In those early days, he preferred the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, and, after one of his friendlier housemates, a serious, cherubic boy named Richard Shearer, made him sit down and listen to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he became an enthusiastic Dylan worshipper; but he was, at heart, a conformist.
The lessons one learns at school are not always the ones the school thinks it’s teaching.
Later in his speech he surpassed even that aperçu. “The most important part of your education here will not take place in the lecture rooms or libraries or supervisions,” he intoned. “It will happen when you sit in one another’s rooms, late at night, fertilizing one another.
He had left university in June 1968. Midnight’s Children was published in April 1981. It took him almost thirteen years just to begin. During that time he wrote unbearable amounts of garbage.
And for much of the time he worked with people who appreciated and supported him, talented people, many of whom were using advertising as he was, as a stepping-stone to better things, or a source of easy money.
The political and the personal could no longer be kept apart. This was no longer the age of Jane Austen, who could write her entire oeuvre during the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning them, and for whom the major role of the British Army was to wear dress uniforms and look cute at parties.
“Are you serious about this writing business?” Vonnegut unexpectedly asked him as they sat drinking beers in the sunshine, and when he replied that he was, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five told him, “Then you should know that the day is going to come when you won’t have a book to write, and you’re still going to have to write a book.”
There were many bomb scares though, fortunately, there was never a bomb at any of his publishers’ offices, though Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley, California, was hit by a pipe bomb. (Many years later he visited Cody’s and was shown with great pride the damaged, burned-out area on the shelves where the bomb had been planted, and which Andy Ross and his staff had agreed to keep unrepaired, as the bookstore’s badge of courage.)
When he was able to visit people he noticed that they were more excited by the security precautions—the dry-cleaning, the curtains being drawn, the exploration of their homes by handsome men with guns—than by his visit. Afterward his friends’ most vivid memories of those days were invariably memories of the Special Branch. An improbable friendship was deepening between the London literary world and the British secret police.
He spent New Year’s Eve with friends too: Michael Herr and his wife, Valerie, who had formed the irresistible habit of calling each other “Jim.” No darlings or honeys or babes for them. In his low American drawl and her bright English chirp they Jimmed the Old Year out. “Hey, Jim?” “Yes, Jim?” “Happy New Year, Jim.” “Happy New Year to you too, Jim.” “I love you, Jim.” “I love you too, Jim.” 1990 arrived with a smile in the company of Jim and Jim.
Then Cat Stevens—Yusuf Islam—bubbled up in The Guardian like a fart in a bathtub, still demanding that Rushdie withdraw his book and “repent,” and claiming that his support of the fatwa was in line with the Ten Commandments.
At this point, Christopher Hitchens joined the fray unbidden, and his reply would drive the spy novelist to greater heights of apoplexy. “John le Carré’s conduct in your pages is like nothing so much as that of a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head,” opined Hitch with his characteristic understatement.
Previous: Library: An Unquiet History –