Several years have passed since author Salman Rushdie was shadowed by London’s Special Branch officers — “very handsome, fit, armed and absurdly sexy” — but on Friday night some of them were once again by his side.
This was a celebratory occasion — to join him for the release of his latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, in South Kensington.
Accompanied by actors Stephen Fry and Eric Idle, authors Ian McEwan and Hanif Kureishi, rock legends David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and 50 publishers who had flown in from around the world, Rushdie devoted the night to those who had supported him since Valentine’s Day in 1989, the day that changed his life.
That morning, Rushdie received a phone call from a BBC reporter who informed him that Ayatollah Khomeini had sentenced him to death for the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses, and asked how he felt. “It doesn’t feel good,” he replied. He then left his home in the London neighbourhood of Islington, never to return, and spent the next nine years living under the fatwa — until the Iranian government lifted it in 1998.
Joseph Anton takes its title from the name that the British Special Branch, or counterintelligence police, used to refer to Rushdie during the fatwa, a hybrid of the authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, and is written in the third person, divulging details of how Rushdie lived under the fatwa, and the involvement of those who helped him through.
“One of the extraordinary pleasures of writing this book was being able to say at last after all these years, who did what, who helped and who went beyond the call of duty,” Rushdie said on Friday night. The party, held at the Collection restaurant and bar on Brompton Road, was organised by Rushdie Media, the public relations agency owned by Zafar, Rushdie’s elder son.
Speaking from halfway up a staircase, Rushdie and his editors from Random House leaned down to address the crowd, which packed the room. “I have never been in the same room as so many of my publishers at the same time and I thank them for their support. Many of these are people who stood up for me when it was difficult to stand up for me.”
Rushdie drew special attention to William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who worked for Aschehoug and who was shot three times in the back by an assassin outside his home in Oslo. Nygaard not only survived, but made a full recovery and went on to reprint The Satanic Verses in defiance.
“One of the great things about this affair is the way in which ordinary people, people in publishing companies and people in bookstores held the line and did not cave in. I’ve always felt the front line of what happened was not me, the front line was the bookshop.”
Both the Collets and Dillons bookstores in London were firebombed for stocking The Satanic Verses, and significant attacks took place in Australia and in California. Storeowners were threatened on a daily basis for stocking the book.
“Their response,” Rushdie said, “was to put it in the window. It took heroic courage from my booksellers during this time, and it is one of the most important aspects of what happened and I salute them.”
He continued: “I think this has been one of the greatest defences of free speech of our time and I’m really proud to have been associated with all these people who stood up not just for me, not just for my book, but for the mighty principle which stands behind it, which is the principle upon which the entire edifice of a free society stands. And if that falls then everything falls.”
Free speech is an issue with which Rushdie continues to battle, particularly in India.
On the subject of the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, during which he cancelled his appearance after numerous threats, Rushdie was less positive. “I have been back to India since the furore at Jaipur and it was fine, so my presence is not a problem. As for Jaipur, it’s a long story but I was not impressed with the way that it was organised, or the organisers — not Willie,” he stressed, referring to William Dalrymple the festival’s co-director, “but the others.”
Addressing his guests, Rushdie declared: “There was an attempt to suppress the book, which was not suppressed and is available in 50 languages. There was an attempt to suppress the author, who was not suppressed and is now here talking to you. What happened to me was a small precursor to a much larger narrative and we are still living that narrative and we still need to fight that fight.”
Supporters of Rushdie were just as adamant. “The fatwa was just disgusting,” actor and author Stephen Fry said in an interview. “I’ve read The Satanic Verses and it really is a comical book. Salman is a great ironist and people took it so seriously, which was rather ridiculous.”
Rushdie himself said he also saw the funny side of the whole affair. He recounted an evening during the fatwa spent at having dinner at the home of Kureishi. As he was leaving, Kureishi came running out into the street, waving a gun above his head that a Special Branch officer had left on his couch, shouting: “Here, you forgot your shooter.”
On a separate occasion, a member of Special Branch persuaded Rushdie to wear a wig in public: “I got out of a police car across the road from Harrods and people started laughing and I heard one of them shout: ‘Look there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig!’” He never wore the wig again, he said.
But the years under guard had other moments, too — such as being shadowed by “handsome, fit, armed and absurdly sexy” policemen who got the girls interested.
“It (guarding him) became the glamorous job inside the (Scotland) Yard — everyone knew that this was serious business, as opposed to running around after foreign secretaries,” Rushdie told the Radio Times in an interview.
He recalled: “The policemen were all very handsome, fit, armed and absurdly sexy. I noticed sometimes when I would walk into a room containing members of the British book world that the girls were all looking over my shoulder, checking where ‘the boys’ were.”
In the interview, Rushdie said the British authorities were wrong to send him into hiding but claimed the Yard top brass did not think him worthy of “overt protection” — continuing to live a normal life with a visible security team, as is afforded to Prime Ministers, royals and dignitaries.
“I think I made a mistake by agreeing not to go home that first night. When you’ve got a house, you should be allowed to live in it. I think the reason I fell into the error was that we all believed it would be over in a few days,” he said.
“Also I was told that overt protection was ‘reserved for people who have served the nation’. There were people in the upper echelons of Scotland Yard who clearly felt that I was not the sort of person for whom police protection was designed.
“But it wasn’t everyone. There were people in the upper echelons who did get the point. And in terms of the officers who were with me, all of whom volunteered, they were very committed.”
The evening’s emphasis, though, was Rushdie’s gratitude toward his friends and colleagues, who he said allowed him to live a relatively normal life. He ended his speech by saying: “Bill Buford, who was editing Granta magazine at the time, said to me: ‘Your friends are going to form an iron ring around you and you will be able to live inside it.’ And that is exactly what they did for 12 years.”
And remember, he added, “this is literary London, this is the leakiest organisation on Earth. These are the people who can’t keep a secret to save their lives and yet from this world came this group of people who never leaked one word, who kept this secret for over a decade and allowed me to come and go and to be amongst them. They knew where I lived and they would come and see me and no one ever found out.
“The fact that this secret was kept in such an extraordinary way, there is no question that I owe them a great deal. This was something we did together, and here we all are, and hooray for us.”