I can talk about Salman Rushdie’s honour with a certain earned hauteur, having in the course of my life turned down three honours myself (LVO, OBE and CVO, since you ask). I have never understood why people accept honours when there is so much more social cachet in refusing them.
People in the FCO always imagined I turned them down because of a vague egalitarianism. Actually it is because, as a good Scot, I felt no need to accept anything from a provincial German family notable for lack of intellectual distinction. The Queen asked me, in Warsaw, why I refused, and I replied it was because I am a Scottish nationalist. She replied “Oh good” with a charming smile.
On two occasions I received a very pleasant personal gift from the Queen instead – a solid silver armada dish, and a piece of Linley joinery. This is in practice a much better deal, because with the higher awards, when you die you have to give them back (honest – there is a little label on the back that says so). The gifts, you can sell – and as I am now completely on my uppers, I am going to. Any offers?
I do have one honour – I am an Officier de l’Ordre du Mono.of the Republic of Togo. This was given me by the late President Eyadema, who as far as I know was the only recent Head of State who strangled his predecessor with his own hands. It was for my role in a surreal – and terrifying – peace negotiation with the Sierra Leonean rebels, which will turn up in a future volume of my memoirs. I would have refused the medal, but the FCO ordered me not to as, in the unusual circumstances, it might give unhelpful offence. In thanking President Eyadema, I asked him if the next up was l’Ordre du Stereo. Whether he understood my joke, made in bad French, I don’t know, as he replied, memorably, that I should drink coconut milk to make me piss. That may be a Togolese insult.
Anyway, back to Rushdie. I am afraid I believe that if people wish to insult religion, they should be allowed to. Freedom of speech is vitally important. Those Muslims shouting against him have every right to be offended, and every right to express their view, but must acknowledge Rushdie’s right to express his. If the Muslims are right, Rushdie will get his come-uppance eternally, which should be enough vengeance for anybody. You can’t make eternity last longer by killing someone quicker.
But I am astounded at the decision to give him a knighthood. Why? His corpus of work is just not that good. Midnight’s Children was readable, but a bit formulaic. Rushdie’s prose has all the cutting edge of a damp cloth. Satanic Verses may be shocking, but has little else to recommend it.
Who nominated Rushdie, and why? If we really felt the need to create a new literary knight, why not Alexander McCall Smith or George MacDonald Fraser? Both of them are much more original and prolific writers than Rushdie. Both actually live in this country, unlike Rushdie.
McCall Smith, certainly, has devoted a significant proportion of his time and his literary earnings to charity, something one could never accuse Rushdie of. If Salman Rushdie has an interest in life other than Salman Rushdie, it is not readily discernible.
Rushdie simply does not deserve to be elevated above a score or more of other writers in this country who are not knights. I am having dinner tomorrow in Dundee with Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, both of whom I prize above Rushdie. This is a political, not a literary, award and Muslims have a right to be angry about that. But the answer is a political response, not violence. If Lord Ahmed is genuine, he should jump off the New Labour gravy train.