During my teens, my family lived at the very farthest southern reach of
London. At the bottom of the hill, the road made its final exit from London
and travelled on, not quite wide enough for two cars, to 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. 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 but where I was. And
central London was both elsewhere and not impossibly far away.
The alienation of that time lasted strongly into my twenties, and lingered
into my thirties. I realized recently that I don’t feel alienated any more.
Of course, part of that realization is to understand that there never was a
reason for me to feel alienated and that the world in which I lived was good
and the people around me were fine and I was much more well-liked than I
realized. But in any case I understand that this constricting feeling is
gone. I’m now the last man to feel alienated.
I’ve actually become so positive about my world and myself that teenage Matt
would probably be embarrassed by it. Certainly he’d be cynical. But when I
watch my beautiful children sleep, I can’t be that miserable teenager any
I’ve had to travel a long way to get to this way of thinking. No doubt I
could’ve stayed in Addington, done a lot of yoga and meditation, and come to
the same realizations. But it was more fun the way I did it. Ah, well, maybe
not always. It was better for my writing, at least.
Travel – and working in alien cultures – forced me to appreciate the lives
of others. To empathize. In turn I saw my own life differently. Stop making
yourself the center of the world and the world becomes big enough to let
your resentments and depressions drift away.
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
center 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 when he went out into the
world. (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