Salman Rushdie: He’s still here

15 September 2012

12:04 PM

15 September 2012

12:04 PM

Until the launch party for Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, the best story I’d heard about the forced marriage of literary London and the Special Branch came from the night of the 1992 general election. Melvyn Bragg was hosting a party to watch the results. The guests were overwhelmingly left-leaning writers and intellectuals, and had gathered to celebrate an apparently certain Labour victory that would end 13 years of Tory rule. Yet as the evening wore on, nothing went according to plan. Neil Kinnock’s Labour was winning a few seats, but John Major’s Tories were doing far better than the polls predicted. The chatter subsided. Apprehension replaced expectation. Finally, the BBC announced that the returning officer at Basildon was ready to announce the result for the Essex seat. Basildon was the marginal that Labour had to win if it was to form the next government.

Labour lost.


The despairing thought that they must suffer five more years of Conservative government overwhelmed the company. Everyone fell silent. Everyone, that is, apart from muffled voices from far away in the house, who were cheering and hollering. Who could be so tactless as to break the funereal mood? Who could welcome the triumph of the detested Tories?

It was Rushdie’s Special Branch bodyguards watching the election in the servants’ quarters.

Serving and ex-Special Branch officers were at the launch of Joseph Anton on Friday night, and I learned a little more about their secret life. Rushdie told how British officers were faintly contemptuous of their counterparts in the American secret service. The flashy Yanks would try to deter assassins by deploying overwhelming numbers. The Brits preferred subtlety and subterfuge. Special Branch officers told Rushdie that they were proud to say that a couple of their guys could smuggle the Queen down Oxford Street in a battered Ford Cortina and the shoppers would never notice.  Despite reports to the contrary from malicious journalists who have always hated him, it was clear that a strong bond formed between the hunted man and his protectors. And not only between them.  As they moved Rushdie from house to house, bodyguards got lucky and got laid, as literary ladies took them to their beds. Who can blame them for wanting to offer what support they could? These were brave men, who by keeping Rushdie alive were risking their safety for a noble cause.

You only have to turn on the news to see how important that cause remains. Watching the ease with which obscurantist demagogues manipulate credulous mobs, it is easy to despair. Rushdie’s launch provided a small moment of optimism, which I think everyone who was there felt. The fatwas and the murders, the book burnings and the bombings did not stop The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie is still alive. Meanwhile, and to be blunt about, the Ayatollah Khomeini is not.

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Show comments
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  • Eddie

    When I think of Salman Rusdie saying ‘I’m Still Here’, I can’t help thinking of Shirley Bassey, in her glamorous frock and diamonds, at the BBC Electric Proms concert, where she belted out a version of ‘I’m still here’.
    Or was that Salman Rushdie after all?
    I think we should be told…
    I am sure Salman went out in disguise – some nice fishnets and a blonde wig: lots of Muslim men do apparently, when out on the secrte gay pull…
    One always wonders why he didn’t just wear a flipping burka though! In our politically correct over-sensitive times, it’s the best way to avoid scrutiny anywhere – at airports, when commiting any crime, whenever one wants to stop any officer doing a body search. Everyone should have one, just in case…

  • roger

    Was it the Special Branch? Surely it was SO1 protection . The article has a lot of ‘lovies’ class disdain about it.
    How did Harold Wilson (who sent the SAS after the PIRA) only get one policeman (at a time) in retirement yet Blair gets a small army? ‘Protection’ as a status symbol.

  • cg

    I read The Satanic Verses 20 years ago. Those demonstrators have inspired me to read it again.

  • Evan Grambas

    Nicely put Nick…and somewhere along the line, some people got laid!

  • David Lindsay

    Rushdie, who has never liked Britain and who has never made any attempt to disguise that fact, ended up as pretty much the only person in the world keeping up the idea that the fatwa against him was still a genuine threat. He regularly did so live on BBC Two late at night, not to mention about the bars and restaurants favoured by the London literati. Who’d have thought to look for him there, eh?

