A helicopter circled above the empty roads leading to the nearly aborted awards ceremony and armed police sat perched on suburban garden walls. Beards were subjected to careful scrutiny. The Danish authorities, whipped into a frenzy by the press, had persuaded themselves that the author was in mortal danger. "Rushdie shall die," screamed yesterday's headline in one paper, a threat the the tabloid claimed it had received from the massed ranks of Denmark's Muslims.
In an attempt to foil the terrorists the government brought forward by one day the presentation of the European Union's Aristeion prize for literature, which Mr Rushdie shared this year with Christoph Ransmayr, the Austrian novelist. The event was a fitting finale to the comic opera that has been enthralling audiences for two weeks.
"I am very pleased to be here after all," Mr Rushdie said as he collected the cheque and briskly put it away in his breast pocket. "As the saying almost goes: `better early than never'."
The government only relented over its original decision to bar the author from Denmark on Tuesday, when it announced a revised time and venue, 10 miles outside the capital. That was then promptly declared secret by police. Journalists had to rendezvous with an unmarked coach in the centre of Copenhagen, equipped with special security passes that should have been obtained by last Monday. Surreptitiously, however, the passes could still be garnered yesterday afternoon. "Please don't tell any other journalists," a helpful government official pleaded. The police were already annoyed.
The forces of law and order had decreed that they were far too busy fighting Hell's Angels and Bandidos, the two rival biker gangs, which have been swapping their chains for rocket-propelled grenades in an escalating war. So earlier this month the Justice Ministry had told Mr Rushdie, in effect, that he was persona non grata, though it did not inform the author in person. The Danes communicated the news via our Foreign Office.
After outpourings of outrage Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen had no alternative but to admit to a massive cock-up, and took the blame upon himself. That and the U-turn narrowly averted a no-confidence vote he would have been certain to lose, though fury is still raging in parliament. Today will see a full debate on the issue, and on relations with Iran, and the coalition will only be sustained by reluctant left-wing opposition parties, which do not want to be seen to be voting with the extreme right. As for Mr Rushdie, he was glad that "the mess" had been sorted out but was still adamant last night that the Danish authorities had over-reacted. "I have certainly had no knowledge . . . of any threat that was levelled against the event that was due to be held tomorrow," he said.
Mr Rushdie received the EU prize for his latest novel, The Moor's Last Sigh. Danish bikers have yet to comment on the merits of the award, or indeed to express any opinion on Islam.Reuse content