Writer’s childhood memories of visiting Salman Rushdie’s safe house
Writer and mother-of-two Laura Ashton, daughter of architect David Ashton Hill who designed Salman Rushdie’s safe house in The Bishops Avenue, recalls visiting the writer’s secret home
The phone rang and I answered it.
‘Hello, can I speak to David please.’
‘Dad it’s for you, its Salman.’ I said without hesitation. Salman was surprised that I knew him from his voice. I was 11 and it had been years since I had seen him. He was calling to ask my father to be the architect in charge of his safe house. The final one, in The Bishops Avenue, the house he was to secretly live in for eight years.
Dad spoke to him and arranged for him to come over for dinner. We lived in a terraced house in North London, quite unaccustomed to housing extraordinary dinner guests.
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My parents had already briefed me on the importance of not talking about Salman at school. He was a friend of my parents because my mother, Liz, was a close friend of his first wife Clarissa Luard. She was a vibrant, intelligent character who taught me the importance of reading extensively and that it is ok to have curly hair. Clarissa died of breast cancer in 1999 and my mother misses her.
I kept the secret and now a dinner party had been arranged, I kept that a secret too.
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‘Six policemen?’ Said my mother. ‘What am I going to cook for six policemen?’ In the end she decided they would sit upstairs and have pizza and Coca-Cola in front of the TV. My brother Olly, two years my junior, was furious that he wasn’t allowed to sit upstairs with them.
The doorbell rang and suddenly my house was full of men. The policemen piled into the sitting room and took up the whole space. It was strange to see our blue family sofa and chairs filled with the bodies of the unfamiliar officers. Olly lingered in the doorway as we went down stairs.
‘Do you know you’re getting pizza and coca-cola?’ He informed them. After a while we heard his footsteps on the stairs and he joined the smaller party down in the dining room. ‘There’s an Arsenal match on.’ He declared even more deflated.
‘Never mind.’ Said Salman. ‘They’ll probably lose.’ He smiled a broad smile and Olly scowled at him.
I looked at the man sitting opposite me. He looked like an ordinary man and not remarkable enough to be warranting all this attention. He was rather small in comparison to the policemen upstairs. He was bald, bearded and rather on the chubby side. There was even a slight aura of shyness about him, until he had drunk the first glass of red wine. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to kill him, no matter what he had written about in his book.
They talked about ideas for the house. My father had worked on two houses previously for Salman and Salman knew he could trust him. There were cheers from upstairs, followed by hushing noises and giggling. My brother looked longingly up at the ceiling.
‘Go on.’ Said Salman. ‘Go and check that Arsenal are getting beaten.’ Olly resisted a retaliatory jibe at Tottenham and raced up the stairs.
‘And you.’ Said Salman looking at me. ‘What are you interested in?’
‘I like writing.’ I told him.
‘Well.’ He smiled. ‘What ever you do, don’t do an English Degree. Go to university or travel the world. Follow your interests and then, then you will have something to write about.’
A few years later I visited the Bishops Avenue house with my father. The house was finished apart from a wooden floor that was proving troublesome. The iron gates opened for us and we drove up to the door. A police officer answered, he knew my father and he stepped aside to let us in. Neither Salman nor Elizabeth, his wife, was at home and it felt strange to be in an occupied house without the owner being in.
I stepped into the hall. The floor, that had been causing my father sleepless nights, was very beautiful and I could instantly see what all the fuss was about. It was like walking across two semicircular ponds. It was made out of different shades of natural wood, with wooden carp shaped pieces, swimming about. ‘Salman calls them Koi.’ My Dad told me. ‘They are there to symbolize love and friendship.’
No other furniture was in the hall bar an impressive jukebox on my right. Evidently this was a man who liked to have parties. The policeman disappeared up a staircase that scooped around the side of the pond and we walked through the hall and around to the kitchen. I noticed that Salman had the same oven as us. Probably not that surprising in hindsight because my father would have recommended the make he liked the best, but it struck me than that Salman Rushdie, the great writer, would eat food coming out of the same oven as ours at home.
I had come prepared with swimming costume because at the back of the house was an indoor pool. It was shaped like a kidney and there were changing rooms to the right. I nervously got changed and had a very quick swim because I was terrified of a policeman catching sight of my awkward 13-year-old self in a swimming costume. The carp in the hall swam with a lot more ease than I did that day.
We kept our silence about the Bishops Avenue house, along with everyone else that knew about it and the house was never discovered. Now Salman has written his memoir in which he discloses the destinations of his years in hiding. My father was delighted to see that he briefly gets a mention in the book. I haven’t seen Salman since the dinner party at our house, but I sent him a tweet after listening to his story being read on radio 4. He tweeted back wishing us all the best. I wish him safety and happiness and to let him know he made quite an impression on a young writer. I’m reluctant to admit that I neglected his advice and did an English Degree and I’m writing regardless. Hopefully I have followed my interests enough to counterbalance the creativity sapping effects of reading too much literary criticism. Oh and Arsenal won that match by the way.