It was … 1975, I think; have to check my diaries to be sure. I’d finished at Uni that spring and gone off hitchhiking through Europe over the summer. Paris, Bergen, Berlin, Venice, Rabat and Madrid defined the limits of the whirlwind tour. Three months later I was on my way home, and after staying with Aunt Jess in Crawley, I’d used the last of my money to buy a bus ticket from London to Glasgow (hitching out of London was notoriously awful). Night bus, and it took ages, staying off the motorways would you believe. This was in the days before videos and minibars and hostesses and even toilets on buses. The old coach groaned and whined through the rain-smeared darkness, stopping at breeze block and Formica transport cafes; cold islands of fluorescence in the night.
Especially then, buses were for the not so well off. I was the scruffy hitcher with long hair and jeans. I was sitting beside an old guy wearing shiny trousers and a worn tweed jacket; thin limbs and thick glasses. In front of us, an old lady reading People’s Friend; behind, two lads with yesterday’s Sun. The usual girning1 baby and harassed young mother, somewhere at the back. I watched the sodium lights drift by in droplet lines of orange, and alternated sitting upright in the cramped seat, and sliding down into it, aching knees against the back of the seat in front. And, for the first couple of hours or so, I was reading some SF novel (wish I could remember the name, but can’t).
Later I tried sleeping. It wasn’t easy; you swung fretfully in and out, never fully awake or completely asleep, always conscious of the growling gear changes and the creaky ache in folded knees. Then the old guy started talking to me.
I’m one of these anti-social types—well, as you know—who doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence of other people when I’m travelling; plus I was quite shy back then (believe it or not), and I really didn’t want to talk to some old geezer I imagined I had nothing in common with. But he started the conversation and I couldn’t be rude and just cut it off. If I remember right, he pointed at the SF book, wedged between my leg and the arm rest.
“You believe in all that stuff then, do you?” Scottish accent, not strong, maybe Borders or Edinburgh.
I sighed. Here we go, I thought. “Sorry? How do you mean?”
“UFOs and all that.”
“Well, no.” I riffled the pages of the paperback, as though looking for clues. “I just like science fiction. Not much of it’s about UFOs; this isn’t. I probably wouldn’t read one about UFOs.”
“Oh.” He looked at the book (I was getting embarrassed by its gaudy, irrelevant cover, and put it away). “Are you a student?”
“Yes. Well, no; I was. I graduated.”
“Ah. Science, was it, you were doing?”
“Oh. But you like science?”
I’m sure that’s the way he put it. I jotted a lot of this down next day, and wrote a poem about it—“Jack”—a couple of months later, and I’m sure if I had my notes with me they’d confirm that was how he put it: “You like science?”
So we got on to what he’d always wanted to talk about.
He—yes, his name was Jack—couldn’t understand how people thought they could tell something was so many million years old. How could anyone tell what came when and where? He couldn’t understand; he was a Christian and the Bible seemed much more sensible.
Ever felt your heart sink? We’d been on the road two hours, we were barely past Northampton, and I was stuck—probably for the whole of the rest of the journey, judging from the guy’s accent—beside some ancient geek who thought the universe was created about tea-time in 4004 BC. Holy shit.
Being young and stupid, I didn’t actually try to explain (I watched “Horizon”; I got New Scientist, sometimes).
Let the poem take up the story (from memory, so make allowances):
And Christ, dear reader, what could I do?
Oh, I made the lame, half-hearted try;
I told him all was linked, that those same laws
Of physics, chemistry, and math that let him sit here,
In this bus, with the engine, on that road,
Dictated through the ages what was so.
Carbon 14 I mentioned, its slow and sure decay,
Even magnetic alignments, frozen in the rocks
By the heat of ancient fires;
The associated fossils, floating continents,
Erosion, continuity and change …
But from the first tired syllable, in fact before,
I knew it was pointless.
And somewhere back
Of all that well-informed-layman stuff,
Something a little more like the real me listened,
And looked at the old man’s glasses.
—They were old, with thick frames, dark brown.
The glass too was thick, and thick with dust.
Dandruff, dead scales of old flesh, hairs
Cemented there by grease and stale sweat,
Obscured the views the scratches didn’t.
And even if the prescription wasn’t years ago exceeded
By his dying sight,
The grime; that personal, impersonal dust,
Sapped the bulky lenses of their use
And, removed, inspected,
How could those rheumy eyes unaided see
This aggravation of their disability?
(This was when I was into using rhyme only very sparingly, like any other poetic effect.) There was more, rather labouring the point about “views” and cloudy thinking and so on, but passing swiftly on, we come to:
He took in nothing.
