Surely Salman Rushdie, of all people, has contemplated his mortality more than most, living under the shadow of a death threat since 1988… More than half his adult life.
He had been in hiding for five years the first time I met him, and was already well into processing how his future would be defined and delimited by his writing of “Satanic Verses”, outlawed by Iran’s religious leaders.
A tall, broad, impressive figure, he was also warm and clubbable. He didn’t suffer fools, and enjoyed his celebrity. Although he tired of his concealment, and endless questions about his predicament, he never disowned where history had brought him. As a writer and thinker, it was just too damned interesting a place to be.
We met in Dublin at a conference urging that Ireland introduce a Freedom of Information Act to increase the accountability of public institutions. He spoke eloquently on stage, so did Watergate’s Carl Bernstein. Sitting in front of me was Bono and his wife Ali Hewson.
There was a palpable feeling that we were in righteous company (!)
- and that the time had come for governmental transparency to be enshrined in law.
As it happens, there’s been backsliding in the Irish Republic, and in Britain too. Austerity and “lack of staffing” has been used as an excuse to delay requests for data under the Freedom of Information acts.
Over drinks, Salman relaxed into his preferred role : raconteur and philosopher. He listened, and made us think and laugh. Not least when he described his days in advertising, in Pakistan.
He said, for example, that he’d been called in once to his boss’s office, to discuss his latest copywriting and house style. He was warned not to use certain words, for fear of offending the “man in the street”.
“For us, Pork, is four-letter word”, said the editor.
Salman had to concede that it was.
“And Sex - that is also a four-letter word”.
Salman just nodded with a smile.
In the context of Freedom of Information he moved on to Freedom of Speech, saying “I have often considered whether it was, and is, freedom of speech to call for me to be murdered. And I know there are laws against incitement to violence. But I keep coming to the conclusion that people must have that right. That freedom of speech means allowing someone to call for a man to be killed.”
I don’t know for certain whether his view varied later. But on the surface at least this was a man who had made his peace with that idea, which he linked with his right to write what he wanted to, as well.