David Lister: How can you celebrate great literature while preventing the freedom of expression?



The spectre of the most scandalous and depressing episode in recent literary history raised its head this week. Salman Rushdie once again had his safety and his life threatened over his book The Satanic Verses, and was unable to show his face.

It was all horribly reminiscent of the appalling death threat to Rushdie in 1989 and his being taken into hiding, a story I was involved in reporting at the time.

This week, he was meant to be a speaker at the Jaipur literary festival in India, and had to withdraw after the festival organisers admitted they couldn't guarantee his security. As the week progressed, the picture became murkier, with claims that the death threats may not have been real and the authorities may have been wooing Muslim voters in frightening Mr Rushdie off.

But the festival management itself continued to emerge, in my view, as cowardly as it stopped some of Rushdie's fellow Indian authors midstream as they tried to read from The Satanic Verses, which is still banned in India, in support of the novelist.

Where does this leave the eminent British speakers at the festival? For eminent they certainly were. The playwrights Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare both gave addresses, as did the writer and notable atheist Richard Dawkins.

International literary festivals are very exotic. Next week, Britain's most famous literary gathering, the Hay festival, decamps to Cartagena in Colombia, with speakers being flown first class to the beach resort.

Stoppard, Hare and Dawkins must have been keenly aware of the new Rushdie affair, and presumably they must have wondered how they could show their support. I was not at the festival, so I don't know if they mentioned him in their speeches, though, apparently, reports in the Indian press make no mention of this happening.

But even if they had done so, would a few remarks to a festival audience have been a sufficient expression of disgust? A literary festival that manages to deny free speech – in this case to Rushdie and to supporters who tried to read from his book – has to raise uncomfortable questions.

This festival was playing host to three of the greatest minds, three of the most liberal minds, three of the most provocative, challenging and enlightening minds in British culture, either today or at any time. They had every right to be at the festival. But I personally wish that they had pulled out at the last minute. This may well have caused contractual difficulties, and they should not be underestimated. But their non-appearance would have been a gesture that would have resounded across the world.

The clues were pretty easy to spot

The Royal Ballet reacted to the surprise resignation of its biggest male star, Sergei Polunin, by announcing that it was "business as usual". And so it was – business as usual without your biggest star. Sergei Polunin (left) decided on Tuesday night that he was leaving the company, despite having starring roles in the coming weeks. The company's management admitted to being shocked and mystified by his decision. But there is a moral in all of this. Follow the Twitter feed. Polunin, like so many in the arts, is a prodigious tweeter, and his tweets are telling. "Does anybody sell heroin? Need to bring my mood up" was one. And, at the turn of the year, he tweeted: "2012 is going to be controversial".

I suggest that every national arts company employ a Twitter monitor to keep a constant check on the psychological mood of its charges. It can prevent being shocked and mystified on the eve of a big premiere.

Great expectations can be expensive

The one aspect of the success of the silent film The Artist that I find puzzling is that the Odeon group of cinemas has started giving refunds to people who see the film and then complain – that it was silent. It's not so much that they are clearly people who never read the papers, watch TV or even read the blurb outside the cinema before seeing the film. It's more that this surely sets a dangerous precedent. If Odeon is implying that it recognises the filmgoer's right to expect a movie to have words, should the filmgoer also be entitled to expect that comedies be funny, that musicals have good tunes, that horror films be scary, and that Hugh Grant should give a different performance from his last?

Next time I go to the Odeon and find the film wanting in any of these criteria, I shall invoke The Artist amendment...and ask for my money back.

d.lister@independent.co.uk // twitter.com/davidlister1

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities