Come back, Salman. I miss our squabbles (and the kissing)

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The Independent Online

Now that Salman Rushdie has finally evicted himself from the bitching Big Brother House that is literary London, there is pressure on those of us still inside to spill the beans. Did the magic-realist novelist really find a way of conversing with the chickens? Is it the case that only Craig succeeded in reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet from start to finish? Is there any truth in the rumour that Salman and I snogged off camera?

Now that Salman Rushdie has finally evicted himself from the bitching Big Brother House that is literary London, there is pressure on those of us still inside to spill the beans. Did the magic-realist novelist really find a way of conversing with the chickens? Is it the case that only Craig succeeded in reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet from start to finish? Is there any truth in the rumour that Salman and I snogged off camera?

Malicious gossip, all of it. No, notwithstanding his extraordinary verbal gifts ("Naughty but nice", etc), Salman did not penetrate the language of the fowl. No, Craig did not succeed in reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet from start to finish - it was The Ground Force Colouring Book. And no, Salman and I did not snog off camera. We embraced, that was all. We kissed, man to man, novelist to novelist, great world religion to great world religion. But there was no tongue in it.

We had some sorting out to do. Years before, in Australia, I chanced to hear a woman friend of a woman friend on the phone to Salman, then in Madrid or Prague or wherever it is that international novelists confer. Maybe it was Norwich, I forget. Could have been a hoax either end, of course, but as a satirist I seized enthusiastically upon what I thought I heard. "Come live with me and be my love," Salman (or his impersonator) seemed to be saying, "the European Novel awaits you."

Irresistible, you'd agree. The European Novel awaits you. How could I not relay that to every literary person of my acquaintance the minute I got back to London? That my satire was laced with the usual writerly covetousness I won't deny. What modest toiler in the potato field of letters does not want to be able to say "G'day Sheila, the European Novel awaits you" and mean it?

In time, my mischief reached the ear of Salman. He was not amused. Can't think why, but there it is. Word was I could rot in hell as far as he was concerned. I even heard he was rejoicing in my bad reviews. Then came the off-camera encounter in the urinals. Why so many of my most important rapprochements with men take place in urinals I do not care to speculate. A homo-erotic thing? Not for me to say.

He collared me, anyway, as we stood relieving ourselves, side by side. Whereupon I decided to take the voluptuous way out. I apologised. A homo-erotic thing? Don't go there. Something about the tropical, watery atmosphere of the urinal reminded me of DH Lawrence's poem "Snake", and I quoted it. "I have something to expiate," I said. "A pettiness."

And the next thing we were in each other's arms.

My readers know not to expect kiss'n'tell revelations from this column. Erotically speaking, we make a point of running a tight ship. But I don't mind confessing that I enjoyed kissing Salman. We were the right height for each other. Perhaps I had an inch or two's advantage, but I never pressed it. And we were conscious that the spectacle of our embraces moved other people. Two great world religions, and all that.

And if the fact of our both being bearded made people think of warring prophets sinking their ancient differences, I have to say it also added to the sensuality for us. Because my beard hairs are soft and Salman's are spiky we conjoined on the same principle as Velcro, and came apart, when we could bear to come apart, with a sound like the furious ripping of tents in a desert encampment.

I am not saying we became friends. This isn't a fairy story. But I asked him about his work and he told me Jewish jokes, and that more or less got us through. Then I yielded to temptation again and agreed to take part in a televised discussion of that year's Booker shortlist, on which was a novel by Salman. I make no excuses. It's not smart to do the Booker on telly if you happen to be a novelist yourself. It's probably not even decent.

But I tried to be even-handed. I said what had to be said about Salman's plight, about the threat to all of us which the threat to him implied. That he was, in the political sense, a hero to us. That in the literary sense he was a hero too, in that he wasn't a prose-miser, didn't write niggardly books, didn't give in order to take away, knew that his first responsibility was to fill our minds with plenty. Above all - and this for me is the highest praise - that he aspired to be a comic writer on the grand scale. The only trouble being (a serious drawback for a comic writer on any scale), that he wasn't funny.

Jocose yes, funny no. And jocose is to comedy what the belly-flop is to grace.

Whereupon the kissing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The only time I've seen him since was in the House, just before he packed his bags and went whooping out to meet Davina. He cut me dead. Fair enough. But I do want to say this, Salman. I never voted you out. I want you here. I miss our soul-deep disagreement. So should you. Maybe the Americans will adore you, maybe they won't. But you are a novelist, for God's sake, not a soap star. What business do you have wanting unquestioning adoration?

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