These days it is just about possible to see irony in everything, everywhere, all the time. In New York they were due to discuss America’s role as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.
Before they began to talk, Salman Rushdie was attacked and stabbed. As he lies desperately injured in his hospital bed, the stereotypical images of him are of a serious and highbrow writer.
His complex book, The Satanic Verses, written in the style of magical realism with dream sequences and inspired by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, was published in 1988.
It resulted in many Muslims accusing the author of blasphemy with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issuing a fatwa in 1989 calling on all Muslims to execute not just Rushdie but everyone involved in the book’s publication.
The result was several failed assassination attempts on the writer, who was placed under police protection by the UK government. In June 1989 Khomeini died. But the fatwa lived on under his successor, the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Rushdie’s life remained one of keeping a low profile and although it was restated that the fatwa was a divine decree set in stone and could not be lifted, in recent years his life appeared to assume a less persecuted and more open design.
That was not to say life in the shadows was always doleful and boring. Like Samuel Beckett, who used to ask Irish visitors to Paris about the fortunes of the Ireland rugby team, Rushdie loved his football and was a passionate Tottenham Hotspur fan from soon after his arrival in London at almost 14-years-old.
In 1999, he was commissioned by the New Yorker magazine to capture how a young Muslim boy raised in India had come to love Spurs and in it explains how he struck up an infatuation with the players of the time including the ‘loquacious’ captain Danny Blanchflower and goalkeeper Pat Jennings.
Rushdie began explaining “soccer is working class self-expression” and bemoaned the fact that during the 1994 World Cup in the US commentators consistently misapplied the terminology of American ball games to football with the ball passed ‘way downtown’ in a ‘shut out’ game.
Spurs came by way of Arsenal. Shortly after arriving in England, a callow Rushdie saw the Gunners being run ragged in a Wembley friendly against the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano. When his father enquired about the game, the son meekly asked if he could find a team that played more like Real Madrid.
After consulting the clerk at the hotel desk in the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, his father came back with just one name. Tottenham. From then on Rushdie suffered like a fan.
“This is what it means to be a fan: to wait enduring decades of disillusion and yet to have no choice in the matter of allegiance. Each weekend I turn to the sports pages and my eye automatically seeks out the Spurs result.
“If the team has won the weekend feels richer. If the team has lost a black cloud settles. It’s pathetic. It’s an addiction. It’s monogamous till-death-us-do-part love.”
He recalled that the goalkeeper for the Spurs team of 1961 was a Scottish player called Bill Brown, “dour and gaunt and unsmiling but brilliant”. He wore a short back and sides haircut, which in the swinging 60s was old fashioned.
One day the manager Billy Nicholson splashed out £30,000 for a new player, at the time a world record sum for a goalkeeper. The new arrival was a big Irish kid from Watford via Newry. His name was Pat Jennings.
Jennings capturing the zeitgeist, wore his hair long and in waves and grew sideburns. Initially the crowd didn’t take well to the new man. Lacking the dourness to which they had become accustomed, the well-brushed mane and modern look struck distrust into the hearts of the Tottenham faithful.
They took their time to make him feel the love. But, as Rushdie describes, Jennings eventually won them over.
“At a crucial moment he flew across his goal line to save a shot which was heading at high velocity for the far top corner and not only made the save but caught the flying ball cleanly in a single outstretched hand. We looked at one another aghast with the same question in all our eyes: exactly how big are this guy’s paws?”
The save is clearly remembered but it is not that what remains rooted in Rushdie’s mind. A decision that was made years later by the club to transfer the then adored Jennings to Arsenal has never left him.
“Even now it’s hard to put into words the outrage I felt,” he wrote. “The outrage I still feel. I can only say what Spurs fans said to one another in those days, furiously, mirthlessly, often adding as intensifiers a series of expletives. ‘It’s a joke.’”
Under George Graham, Spurs won the League Cup final in 1999 and with it a place in the 1999–2000 Uefa Cup. Coming out of Wembley Stadium, Rushdie was recognised by a fan, who waved at him.
“Gawd bless yer, Salman,” he yelled. Rushdie yelled back but recalled that he didn’t say what he wanted to say.
‘Nah, not Gawd mate, he doesn’t play for our team.’