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Salman Rushdie hid for 8 years in safe house in The Bishops Avenue during fatwa danger years

PUBLISHED: 14:56 27 September 2012

Sir Salman Rushdie

Sir Salman Rushdie

PA Archive/Press Association Images

The architect secretly employed to build Salman Rushdie’s safe house in The Bishops Avenue has spoken out for the first time about the author’s years in hiding under a fatwa.

David Ashton Hill met the creator of The Satanic Verses in 1976 and was asked by him to design the home in “Billionaires’ Row”, which he bought in 1991 after being forced into hiding.

Mr Ashton Hill says he was advised by the Home Office that Mr Rushdie’s cover would be “blown” within nine months of him moving in and a “hit” on him was also expected.

But the author actually lived in The Bishops Avenue without detection for eight years.

Speaking exclusively to the Ham&High, Mr Ashton Hill said: “I am proud the secret remained so for such a length of time.

“The house was beautifully designed with a number of quite special parts carried out by a very skilled team of craftsmen.

“It was important that only a select few people knew he was there. The house was designed to a sophisticated specification for protection.”

Mr Rushdie, born in Bombay and educated at Rugby and Cambridge, won acclaim during the early 1980s after the publication of his first three novels.

But his fourth, The Satanic Verses, led to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and demonstrations by Islamist groups in India and Pakistan.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme religious leader of Iran, issued a fatwa – a sentence of death – against Rushdie on February 14, 1989.

He was forced into hiding under the protection of the British government and police.

Mr Ashton Hill said the safe house, which had its own swimming pool spanning the rear of the building, was designed to accommodate a team of four armed police officers who had their own rooms.

“If anyone did get in, there were armed police who would get there in time,” the 65-year-old said.

“I remember asking, what would happen if somebody you didn’t know got in. ‘We would shoot,’ they said. ‘We are here to do high level protection.’”

Despite the constant presence of an armed police protection team, Mr Ashton Hill, who is still friends with Mr Rushdie, says it was a family home.

“He was living there with Elizabeth West, who he later married, and their son Milan Rushdie spent his early years in the house.

“His other son Zafar Rushdie had his own bedroom and stayed there part of the week when he was not living with his mother Clarissa. “Every designer’s brief has their own particular requirements. This was special for a number of reasons but a designer’s basic interest is to make it comfortable to live in.

“I knew him a very long time. He was delighted with the result. He is a very interesting man, well educated. Working with clients like that is very positive.”

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie is out now.

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