How The Satanic Verses failed to burn

In 1988, Bradford Muslims didn’t apparently manage to incinerate Rushdie’s book — symbolic, says Kenneth Baker, of the endurance of the written word

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word Kenneth Baker

Unicorn, pp.266, £25, ISBN: 9781910787113

This is a book which, as one eyes its lavish illustrations and dips into its elegant prose, looks as if it ought to come with an option to buy a cut-price John Lewis coffee table.

On the Burning of Books is, in fact, much more than that. It wears its scholarship lightly. A weightier treatment of the topic for those interested can be found in Matthew Fishburn’s Burning Books (2008).

Kenneth Baker? A name that rings bells. But what did he do? He enjoyed high office in the Thatcher years. At one point he was touted as a contender for Downing Street. His legacy is the National Curriculum. Best forgotten is the Dangerous Dogs Act. Spitting Image caricatured him, spitefully, as a beslimed slug. He was probably the last politician in England seriously to use Brylcreem.

He has been out of the political game for decades now and, as Baron Baker of Dorking, has enjoyed his later years as a connoisseurial man of letters. Over the years (he is now 81) he has compiled notes on flagrant examples of book-burning. It’s something that gets his goat.

Fishburn devoted thoughtful chapters to what he called humanity’s ‘fear of books’. ‘I’ll burn my books,’ screams a desperate Faustus in Marlowe’s play, thinking thereby to escape the flames of Hell. He doesn’t: he can’t obliterate the books in his brain. He is what he’s read and must burn for it.

Monotonously cited, in various forms, is the Miltonic epigram, ‘Where men are burned, books are burned.’ (Baker recalls being set Areopagitica as an A-level text in 1952: things were different then.) There’s a sacred aura in printed books, even in the lowliest pulp paperback. My Waitrose has a rack or two. But whoever said ‘Where baked beans are burned, men are burned’?

Baker’s book also has a provocative tailpiece. Baker loves poetry and has several Faber anthologies to his name. He lunched with Ted Hughes at the Groucho Club in 1997, where the poet gave him a signed copy of a furious polemic, ‘Hear It Again’, against the burning of books and humanity’s perverse need to inflict this ‘brain damage’ on itself. Baker reproduces ‘Hear It Again’ in full, at the end of this volume — though he also notes, elsewhere, that Hughes himself confessed to burning manuscripts in his possession by Sylvia Plath.

Baker’s compendium of punchy, textual-pictorial examples covers the ground from Caliph Omar, destroyer of the Library of Alexandria, Goebbels’s ‘bibliocaust’, Bomber Harris’s fiery raids on Leipsig and Dresden, and the Bradford protestors who tied a copy of The Satanic Verses to a stake and tried to incinerate it. It charred, but did not burn. A symbol, some might say.

Baker’s book is irresistible for the things one didn’t know. Erich Kästner had his adult books burned by Goebbels’s Nazi arsonists. He escaped with his life to discover, after the war, that his children’s classic, Emil and the Detectives, was the book most commonly confiscated from children who arrived at Belsen. It went to the bonfire as the children went to the ovens.

What makes this book unusually meritorious is its author’s restrained rage against bibliocide. He notes, for example, that

The universal victim of the Rushdie fatwa has been free speech, as anyone since then who dares to write in any critical, disparaging or satirical way about Muhammad and Islam is bullied into silence.

Baker then devotes an (ostentatiously unbullied) entry to ‘the first Muslim burning in Britain’, in 1938, provoked by a reprint in Hindustani of H.G. Wells’s Short History of the World. A massed company of British Muslims ‘ceremoniously’ committed Wells’s book to the flames, in the heart of the City of London. Defying post-Rushdie inhibitions, Baker quotes — with an implicit ‘come and get me’ — the whole of the scabrously offending Wellsian passage about the Prophet. It’s brave.

The Baron of Dorking, one concludes, might have made rather a good PM.

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  • TrippingDwarves

    It was in the midst of the Rushdie furore that we should have realised something fundamentally important about the future direction of British society. Unfortunately, we missed it.

    • Captain Caustic

      It was the ignition.

    • AdrianM

      We will live to regret that oversight.

    • MikeF

      The left-liberal/socialist/Islamist witch hunt against Ray Honeyford had taken place several years earlier. Neither it nor the Rushdie furore were ‘missed’ – they were both well-publicised but sheer cowardice prevailed.

      • I’m afraid everything has occurred more or less as I expected it to. There’s a direct thread from Ray Honeyford in 1985, to the Satanic Verses in 1988, to 7/7 in 2005, to Lee Rigby in 2013, and to Muslim ghettoes and mass immigration in 2016. What is the intention / the over-riding aim behind all of these phenomena?

        • Seatofmypants

          I think it was Julie Burchill at the time of the burning of the Satanic Verses/threat of murder to Rushdie who noted that the Liberal Left all went strangely quiet.

          Incidentally the Bombay born Rushdie who made such noise about the awfulness of the British police up that point was quite happy to accept British police protection rather than return to his native country and seek protection there.

      • RightThinkingMan

        They only that is missing is your tiny, brai. Honeyford was a whiny moron. No one cares what he thinks.

        • MikeF

          I will record that Ray Honeyford was one the most principled men in the public life of this country in the last 30 or more years. But that is not intended as an answer to your post because it is not worthy of one.

          • RightThinkingMan

            Oh my god! He is dead and forgotten and only of relevance to old farts like you. No one cares what you think. Thank god Honeyford is six feet under.

