Beware hubris – and keep your secrets to yourself

anatomy of a scandalReview: Vivien Horler

Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughn (Simon  Schuster/ Jonathan Ball)

The advice most parents would like to give their children is: don’t do anything that could spoil your life. But it’s in the specifics that things become tricky.

Don’t drive drunk. Beware of drugs. Condomise. And you can just see them rolling their eyes: “Ja, ma,” they say, and all you can hope is that something from all those years of bringing them up has stuck.

And another thing. Never expect anyone to keep your secrets for you. Not even your best friend. Not even your spouse.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a good courtroom drama, but it’s more than that. It’s also a coming of age story, and a tale of hubris.

James is a junior minister in the British government. Charming, handsome, best friends with Tom, the prime minister, since they were at Eton and then Oxford together. A golden boy, happily married to Sophie, with two delightful children.

One Friday night he comes back late from his constituency clinic, grey faced, and has to tell Sophie: “I’m sorry, Soph. So sorry. I’ve f*** up big time.”

He’d being having an affair, he says. It meant nothing, it was just sex and it’s over. He had broken it off a week ago.

Sophie is devastated, then angry. She’s about to cry when he adds: “There’s something else.” The woman, James’s parliamentary researcher, has gone to the press. Because not only have they had an affair, but a week after he broke it off they had a passionate quicky in a lift in the Palace of Westminster. James says it was consensual; the woman says it was not.

She has laid a charge of rape.

Back goes the story to 1990s Oxford, where James and Tom are members of a dining club, the Libertines. Clad in blue velvet suits and cream silk cravats they go to various Oxford restaurants, get drunk on Bollinger and trash the place. But they’re wealthy boys, and a handful of £50 notes usually sorts out the damage.

They don’t do this too often – James needs a first if his political career is going to take off, and is a rowing blue. You can’t be a drunken sot or a druggie and shine academically or keep your place in the eight.

There are girls too. One is Sophie, also a rower, classy, wealthy, and lovely. Then there’s Ali, smart, pretty, and comfortable at Oxford despite her northern background; and Holly from Liverpool – working class, tubby, finding it difficult to believe she’s got into this elite university. And while she has a crush on James from afar, it is of course Sophie he falls for.

James, Sophie and Tom all know what happened the night the Libertines went too far.

The final major character in this story is Kate, the prosecutor in James’s Old Bailey rape trial. She has made a career of sexual assault cases. As a starry-eyed law student, she was startled when her class was told by a senior barrister: “The truth is a tricky issue. Rightly or wrongly, adversarial advocacy is not really an inquiry into the truth. Advocacy is about being more persuasive than your opponent. You can win even if the evidence is stacked against you, provided that you argue better. And it’s all about winning, of course.”

Now, 20 or so years later, she knows there is truth in what the barrister said, and she is intent on being the most persuasive. But she still retains some of her early high ideals, and she does not like rapists at all.

This a thoroughly good read.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on March 25.








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