In praise of freedom Chelsea Town Hall 4 February 1998
Lady Antonia Fraser, hubby Harold and the ubiquitous Melvyn Bragg led an all-star cast of literary darlings at the Chelsea Town Hall on Wednesday night. Their mission? To remind us all of the importance of writerly freedom. The solemnity of the event was apparent from the pay bar: pounds 2.20 for a glass of New World red. This was not a bun fight, this was a worthy cause, although that didn't mean that anyone was dressing down. Lady Longford wore her fur while her assorted debutante descendants were attired in Sloane Street's finest.

Doris Lessing read a moving extract from Ken Saro-Wiwa's The True Prison, while Salman Rushdie read his 1990 piece, Is Nothing Sacred. "Back in 1990," he explained, "my friend Harold [Pinter] had to read it for me while I sat at home watching him on TV. That was when the fatwa had just been born. Now it is going to school. Let's just hope it doesn't get to college," he concluded.

Mr Rushdie, organiser Rachel Billington explained, "was the poignant and courageous focus for our work". Yet compared to the tales we heard of death, torture and humiliation suffered by other writers locked up in rotting third world prisons, having to endure an endless round of chi- chi dinner parties accompanied by Special Branch's finest seemed to pale by comparison. Still, Salman bought a pounds 5 fund-raising coffee mug to show his appreciation.

David Lodge felt awkward. "Writing in praise of freedom was not something that satirical novelists did very much," he said. And then went on to read an extract from Changing Places about a man trying to work out how to dump his wife.

Andrew Motion decided that the greatest contribution he could make to the cause was to compose a new poem. But as one guest pointed out: "Disraeli once said every man has a right to be conceited until he is successful."

While Hanif Kureishi reminded us that he hadn't wanted to be a writer at all, he'd have much rather been the first Indian to play centre forward for England.

In the interval, Saga Prize winner Diran Adebayo approached me in order to congratulate The Independent on its recent coverage of the Nigerian organised crime syndicates. He explained that as a Nigerian he had been aware of the troubles for some time. "About four years ago I did a stint as a writer on the Daily Express news desk. Knowing that I was working on a newspaper, a fellow Nigerian smuggled me a top secret FBI dossier detailing all the atrocities being carried out by these various gangs." It was, he continued, extremely hot stuff. The only copy in the country. A stunner, as they say at The Sun. So what happened? What had stopped Diran from winning scoop of the year?

"I read it with great excitement, feeling sure that this was going to make me a world-famous journalist. I put it on my desk and vowed to start my lengthy investigation the next day. But when I came in the following morning it had vanished. I searched frantically but it was nowhere to be seen." Stolen by an unscrupulous, green-eyed hack maybe? "No such thing," Diran assured me. "I had forgotten about Lord Steven's clean desk policy. The cleaners had simply chucked it away."