Before ebooks – Adventures in Writing (2)
Adventures in the Writing Trade – Or
How Ayatollah Khomeni prevented me becoming rich beyond my wildest dreams of avarice (and a Spanish weekly magazine did a little to redress the balance)
We arrived in London a few days before the Sun was due to begin its serialization. Over the weekend, the paper ran advertisements which featured a Diana lookalike and the sound of heavy machine gun fire. On Monday, we went to the Sun’s headquarters in Wapping.
Above the Sun’s offices was a large sign which read “You are now entering Sun country” – a clear indication, if one was needed, that this was no ordinary newspaper.
Once inside, you noticed the blow-ups of previous front pages which hung on the walls:
“Freddie Starr ate my hamster” (Starr was a popular comedian at the time)
“Gotcha!” (Referring to the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War).
There was a great feeling of energy and purpose in the office. This was, after all, a newspaper which had been in terminal decline before Rupert Murdoch took it over, and was now – with its catchy headlines, give-aways and semi-naked girls on page 3) – the best-selling daily newspaper in the world.
And this was, it should be remembered, a time when newspapers were much more important – the internet was in its infancy, no one used the term “social networks” and mobile phones were the size of a large house brick.
The reporters were a million miles from the seedy hacks portrayed in films about tabloid journalism. They were, to a man – and woman – hard-working and intelligent. Some of them justified working for paper by saying that it contained all the news that could be found in other papers, but in a more concise and readable form. Others cheerfully told me that whilst the paper was deliberately striving for the lowest common denominator, their bank managers were ecstatic about the large checks they deposited in their accounts every month.
Part of the energy of the place came from the proprietor. Murdoch would turn up, sometimes unannounced, wearing sweat shirt and tennis shoes, and queue for his food in the canteen like everyone else, but whilst engaged in these democratic processes would make it perfectly plain – if only by example – that he expected all his staff to work just as hard as he did.
Part of it came from the editor. It was claimed (though I can’t verify this) that he sometimes emerged from his office and sat on an umpire’s chair from which he could survey his kingdom. In some accounts, he had a megaphone, through which he would issue random instructions that there should be more “bonking” in whatever story the reporter who had caught his attention was writing.
My own encounter with the editor went as follows –
He approached us (my writing partner and I) and shook hands.
‘I’ve read your book,” he said.
My writing partner swelled with pride.
‘And did you enjoy it?’ he asked.
‘It’s a load of bollocks,’ the editor told him. ‘Still, the (expletive deleted) morons who buy this paper will lap it up.’
I can’t remember most of the rest of the short conversation, but I recall his closing line:
‘Well, if you’ll excuse me,’ he said, ‘I’ve got people’s lives to destroy.’
He may have been joking.
Now we come to the tragic part, or – depending on your point of view – the part where we got our just deserts.
The Sun learned from its contacts in the House of Commons (I put it no stronger than that) that certain Members of Parliament were about to raise questions in the House about the suitability of the book, and might even say it should be banned.
Since there was nothing in the book to justify it being banned, we had no worries, but a national television news team was standing by to interview us once the speech or speeches had been made, and they would no doubt be followed by others. The publicity would have been amazing. We would have sold shed-loads of books and could start thinking about buying our own private islands.
What we didn’t know was that in far-off Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeni had been told about called The Satanic Verses, had decided that it was blasphemous and had issued a fatwah against its author.
Thus we had, on one side, two unknown authors who had written a book which might be considered mildly controversial, and, on the other, a Booker Prize winning author who had been sentenced to death for his book.
The parliamentary questions about Princess were never asked, the news teams never appeared.
We sank without trace!