Writers should know better than to lend their names to a cause

Not for a novelist to say yea to banning anything. Least of all Rushdie, who has suffered more than most
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The Independent Online

Calm, calm. Myself I'm talking to. But there's a touch of Laertes in me when it comes to calm. "That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot / Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow / Of my true mother."

Calm, calm. Myself I'm talking to. But there's a touch of Laertes in me when it comes to calm. "That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot / Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow / Of my true mother."

All that stuff. And the reason for my agitation? Well, there's more than one. The first an affectionate article about donkeys in this very newspaper last week. The second the near unanimity of those near and dear to me in the matter of not smacking children, never mind how hard, never mind with what intention, never mind whether a smacking is what's called for, because a smacking never is what's called for, not ever ever ever.

The two - donkeys and beatings - are for me intimately related. I took a serious tumble from a donkey too old to hobble let alone trot in my seventh or eighth year, landing on the cold ribbed sands of Blackpool, where I lay like Prince Andrei at Austerlitz, staring into the careless infinity of the sky, aware that I would not ride or enjoy the regard of my parents or suffer so keen a humiliation - for no other child had fallen from a donkey in the history of Blackpool - ever again. And yet there was a curious peace in it. Call it an epiphany. An apprehension of God's presence in his absence, and a satisfaction in having faced the worst. Five or six years later, while a psychotic French teacher was thrashing me in front of the whole class with a gym shoe he thought it amusing to call Percy, I experienced a similar sensation. Because all was ill, all at last would be well.

I do not suggest that this is reason to beat our children, or to throw them off a donkey. Life will mete out its cruel lessons without our intercession. Indeed there is an argument, given the inevitability of psychotic French teachers, for us to be unremitting in the love we show our children, as a sort of consolation in advance. Never mind that this is no preparation for what awaits them. There is no preparation for what awaits them.

But a smack, reader! A mere butterfly chastisement, a barely perceptible excursion into discipline, the briefest expression of one's annoyance - for a parent, too, has feelings ...

Calm, calm. I know what's being said out there. There is no butterfly chastisement, there can be no barely perceptible, for when it comes to smacking children, it would seem, we must desert the subtle discriminations embedded in the English language and call not just a spade a spade, but everything which approaches a spade - shovel, trowel, fork, spoon, spatula, chopsticks, pencil, feather - no matter how remote or preposterous the resemblance. Thus Salman Rushdie - "We should avoid weasel words like 'smacking' and 'tapping on the leg'. Hitting is hitting." To which the answer is, no it isn't. Even hitting isn't hitting, which is why we have adverbs to denote the sort of hitting that hitting is. What my French teacher did to me was not a hit by some other name. Nor was it a version of "a tap on the leg". I have suffered "a tap on the leg" and I know the difference. Percy the gym shoe was employed to administer a public thrashing, and a public thrashing is not a hitting either.

Strange to me that a novelist would seek to concertina language to promote a cause, however noble that cause is. But then that's what causes do - they simplify. Which is why no novelist should ever lend his name to one. Ban smacking? Not for a novelist to say yea to banning anything. Least of all Salman Rushdie, who has suffered more than most people from the banners, having himself been the subject of a fatwa. Yes, I know - a fatwa is not a ban, a ban is not a fatwa. One is considerably more extreme than the other - my point precisely - just as a hit is more extreme than a tap.

That not everybody agrees with me - calm, calm - is evident from the letters pages of this newspaper. One of last week's correspondents put smacking children on a continuum that leads to the bombing of Dresden, a conceit so disproportionately violent that I would put its proponent on a continuum that leads to Attila the Hun, Hannibal Lecter and Beast Number 666. Another, writing from Bristol University's School of Law, echoed Salman Rushdie in finding smack and slap "mere euphemisms", and then made an alarming jump to the "sexual fondling" of children, arguing that we should no more tolerate the lightest tap than we should tolerate "the slightest degree of sexual contact" with them. God help the parent, in that case, who finds himself before a judge educated at Bristol University School of Law, charged with kissing his child goodnight. Kissing being but "a weasel word" for sexual abuse.

I recall Blake Morrison's profoundly upsetting account of bathing a child in As If, his book about the Bulger case, a scene calculated to remind us that our certainties are illusions, that boundaries are never as distinct as we would like to think they are, but that things which might look the same might not be the same. Which is why we have different words for them. And why we cannot call those differences euphemistic. In the spaces between a tap and and a smack and a hit reside refinements of action and consequence without which neither novelist nor lawyer can operate. But calm, calm.

There is only one place for me. At a little table in Planet Organic, where I can drink carrot juice and ginger. Meditate a while. Think love. Read notices. Spanish lessons. Pilates. House for rent on foothills of Himalayas. London Laughter Club - No Jokes Just Natural Joy. "Wonder will follow wonder," someone writes in support of that principle, "miracle will follow miracle and today I choose to feel light and cheerful."

Now tell me, in all honesty, that the person who wrote that doesn't deserve a smack.

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