Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Getty Images
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Salman Rushdie versus the mullocracy

Colin MacCabe reviews "Joseph Anton: a Memoir".

Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 656pp, £25

The first policeman would arrive at our house up to an hour early to make an initial search. It was before the days of mobile phones but there would be a lot of traffic on sophisticated walkie-talkies and then a large black car would pull up outside. Our front door would be opened as the car stopped and a man wearing a baseball cap would emerge. Once he was inside, the cap would be removed, the door shut and, except for the policemen watching television upstairs in one of the children’s rooms, it would be just another dinner party in Islington.

Nobody thought it extraordinary at the time but this book reminds us that it was. Ours was one of many houses in which Salman Rushdie was always welcome as a guest after he had been condemned to death by the mullocracy in Tehran. What was extraordinary, as this book insists on several occasions, was not just that so many friends – and we were in the outer circle – were determined to offer him hospitality and refuge but that they kept it secret. In nearly ten years, no word of any kind leaked out. The chattering classes didn’t chatter.

The title page of Joseph Anton announces a memoir, the genre of our age, and from one perspective that is an accurate description. The book takes us through a childhood in Bombay and then boarding school at Rugby; our pro­tagonist studies at Cambridge before becoming an advertising copywriter in London. He is desperate to become a writer and desperate to understand his translated situation, to conjugate his Indian and his English selves. These twin desperations fuse and give rise to a great novel, Midnight’s Children, which is both Rushdie’s story and the story of modern India. He follows this with Shame, a much shorter novel but equally fine, which takes as its topic Pakistan.

If these two novels bear witness to Rushdie’s experience of being brought up as an Indian Muslim and to a partitioned subcontinent, they do not address his experience in England or his experience as a Londoner. London is the site of his comfortable, middle-class existence and the destination of the vast numbers of immigrants who have made the journey from the subcontinent in altogether more uncertain circumstances. He thus conceives of a book with ambition far outstripping that of his previous, very ambitious books; it is an attempt, as Milton put it, to achieve “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”.

If this memoir were a conventional addition to the form, then the part of the story that takes us through the first two-thirds of the writer’s life would have taken up about 400 pages of this book of more than 600 pages. Yet a little more than 70 pages are devoted to it. The reason for this is that the ambitious book Rushdie publishes, at the age of 42, is The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton is not, then, a memoir in the sense of a subjective account of a life; rather, that account is part of a history, of an objective account of what happened after the author was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book opens with a bravura account of 14 February 1989, the day Rushdie was woken by a phone call from a BBC reporter asking him how it felt to be sentenced to death. This prologue is followed by the account of his life up to that day, a story that will be familiar to readers of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, for Rushdie shares many details of his life with Saleem Sinai and Saladin Chamcha, his fictional alter egos.

Rushdie further signals his distance from the memoir form with his decision to write not in the first but in the third person. This device, slightly odd in the discussion of his early life, pays off once Khomeini has pronounced his sentence. For at that moment Rushdie the writer, well known internationally in literary circles, becomes a world-historical figure – his name instantly recognisable around the globe. Rushdie is well aware of the almost accidental nature of this fame and the distancing device by which he turns himself into a figure in a wider history works brilliantly. It is the formal analogue of the extraordinary psychic adjustment that he had to make in order to cope with events that would have driven many insane. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia or megalomania.

The extent of Rushdie’s fame was brought home to me in 1997 when, while he was still under full security protection, he came to give a reading at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach. When he entered a hall packed with 800 members of the faculty and students, the audience erupted into a five-minute ovation quite unlike any reception I have ever witnessed in an academic setting.

Equally memorable was the occasion when I took him to an Italian restaurant high above Mount Washington so that he could enjoy a spectacular view of Pittsburgh and its three rivers. The restaurant had not been alerted to the visit but we were barely through the front door when the barman, who looked more like a character from The Sopranos than a habitué of libraries and bookshops, abandoned his post to greet us formally: “Mr Rushdie, it is a great honour to welcome you to our restaurant.”

Anybody who comes under the kind of protection that Rushdie was accorded after the fatwa must choose a pseudonym, a nom de guerre. He composed his, Joseph Anton, from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov and this name gives the book its title. Rushdie is a historian by training and the book is perhaps best described as a chronicle. It takes us step by step through the events following the fatwa: first, the battle of ideas, then the political struggle. In both strands, there are the good, who defend stalwartly a friend and a cause; the bad, who through fear, jealousy or stupidity abandon the most elementary defence of freedom; and the ugly, a succession of clerics and bigots who want the unbeliever killed as quickly as possible. In this unlovely gallery, Iqbal Sacranie, Tony Blair’s favourite Muslim, cuts a peculiarly disgusting figure.

The story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done. And there are also the personal details: an account of a much-married, uxorious man and most insistently, perhaps, the thoughts of a devoted father.

When Rushdie first told me in the mid-1980s of the new novel he was writing, which had as its centre Quranic verses accepting other gods that the Prophet then disowned, he was emphatic that what he wanted to do was to create a space in which one could pay one’s respects to Islamic culture without believing in God. This was his unforgiveable sin. If he had written a book that repeated the ludicrous slanders of medieval Christianity to the effect that a Christian necromancer had dictated the Quran to Muhammad or that he had died making love to a Jewess and then his body was eaten by pigs, no mullah would have felt threatened. For Muhammad, unlike Moses and Jesus, is a fully historical prophet. We know exactly how he lived and died.

Equally, a full-frontal attack from the perspective of modern atheism, à la Richard Daw­kins or Christopher Hitchens, in which the whole edifice of belief is reduced to nonsense would have troubled no one. What Rushdie dared to do was to attempt to appropriate the Islamic tradition for unbelievers, to take it out of the hands of the clerics. Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t have to read the book to recognise it for the threat it was and perhaps still is.

Sadly – but probably inevitably – reading this otherwise inspiring book jostles with the recognition that Rushdie has now given up this struggle. Islam is as the Islamophobes would have it. Early on in Joseph Anton, as he describes the moment at which Midnight’s Children took shape, he writes: “He was a historian by training and the great point of history, which was to understand how indi­vidual lives, communities, nations and social classes were shaped by great force yet retained at times, the ability to change the direction of those forces, must also be the point of his fiction.”

However, no attempt is made to offer a historical explanation of Islamic fundamentalism; instead, in the architecture of the book, it becomes as incomprehensible as the malignant birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great movie.

Islamic fundamentalism, like its Christian counterpart, is a recent phenomenon. “Born again” as an adjective does not occur in American English until 1959. The thinking of al-Qaeda springs from the writings of Sayyid Qutb in the same decade. To an old-fashioned Marxist, the explanation is obvious: these fundamental­isms indicate the failures of capitalism to offer even the hope of a system of global justice in which the staggering advances in knowledge and science over the past 400 years would contribute to the general well-being of the species.

The academic Darko Suvin once remarked that the desire to be born again amounted to an immanent critique of capitalism. Islamic fundamentalism is born in the failures of third-world socialism. If its intolerant ideas must be continuously contested – and Rushdie’s book shows him as eloquent as ever in this contest – they will only evaporate with social and political changes of which there is currently little sign.

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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