Friday, February 13, 2009

Memories of a crazy and dangerous time

These are a selection of photographs I took on a noisy demonstration against The Satanic Verses by Muslims from all over the country who marched along Kensington High Street, close to Penguin’s offices, on a miserable, wet afternoon in February 1989.

Remembering those months is to remember another era. The UK still had the NBA and the main book trade news story of any week was the latest attempt by Dillons’ boss Terry Maher to circumvent it. On the day the fatwa was issued I was at Penguin for a publication lunch for Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre – such a non-event compared to what was unfolding elsewhere. There was a gap at the table because one of the Penguin senior staff had been called away to a meeting. We didn’t think anything of it at the time. That meeting, of course, was as a result of the Ayatollah’s announcement and Rushdie having to leave his house in Islington.

And so the madness began. A week or so later I travelled to
Bradford, to interview Muslims at the Council for Mosques. I was so struck by how peaceful they seemed – and yet there was all this insanity outside. The threats to booksellers and Penguin staff were real. The publisher received letters signed in blood. There were arson attacks on shops. For more than a year a policeman was on duty outside Penguin’s offices and became a familiar book trade sight.

The years went by and gradually the story became ‘would Rushdie be at such and such a party?’ It was surreal. You would be at the annual Authors of the Year bash at Hatchards on Piccadilly and you would suddenly realise he was there, across the other side of the room, having been slipped in via a back entrance. Pretty soon it became obvious that he was at every party and the novelty wore off.
One only hopes that the publicity this strange twentieth anniversary will receive does not lead to a return of any of the madness.
Footnote: please forgive strange spacing of the above.

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