"Everyone believed it would be sorted out within a couple of days," Salman Rushdie told Andrew Marr, talking about the extraordinary moment on Valentine's Day, 1989, when he received word that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered his execution following the publication of The Satanic Verses. In the event, the author spent the next 10 years in hiding and has only now, 23 years later, addressed what happened in a memoir, Joseph Anton, named after the pseudonym he adopted while in exile.
This was a special edition of Radio 4's Start the Week that, in honour of one of the most anticipated books of the season, devoted the whole programme to Rushdie. Indeed, it could be argued that the entire network was operating in the service of the publishing industry this week, given the slew of major titles currently being released with an eye on the Christmas market, and the shows lining up to publicise them. In the last week, Radio 4 has conducted major interviews with Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Martina Cole, Zadie Smith and Judith Kerr, and that's not counting the other long-running programmes – Book of the Week, Book at Bedtime et al – which have also given generous airtime to new titles.
Of course, books, whether being read aloud or discussed, are the glue that holds the Radio 4 schedules together, which is fine by me since being read to is one of life's pleasures. This week, however, the focus was as much on the figures behind the words as the words themselves, which in some cases led to some eye-opening discussions.
Among the things I learned about Rushdie was that his last name was made up by his father as a tribute to the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, and that, in an earlier life as an advertising copywriter, he came up with the taglines for well-known slogans including Aero's 'irresisti-bubble' and 'Naughty… but nice' cream cakes. While in hiding, Rushdie had to move house regularly, renting a succession of five-bedroom houses to accommodate himself and the policemen assigned to protect him. Contrary to popular belief, he had to foot the bill.
While the pain of his situation was still evident, both in his allusions to broken marriages and the separation from his son, he remained defiant with his oft-repeated assertion: "I wish I'd written a more critical book." There are, it's fair to say, precious few advantages to being cut off from friends and family and living in fear of your life, but the experience has certainly refined Rushdie's understanding of the effects of censorship on creativity. "The imagination only works when it's free," he observed. "There's no way of dreaming in chains… It's very important that we be allowed the freedom of our own human nature."
A more informal interview took place at the Literary Salon, a London event in which writers read from their latest works in front of a well-lubricated audience, podcasts of which are now available free on iTunes. This month's Salon featured Clare Balding, who read from her new book, My Animals and Other Family, in which she recalls her childhood as the daughter of a world-class racehorse trainer. Her chosen excerpt saw her coming in from an early-morning ride as a teenager to find the Queen sitting at the dining table in front of a magnificent breakfast and, in her excitement, accidentally flinging a sausage in the direction of Her Majesty.
Balding revealed how she endured relentless sexism from her relations from birth when her grandmother looked in her cot and said: "Oh, she's a girl. Keep on trying." Asked by interviewer Damian Barr how she fought against such attitudes, Balding giggled darkly and replied: "I became a lesbian."