing acquaintance” with more than one of those publicly suspected of serious sexual assault. He also writes that he has direct experience of Pimm’s predicaments. Many readers will be well aware of what Lawson is referring to here. He lost his plum gig presenting Radio 4’s Front Row in 2014.
The official line was that he left owing to “personal reasons”, but accusations of bullying by Lawson of junior colleagues soon surfaced. He vigorously denies the accusations.
During recent rounds of publicity for The Allegations, Lawson, who is a Catholic and theatre critic for the Tablet, has insisted he was never told exactly what he did wrong or who had accused him of wrongdoing. As he claims in the afterword, he was a victim of “institutional group think”.
But Lawson also urges readers not to view his book as a roman à clef, despite all the personal baggage he himself has just referenced. It’s virtually impossible not to read this bright but hard-edged book without imagining that, amid the satirical set pieces and cast of characters, the author isn’t drawing heavily on his own experiences and even engaging in a little score settling with those he believes to have smited him.
If the afterword suggests Lawson is concerned that his backstory might overshadow the book, he shouldn’t worry. The Allegations is a sharp comic novel and an enjoyable, if at times depressing, read. Enjoyable, because it’s packed with wry observations and good jokes (Marriott at one point imagines his officious stepfather telling circling reporters that his inherited offspring should be given the death penalty.) Depressing, because, via the Pimm narrative, Lawson dissects a profoundly dispiriting aspect of modern life, namely our hysterical culture of offence.
Occasionally Lawson pushes the satire too far – the HR representatives Pimm faces in a series of meetings are such robotic, jargon-spewing caricatures that they fail to be believable – and short chapters dedicated to books such as The Trial, Disgrace and The Human Stain are an unnecessary means of hammering home the novel’s main points, which come through loud and clear anyway.
By exploring the spectre of society’s rush to offence, of which the increasing instances of “no platforming” at our universities is one of the best examples, Lawson clearly knows only too well that his other main plot strand, the allegations of sexual assault, is hazardous terrain to negotiate, particularly as he is, in angry Twitter terminology, a privileged white male.
But he handles this element of the book with confidence and sensitivity. The voices of the alleged victims are not drowned out and Ned is not pushed as an innocent party.
Rather, a question mark is kept hanging over this vain and rather pompous womaniser as he finds himself at the centre of a situation with all kinds of complications, including the difficulties of bringing historic sexual assault cases to court, the question of whether the accused should be given anonymity and the way the internet can ride roughshod over contempt laws. He emerges as a possibly guilty man whose world is ripped apart.