  • Steve Mc

    Students will soon be no-platforming books by burning them

  • D J

    Wow , a Tory not testicularly challenged!
    As a kipper i am shocked…pleasantly.
    With this and his push for technical colleges he has done great service since leaving front line politics.

  • Uncle Brian

    Could this be one of the bits in H.G. Wells’s Short History of the World that triggered the London book-burning back in 1938?

    He married a number of wives in his declining years, and his life on the whole was by modern standards unedifying. He seems to have been a man compounded of very considerable vanity, greed, cunning, self-deception and quite sincere religious passion. He dictated a book of injunctions and expositions, the Koran, which he declared was communicated to him from God. Regarded as literature or philosophy the Koran is certainly unworthy of its alleged Divine authorship.

    Link to Chapter 43, entitled ‘Muhammad and Islam’:

  • DollarPound

    I just had a comment removed because I criticised the literary merits of the Satanic Verses.
    The “moderators” at the Spectator must be so proud.

    • No, it will be because you used a word that is not allowed. There are many normal word like ‘ess ee ex’, or the place where the Devil lives, and other seemingly innocent words: the worst is when in an article something that includes the words that are moderated: one example on here was about ‘arr ay pee ee’ on an article that had it in the title! Other times it slips through which tends to indicate the personal touch of certain moderators (not Spectator, it’s outsourced as are nearly all online forums).

  • carl jacobs

    There is a certain type of intellectual who loves to pi$$ on what ordinary people hold sacred. He takes pleasure in the discomfort and offense he causes. It’s his own little assertion of superiority – a tacit declaration of “Ha! Ha! I have public voice, and you don’t. Please be offended some more. Your impotent rage brings me delight.” And so this impotent public reacts against the tangible instantiation of the artist’s contempt because that instantiation is the only object within their reach. They burn the book. Well, who cares? It’s their property. If they want to burn it in a symbolic act of rejection and defiance, that’s their business. People burn national flags in protest all the time. In the US, that’s a constitutionally protected right. Somehow the Republic survives. There is after all a big difference between an agent of gov’t power burning a book and a private citizen burning a book.

    I suppose the intellectual doesn’t see the difference because burning a book – especially his book, invested as it is with so much wisdom and insight that the world could not possibly survive without its contents – is itself an act of sacrilege against the intellectual. Someone dared to destroy his sacred revelation! It is well understood that committing an act of sacrilege is a privilege of the intellectual classes. Plebians don’t get to make those decisions. They exist only to serve their betters and to provide a source of amusement from time to time.

    The problem with Salman Rushdie emerged with the effort to suppress him by violence. It wasn’t about burning the book, which quite frankly is often a reasonable response to the output of the chattering classes. The response of “This book offends us, so we will burn it!” is nothing. The concern comes with “This book offends us, so we will burn it, and then we will kill you!” Which can for all intents and purposes be shortened to “We will kill you!” Otherwise it is just literary criticism writ large.

  • Nelly Nomates

    Who were those lovely people who burnt books in the 30’s & 40’s all over Europe again?

    • Leftism is a societal cancer


  • Thaddeus lovelock

    Naguib Mahfouz (11 December 1911 – 30 August 2006) the Noble Prize winning Egyptian writer , who supported secularism, and the peace treaty with Israel, was stabbed and wounded in an attempted assassination when he was an old man. So this is pretty typical behaviour for militant Islamists.

    • Zaba

      this is pretty typical behaviour for ….
      devout muzlims modeling mohammad.

  • tralalalalalala50

    Muslims can go anywhere in the world and not be executed. That isn’t true for Christians. It isn’t America’s job to go out of the way to accept those who want to conquer, right?

  • DollarPound

    Let’s be clear – Extremist Islamists are not very nice people (wanted to use a stronger word but the post would get blocked)

    But I have actually read the Satanic Verses. I bought it in a bookshop in Bradford not fifty yards from the very spot on which that photograph was taken, fifteen years later.

    And I am here to tell you the book is a pile of s–t

    It is 100 pages too long for a start. The magical realism has nothing like the coherence of effect that Rushdie achieved with Midnight’s Children, and the passages on Mohammed are needlessly inflammatory and don’t really do much to highlight the main themes, such as they are. The religious passages are clearly a rip off of a similar device used to far greater effect by Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita.

    The Muslims in the photo appear to have hit upon the only use to which this steaming t–d of a book can usefully be put. It is too large to prop up one leg of a rickety table, too slick to serve as a doorstop, and the paper is unsuitable for wiping duties. It just about makes the grade as a source of heat.

    About the only thing I would reproach the Muslims in this photo for is for their minor contribution to global warming.

    • ProfessorPistov

      How about that other ‘pile of s–t’ book, the katalogue of rubbish and nonsense. Burning that publicly creates a bit of bother.

  • Itinerant

    “The universal victim of the Rushdie fatwa has been free speech, as anyone since then who dares to write in any critical, disparaging or satirical way about Muhammad and Islam is bullied into silence.”

    I seem to recall a certain Speccy editor saying, when deciding against reprinting some cartoons, ‘fear is a corrosive thing…families to think about’ etc, all if which is true but no mention of bravery and standing up to bullies, otherwise they just keep demanding more.

    Right across Europe and the US, media outlets opted to do the same, effectively capitulating to de-facto Sharia blasphemy laws- many cited tolerance and non-provocation.
    When really it was the fear of menaces from violent Islamists.
    At least Boris was honest about that.

    It’s all very sad, once free speech has gone, it’s very difficult to get back.