Episodes in the Literary Life 1: My Part in Rushdie’s Peril by Matt Rees

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*(Readers often write to ask me how I came to be an author. Over the coming
weeks, I shall be writing a series of autobiographical vignettes which
shall, I believe, demonstrate the mélange of neuroses, ambition, talent,
chance, mischance, place, and alcohol that goes toward the creation of a
writer. This one, at least. The tales may be instructive or proscriptive.)*

Writers ought not to think identically with most of the people around them.
It usually comes quite easily to me. For example, when Ayatollah Khomeini
announced his fatwa on Salman Rushdie, I thought: “Serves you right for
looking down your nose at me, you smug sod.”

Ordinarily I’d have very little in common with the unlamented (by me,
anyway) Ayatollah. However, in this case, he happened to catch me at the
right time. The previous night I had experienced Rushdie’s disdain. I
wouldn’t blame Salman, because I was drunk at the time and a bit rude.
Except that I was at an age when I blamed other people for everything. So,
yes, I blamed him.

It was February 1989 and I was in my first reporting job at United Press
International, a once-mighty newswire which now has considerably less
influence than even a dead Khomeini. I had written a few stories about the
growing controversy around Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” British
Muslims had burned the book for its supposedly blasphemous portrayal of
Muhammad. The novel was up for the Whitbread Book Award, one of Britain’s
premier prizes. My bureau chief suggested I attend the awards dinner.

Having written a story in which Rushdie won (as everyone expected) and left
it at the newsdesk, I went off to the Barbican for the dinner. I needed
only to gather a couple of quotes from Rushdie when he won, so that I might
phone them in and have an editor plug them into my story. So I decided I
was free to otherwise enjoy the evening.

Imagine a 22-year-old youth from a less than sumptuously endowed background
who finds himself placed at a press-table laden with better food than his
mother cooks for him and free red wine. He is seated between two lovely and
solicitous public relations ladies who laugh at his jokes, wear low-cut
evening dresses, and who, he imagines, appear to find him sexually
irresistible. What would you have done?

Well, I acted unprofessionally. I became quite drunk and raucous. This
failed to impress the BBC correspondent across the table, or the other
bored hacks waiting to file their “Rushdie triumphs in face of controversy”

Late in the evening when the judges arose to pronounce the winner, I was
giggling into the neck of one of the patient p.r. girls.

“And the winner is…”

I nuzzled. She giggled. Patiently.

“…Paul Sayer, for ‘The Comforts of Madness.’”

“Oh, fuck!” The applause was rapturous, so people more than two tables away
probably didn’t hear me curse.

Paul Sayer spoke engagingly of his joy at winning. At least I gather he
did. I was occupied, telling the p.r. ladies I couldn’t believe “fucking
Rushdie didn’t fucking win.” As Sayer left the podium, I leaned across to
the BBC man and said, “What did that fucker say?” He recited a quick quote
for me.

I stumbled down the stairs to the press room. (Why would you serve
journalists free wine and then put the press room down two flights of
stairs?) I phoned my bureau chief. “Karin, fucking Rushdie didn’t fucking
win. Fuck it.” She inquired, with considerable amusement in her voice, if I
had obtained a quote from “fucking Rushdie” or from the judges.

I labored up the stairs to the hall and barreled to the front tables, where
I ignored the ebullient Paul Sayer and headed for Rushdie. He lingered
beside his table, standing with his second wife, an author whose work I had
not then read, Marianne Wiggins. (I still haven’t read it.)

Rushdie was otherwise alone. I assume all the sober or less drunk hacks had
by now obtained their quotes and were filing their stories. As I reached
Rushdie, I noted that I appeared to be unable to stand straight. Or to talk.

I managed to ask him, “Are you happy about the fuss over your book, because
it’ll help sales?” (I was 22. If you weren’t crass at 22, then I pity you.)

Rushdie looked at me with amused contempt –– amused, because he saw that he
would be afforded an opportunity for a bon mot. I didn’t manage to write
down the bon mot and I don’t remember what it was. It amounted to: “I’d
prefer to have lower sales and not to have the controversy.” He turned to
his wife and gave her a little hiccup of smug amusement which went like
this: “Hah-hnh.” I remember that. Word for word.

“Hah-hnh-hnh,” said Marianne Wiggins. (From what I know of her novels, she
sometimes writes like that, too.)

In that moment I conceived a great hatred of Rushdie. An unwarranted
hatred, much like my mother’s aversion to mustachioed men. But a hatred

I shuffled to the next table. Two of the judges stood there. I approached
them. They were both Conservative cabinet members. Douglas Hurd was Foreign
Secretary (He later became Lord Westwall, which sounds to me like a frozen
foods conglomerate). Kenneth Baker was Education Minister (He’s now Baron
Baker of Dorking, which is surely a title made up by unimaginative
satirists). Both appeared to be extremely tall. Or I was getting closer to
the ground as Rushdie’s “hah-hnh” rang in my ears.

“Why’d you vote for Rushdie to win?” I slurred.

The two ministers shared a look they must have picked up from studying Mrs.
Thatcher in a bad mood. “Actually I rather preferred the Tolstoy book,”
said Hurd. (A.N. Wilson’s excellent biography of Tolstoy was also
shortlisted for the prize.)

I tripped to the press room. By the time I had managed to decipher my
meager notes and dictate them to the newsdesk, the Underground had stopped
running. I spent the night on a bench outside the Barbican tube station.
Without a coat. My shirt sweaty from the alcohol and the humiliation. In
London. In February.

The next day, as I sat at the newsdesk, a story came through about
Khomeini’s fatwa. Grimacing through my hangover at the ticking newswire, I
pondered the notion of karma, developed in Rushdie’s ancestral land. It had
struck. “Don’t mess with me,” I thought. “Hah-hnh.”

The wait for a successor to *Amadeus* is over.

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