It was Jarvis Cocker vs Matthew Sweet in the Salman Rushdie Cup last week: 6 Music vs Radio 3, representative of the common people vs a man with a doctorate in Wilkie Collins (and occasional reviewer for this paper).
In getting the best out of the controversial author, it was a score draw.
Rushdie was touting his new book Luka and the Fire of Life, written for his son. On Sunday Service he recalled writing Haroun and the Sea of Stories 20 years ago for his other son Zafar, who'd delivered a devastating critique: "Some people might be bored. It doesn't have enough jump." Dad took it back "through gritted teeth" and added some jump.
Sweet's Night Waves was slightly higher-falutin', though only ever so slightly, and they had a proper reader (a passage about intergalactic penguin teams and paper planes loaded with itching powder). Cocker got Rushdie to do his own reading, which I can't resist quoting:
"The torrent of words thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days and out of which flows the River of Time. The Lake of Wisdom stands in the shadow of the Mountain of Knowledge, at whose summit burns the Fire of Life." Up from which, one's tempted to say, rises the Smoke of Gobbledegook, blotting out the Sun of Half-Decent Writing.
But Rushdie means well, he and Sweet covering topics such as the blows dealt by modernism to the art of storytelling, and the way free speech loses out these days to the hysterical tendency. (With Cocker, the thrust was the power of the imagination and why video games are a good thing.) Rushdie is an irritant to many – there was a common perception that he brought the Satanic Verses fatwa upon himself – and it's something of which he's aware. Kurt Westergaard, the Dane whose cartoons enraged so many Muslims, was honoured by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a conference about free speech. Would Rushdie accept such an award, Sweet asked? "For what?" Rushdie asked. "Pissing people off?"