In a country that sees fit to knight Cliff Rìchard, the decision to give a gong to Salman Rushdie, if only as a nod towards the idea that fiction has at least as much value as Summer Holiday and a brief affair (ahem) with a female tennis player, is a welcome one. Of course there are writers I’d prefer. It would have been good, for example, to see Penelope Fitzgerald damed (to coin a verb) before she died, or Sybille Bedford. Basil Bunting might have enjoyed a knighthood, though I doubt it. Ian Hamilton Finlay certainly wouldn’t, but it would have been fun to offer him one, just to see. Of living writers, James Hamilton-Paterson deserves far more recognition, although possibly not from the queen and Yo! Blair, who barely read, or, in the latter’s case, write. And what about J.H. Prynne, or Christine Brooke-Rose, or Stewart Home? (OK, my little joke.)
But it isn’t welcome to everyone. I’ve always assumed that fatwa is short for fatuous waffle, on the grounds that any statement produced by a celibate sclerotic in a long black frock is unlikely to have much sense to it. The problem is that fatuous waffle hurts, and can even kill, as some of Rushdie’s translators and collaborators could attest if there really were the life beyond.
Maybe it’s time we came up with some sort of death threat we can fling back. The targets, as holy books have it, are legion. Some Muslim, for example, who said that Rushdie deserved to die a thousand times after the publication of Satanic Verses, coincidentally my favourite Rushdie novel, and has since been knighted, a man whose name I shall not seek out for the benefit of this post because it would do him too much honour (honour on honour). Or Shirley Williams, one of the thousands of anxious appeasers to superstition. Or all those people, including Jack Straw, who say that Rushdie is unreadable, as if that were the issue.