My throat got sore.
The Borders came, and soon he left, met by his sister
In some dismal little rain-soaked town.
OK? So Cut To:
Last week. Me with the hard core of the Creative Writing Group on an Intercity 125, heading for London for a reading at the ICA (Kathy Acker, Martin Millar, etc). I was sitting across from Mo—the good-looking Indian guy with the tash; very bright; chose us instead of Oxbridge, God knows why—and I tipped my microbottle of Grouse into the plastic glass and took out the book I was going to start reading, and Mo … just tensed. I’m not too hot on body language; I miss a lot, I know (you see—I do listen to what you say), but it was like Mo suddenly became an ice statue, and these waves of cold antagonism started flowing across the table at me. The others noticed too, and went quiet.
So I’d taken The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie out of the old daypack, hadn’t I? And Mo’s sitting there like he expects the book to bubble and squirm and burst into flames right there in my hands.
Now, I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the kerfuffle surrounding this book—it hasn’t exactly been front page news, and with any luck it won’t be—but since it was published quite a few Muslims have been demanding it be banned, withdrawn or whatever because it contains—so they say—some sort of semi-blasphemous material in it relating to the Koran. I’d talked about this general area of authorial freedom and religious censorship with a couple of classes, but still hadn’t read the novel, and it just hadn’t occurred to me somebody like Mo—who hadn’t been in either of those classes—might be on the side of the bad guys.
“Mo; is there a problem?”
“That is not a good book, Mr. Munro,” he said, looking at it, not me. “It is evil; blasphemous.” (Embarrassed silence from the others.)
“Look, Mo, I’ll put the book away if it offends you,” I told him (doing just that). “But I think we have to talk about this. All right; I haven’t read the book myself yet, but I was talking to Doctor Metcalf the other day, and he said he had, and the passages some people found objectionable were … a couple of pages at most, and he couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I mean, this is a novel, Mo. It isn’t a … religious tract; it means to be fiction.”
“That isn’t the point, Mr. Munro,” Mo said. He was looking at my little red rucksack as though there was a nuclear bomb inside it. “Rushdie has insulted all Muslims. He has spat in the face of every one of us. It’s as if he has called all our mothers whores.”
“Mo,” I said, and couldn’t help grinning as I put the rucksack down on the floor, “it’s only a story.”
“The form is not important. It is a work in which Allah is insulted,” Mo said. “You can’t understand, Mr. Munro. There is nothing you hold that sacred.”
“Oh no? How about freedom of speech?”
“But when the National Front wanted to use the Students’ Union, you were with us on the demonstration, weren’t you? What about their freedom of speech?”
“They want to take it away from everybody else; come on, Mo. You’re not denying them freedom of speech, you’re protecting the freedoms of the people they’d persecute if they were allowed any power.”
“But in the short term you are denying them the right to state their views in public, are you not?”
“The way you’d deny somebody the freedom to put a gun to another person’s head and pull the trigger, yes.”
“So, clearly your belief in freedom generally can override any particular freedom; these freedoms are not absolute. Nothing is sacred to you, Mr. Munro. You base your beliefs on the products of human thought, so it could hardly be otherwise. You might believe in certain things, but you do not have faith. That comes with submission to the force of divine revelation.”
“So because I don’t have what I think of as superstitions, because I believe we just happen to exist, and believe in … science, evolution, whatever; I’m not as … worthy as somebody who has faith in an ancient book and a cruel, desert God? I’m sorry, Mo, but for me, Christ and Muhammed were both just men; charismatic, gifted in various ways, but still just mortal human beings, and the scholars and monks and disciples and historians who wrote about them or recorded their thoughts and their lives were inspired all right, but not by God; by something from inside them, something every writer has … in fact something every human has, Mo; definitions. Faith is belief without proof. I can’t accept that. Now, it doesn’t bother me that you can, so why does it bother you so much that I think the way I do, or Salman Rushdie thinks the way he does?”
“Clearly your soul is your own concern, Mr. Munro. Rushdie’s is his. To think blasphemous thoughts in public is deliberately to assault those who do believe. It is to rape our souls.”
Can you believe this? The guy’s heading for a First; his father’s an astro-physicist, for Christ’s sake. Mo’s probably going to be a lecturer himself (he already puts “clearly” at the start of his sentences; good grief, he’s halfway there!). It’s very nearly 1989 but it’s midnight in the dark ages just the thickness of a book away, the thickness of a skull away; just the turn of a page away.
This piece originally appeared in The Observer magazine on August 13, 1989, before being included in the compilation of Banks’s works, State of the Art.
- Girning is an English colloquial term for making exaggerated faces.