In his latest book, the Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie recounts in unflinching detail what happened to him as he was about to start a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, on August 12, 2022.

As the Booker Prize winning author stood up to begin his speech, a young man, dressed all in black and wearing a black mask, rushed onto the stage and, 27 seconds later, Rushdie had been stabbed 15 times, resulting in damage to his hands and liver, severed arteries in his arm and, worst of all, he would also lose the sight of his right eye. He was lucky to survive.

The book is called Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder and it is compulsive reading. Rushdie really does engage in a series of meditations about his attacker – whom he refuses to name but calls “A”, as in Assassin; novels, such as the Satanic Verses; pain; death; the medical care that he received; murder more generally; and, more abstractly, about the knife as a weapon which can be used to inflict lethal violence.

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We know about that only too well. In Scotland, between 2022-2023, a knife was the most common method that was used in a homicide, although our statistics record such attacks as being with a “sharp instrument”, which would include broken glass, sharpened screwdrivers and even swords, as well as old fashioned knives.

Rushdie notes that a gunshot is action at a distance, whereas a knife attack takes place up close and is personal, almost intimate, even if, in his case, the attacker was a stranger.

He muses on the knife as an idea as much as an instrument – from having a central role in the preparation and creation of food, to more conceptually as “Occam’s razor”, which suggests that the simplest explanations are usually better than those which are more complex.

However, it was his observation that “when a knife makes the first cut in a wedding cake, it is part of the ritual by which two people are joined together” that got me thinking about an actual, rather than an attempted, murder.

Peter Farquhar was murdered by his former student, lodger and lover Ben Field in October 2015, in a suburb of Buckingham called Maids Moreton. Field was convicted of this murder in October 2019 and is now serving a Life sentence – he will have to serve a minimum term of 36 years before he can be considered for parole.

The novelist Salman Rushdie was badly injuredThe novelist Salman Rushdie was badly injured (Image: free)

I wrote about this murder in a book called A Plot to Kill and the case has since become more widely known through the BBC drama The Sixth Commandment, with Timothy Spall playing the part of Peter – Spall won this year’s BAFTA for Leading Actor for this performance, beating our own Brian Cox.

In conducting research about the case, I interviewed the priest who had performed Peter and Field’s betrothal ceremony in London – they hadn’t wanted to get married in Buckingham as their local church disapproved of same sexual relationships. With Bach’s Goldberg Variations playing softly in the background, they professed their love to each other and, when they had finished, exchanged a symbol of their new union – penknives.

I remember asking the priest about the knives, but he was baffled by what they had done and had certainly never encountered this type of gift before. However, he had thought that their ceremony was odd in other ways too and that this was merely another example of its strangeness.

Like Rushdie would years later, this led me to think more conceptually and consider knives as metaphors, as much as instruments and tools.

Through simple word association I immediately came up with ‘sharp’, ‘cut’ and ‘cutting’, and expressions such as ‘cutting remarks’, and ‘cut to the quick’, with ‘sharpness’ often used to suggest being clever and intelligent but also impatient, as in having a ‘sharp tongue’.

Peter was indeed clever, a part-time lecturer in English Literature and the author of some three novels, and his former students remembered that they had to keep on his good side and behave, or he could put down the most challenging of them with a “withering remark” within the classroom, or lecture theatre. In other words, he had a sharp tongue.

Field, on the other hand, was a poseur who thought of himself as clever too, although there is little evidence of his having the same academic rigour as Peter and was merely attaching himself to his former tutor for his own selfish ends.

As for their union, knives can also be used to cut flesh which, in some circumstances, allows blood to be shared with another person and so connecting a pair of confidants as “blood brothers”. In that way they are forever linked to one another; two have become one.

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I have no idea if this was the reason for the exchanging of the knives, as Field refused to speak to me and Peter, of course, was dead. However, if these musings are correct, I am pleased that Rushdie refused to name his attacker. Even if the identity of his would-be assassin is widely known, his name has not become attached to Rushdie’s in the way that Field’s became connected to Peter.

They have become almost synonymous and irreducible so that it is impossible to write about Peter without also having to write about his killer. Yet Peter deserved so much more than that and we should always remember him as an individual, with his own distinguished career, as opposed to the appalling way that his life was taken from him by his beastly, blood brother.

By denying him an identity in Knife, Salman Rushdie has prevented his attacker, his would-be killer, the intimacy and connection with him that his 15 stab wounds sought to achieve.

Professor David Wilson Salman Rushdie’s Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder is published by Jonathan Cape