Joseph heard the song of the statue in the harbour and she seemed to be singing to him
From Joseph Anton by Salmon Rushdie, describing his arrival in New York
Shortly after my elder brother arrived at Rugby School as a new boy he wrote to me at my prep school telling me that he had been beaten for having too many watts in his study. It seems that he’d put a sixty watt bulb in his lamp instead of the maximum permitted wattage of forty. I’d never heard of a watt. “What was this hell-hole”, I asked myself, “where boys are thrashed for breaking rules they don’t understand?”. Rugby in the sixties was the archetypal public school, where the prefects had the right to beat the younger boys and fagging was still in operation. The next year I arrived as a very nervous new boy, at the same time as a boy from Bombay called Salman Rushdie. We suffered from the same handicap in that we couldn’t speak English proper. He had an Indian accent and mine was Yorkshire. But a little bit of teasing from the other boys soon cured that. I was amused to hear Rushdie being interviewed about Midnight’s Children, when he was in his thirties, and his accent was identical to mine. The irony is that as soon as we left school we entered the adult world of “Room at the Top” where regional or ethnic accents were valued and “posh”vowels were derided.
In his autobiographical tale, ‘Joseph Anton’ Rushdie says that his years at Rugby were wretchedly miserable. He says that the other boys disliked him for being foreign, for being clever and for not liking games. In fact the reason is much more straightforward. Every Wednesday afternoon we had to take part in what was called “the Corps”, where we put on an army uniform and trained as soldiers. Rushdie, being, as he said, “non-sportif”,hated this and applied for exemption, playing the race card. He said that as an Indian he shouldn’t have to train for the British Army. We all hated the Corps and resented the fact that Rushdie could sit in his study every Wednesday afternoon reading science fiction novels while we were up to our knees in mud. It’s not surprising that the other boys disliked him, but from his own account he didn’t suffer any serious bullying, and, amazingly, managed to survive his school career without being beaten once.
This charmed life has continued into adulthood. He had intended his novel, The Satanic Verses, to be provocative but didn’t expect to be sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini because of it. It turned out to be a spectacular career move. A novel which had been selling a few hundred a week suddenly began to sell thousands. Every time sales began to flag he made a passionate call for freedom of speech and sales would revive. There was a tricky moment when he couldn’t get Penguin to release the paperback, and he rather desperately abandoned the Freedom argument and declared himself a Muslim in the hope that the Fatwa would be lifted, but when that strategy failed he went back to calling for Freedom of Speech as an atheist. He railed against the Foreign Office for not doing enough to help him and mocked them when they said they had more important issues to deal with, such as the release of hostages and of the businessman, Roger Cooper. Salmon Rushdie was never my friend, but Roger Cooper was. He had been sentenced to ‘Death plus Ten Years’ (see link) and was being held in Evian prison awaiting execution. Rushdie had bought himself a mansion on Bishop’s Avenue in London on the profits from Satanic Verses. I haven’t been to a mansion in Bishop’s Avenue, but I have been to the stinking place which calls itself Evian prison, and I know where I’d prefer to be. Rushdie was contemptuous of the fate of Roger Cooper and the hostages.
It is of course fundamental in a free society for individuals to be able to write and publish whatever they wish without constraint from the government or any other body. Rushdie has spoken very eloquently in support of that freedom. But it’s distinctly odd that he only supports the freedom which affects his pocket. Freedom is indivisible and it isn’t only writers who suffer the constraints of government. Rushdie is a keen and vocal supporter of the Labour party and has been happy to watch idly as thousands of new laws, regulations and constraints have been introduced, severely curtailing the activities of practically every occupation apart from his own. He would do well to look at Hayek’s ‘The Road To Serfdom’ and acknowledge that he’s helping to pave that road.