5 August 2009 2 Comments

The Last Man in London

Here’s my latest post on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog:

During my teens, my family lived in a house in Addington, at the very farthest reach of South London. At the bottom of the hill, the road made its final exit from London. Not quite wide enough for two cars, it traveled 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 neighborhood, where there was life, damn it. 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. Perhaps they knew it was the right place for them, or maybe they never cared to ask themselves that question. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and I never lived there. 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.

The Palestinian sleuth of my crime novels Omar Yussef is, for me, a satisfying character because he represents 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 people journalists typically rush toward–the prime ministers and generals and imams with their false rhetoric and their stake in things staying as they are. Rather they’re the people who seem to climb the same marginal hill 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 undulated toward Westerham, a beautiful place built around a sloping village green. At the center of the green, there’s a statue of General Wolfe, a native of the village who led British troops to victory against the French in Canada in the Seven Years War of the mid-Eighteenth Century. 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 price exacted of Wolfe. (But then, no one’s built any statues of me, either.) I’ve been stoned, abused, hectored, threatened, held at gunpoint. I’ve come out of it with the kind of knowledge granted only to one of those who never expected to be loved by everyone and yet was 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 still gives me a sense for the outsiders—whether that’s the Palestinians without their state, or the minorities who live among them, like the Christian Palestinians featured in THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM or the few hundred Samaritans who live on a hill overlooking Nablus and are at the center of THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET. It helped me identify the people who could teach me the most about myself, to 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.

And to every idea I ever had about me. But that’s for another blog…

2 Responses to “The Last Man in London”

  1. Cozy in Texas 9 August 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    I came across your blog and as a South Londoner (Penge) I was intrigued and you caught my attention further with your description of your mystery series. I'll be sure to pick up a copy.
    Ann

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 9 August 2009 at 10:45 pm #

    Ah, Penge. Land of the original Status Quo…and also the end of the bus route that used to take me to high school. I'm delighted the article sparked your interest in my books. Please keep in touch and let me know how you enjoy them. best, Matt


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