  • coventrian

    Having read 100 Years of Solitude, my reading of Midnight’s Children – even while on holiday in India – just seemed like magical realism by numbers. Shame was crude and sometimes sexist satire which told me nothing about Pakistan I didn’t know. Despite resolving not to buy any more of his books, I bought The Satanic Verses as an act of political solidarity hoping it might be a better novel than its literary reputation. Oh dear. It was worse.

    As for the politics, people should check out why arch-secularist Kushwant Singh advised Penguin India not to publish.

    Perhaps the fatwa having ruined Rushdie’s life had the paradoxical effect of saving his literary reputation. After all no one likes to kick a man when he’s down.
    Meanwhile the ‘art’ has got worse and the protests more violent despite the death of an Ayatollah. There are plenty more where he came from.
    However it’s nice to know that Melvyn Bragg has a house with servants quarters.

    • Ram

      Rushdie wrote prophetically of the Islamist rage to come. One would have to be brain-dead not to realise “The Satanic Verses” is an extremely important book about our time.
      Khushwant Singh is notorious in India as its most shameless political prostitute. He was a servitor of the Gandhi family dependent on Muslim votes and realised the book was a severe critique of Islam. So he said: don’t publish. A completely worthless, corrupt clown.

  • AY

    just tried
    to hear bbc program where Nick Cohen made several replies to some
    obscure lexically leftified bbc mutants.

    why is it
    always so twisted when it comes from the left?

    why is Paul
    Weston capable of writing about islam in normal English and you are not?

    why should
    it always be a cheguevara mug behind every phrase, crappy-fugue multi-voice
    overtones and sleepwalks into blaming “bankers” or Americans or who else is
    there to emphasize that muslim behavior isn’t that bad “in wide context” – and
    to dilute impression of Islamic savagery and incompatibility with the West.

    muddy, this is how
    you sound Nick and this is how your articles look like.

    and btw
    at any occasion of public discussion with inayat bunglawala, an islamist in
    disguise who salivates over his bright future as spiritual emir of
    multicultural islam-dominated Britain – you fail your duty if you don’t ask
    this creep simple questions about islam, what are the things he stands for,
    namely –

    if he
    rejects islamic punishments for apostasy, blasphemy, adultery, and
    homosexuality, if he supports equality of legal rights of women and non-muslims
    with male muslims, if he rejects sharia in the UK, if he unequivocally condemns
    9/11 terror acts and terror groups like hamas.

    you won’t
    get satisfactory answers to these questions – or he will immediately lose his jobs sponsored by oil sheiks, because
    that will mean de-facto rejection of his “faith”. instead, you will hear more
    twaddle about Zionist American crimes, how sharia is “actually” benign and how
    “British” people need it and want it.

    With that person,
    any westerner with correct instincts would not use the same seat in toilet, not
    talking about appearing on the same broadcast.

    • Austin Barry


      Please read Orwell on the basic rules of writing. This is utter, unreadable tosh. God bless.

      • Daniel Maris

        As always Austin you raise at least the rictus of a smile.

      • AY

        if it is really bad – Nick Cohen doesn’t deserve better.

        he is chaotic lefti and his every proverbial spoon of honey comes along with a barrel of marxist-abracadabra tar.
        (not sure if Orwell The Great allows reference to obscure folk sayings.. oh what if it doesn’t… I’ll be in trouble again).

      • Ram

        Orwel was talking about journalism and non-fiction, not fiction. He would have been an idiot to think the straightforward style was the only permissible one for fiction. What then of Joyce whom he admired so much? Rushdie wrote prophetically of the Islamist rage to come. One would have to be brain-dead not to realise “The Satanic Verses” is an extremely important book about our time.

        • Austin Barry

          Er, Ram, I was writing about AY’s prolix writing, not Rushdies. Focus, mate.

  • Kevin

    Who can blame them for wanting to offer what support they could?

    They could have supported them by offering them the constant companionship of a wife. They could have supported them by bearing their children. They could have lived on the wages of a Special Branch officer.

    Instead, so you report, they behaved in a manner consistent with someone who wanted to satisfy a James Bond sexual fantasy. Presumably, they had nothing to do with them after that.