1 October 2006 0 Comments

The Last Man in London

During my teens, my family lived in a house in Addington, at the very farthest reach of London. At the bottom of the hill, the road made its final exit from London and travelled south, not quite wide enough for two cars, onto the North Downs of Kent. Sometimes I would ride my bike along the lane and up a hill overlooking the Downs and lie on the grass. I was the border between London and the rest of the world. When a car went by below, I’d send out a silent message to the driver: “You just passed the last man in London.”

Much of my time was spent looking in the opposite direction, wishing we lived in central London– where things happened, where the Underground came to your neighbourhood, where there was life. Where I would feel at one with those around me, not like “the last man,” the one at the edge of everything. Like any suburban teenager, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but where I was. And central London was both elsewhere and not impossibly far away.

Most of my friends from that time, and from university too, ended up living and working right there in central London. I never did. I went down the lane that wasn’t wide enough for two cars, and I never came back. If I hadn’t, I’m sure I’d still have written. But I doubt I would have seen as much or learned what I have about myself.

For me, Omar Yussef is a satisfying character because he–and the books in which he’ll appears–represent the insights I’ve gathered in distant, eventful travels. But he’s also a measure of my ability to understand the outsiders of other cultures; not the prime ministers and generals and imams with their false rhetoric and their stake in things staying as they are, but the people who climb the same hills that I mounted as a youth and look out wondering why their world isn’t better than it is. That’s the essence of Omar Yussef (and of the best “exotic detective” fiction).

That lane near our house went up onto the Downs and then undulated toward Westerham, a beautiful place built around a sloping village green. At the centre of the green, there’s a statue of General Wolfe, a native of Westerham who led British troops to victory against the French in Canada. The latest historical research on Wolfe suggests he was a megalomaniac glory-hunter who got exactly the kind of heroic immortality he wanted when he died at the moment of victory in Quebec.

I haven’t paid the kind of price exacted of Wolfe. (Then, no one’s built any statues of me either.) I’ve been stoned, abused, hectored, threatened, held at gunpoint, and I’ve come out of it with the kind of knowledge granted only to those who never expected to be loved by everyone and yet were never driven by hate–namely, an observant outsider.

The sense of being an outsider I experienced as the Last Man in London was alienating back then. But in Bethlehem and Gaza it gave me a sense for the outsiders among the Palestinians. It helped me identify them, build a bond of trust with them and understand them. It also led me to write the Omar Yussef mysteries as a direct challenge to every accepted Western idea about the Palestinians.

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