Not long ago a friend of mine commented that my travels to promote my books must be a great pleasure to me. “You just have to talk about yourself,” he sneered. “You must like that.”
I ignored the implied insult (until now). But it struck me that people might think book tours are literally ego-trips. Wrong on two counts.
First, it’s only on book tour that people will frequently come up to you and say that you look better in your jacket photo. In Aachen last year, a bookseller pointed at my photo and said, “This handsome man is not you.” In Hamburg, a woman said: “The photo was taken many years ago, no?” How good is that for your ego?
Second, the experience of a new place in the company of people whose concern at that moment is with the world of literature – not politics, finance, or mothers-in-law -- is one of the greatest pleasures imaginable.
Last week I was in the Rhineland city of Cologne at the invitation of the Cologne-Bethlehem Twin Cities Association. Each year on Epiphany (which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem, following the star to Jesus’s manger) they arrange a reading related to Bethlehem. That’s because the bones of the Three Kings are kept in Cologne’s astonishing Gothic cathedral. This year they picked “<a href="http://www.mattbeynonrees.com/articles_german.htm">Der Verraeter von Bethlehem</a>,” which you may know as my first Palestinian crime novel “<a href="http://www.mattbeynonrees.com/bethlehem.htm">The Collaborator of Bethlehem” (UK title: “The Bethlehem Murders</a>”).
I arrived late at night and did a few interviews in the morning with local press. Then I strolled (if you can really stroll in minus-5 degrees whipping of the river) to the <a href="http://www.koelner-dom.de/">cathedral</a> with Saskia Heinemann, a Cologne-native who works for my Munich publisher <a href="http://rsw.beck.de/rsw/default.asp">Beck Verlag</a>.
Inside, the high vaults of the ceiling were loaded with incense. Three youngsters dressed as the Three Kings were singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to a surprisingly packed congregation. After the priest’s blessing everyone filed behind the altar to the golden shrine where the bones of the Three Wise Men are kept. It glimmered behind a trio of candles marked with the initials of Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. The cathedral organ played joyously and the bells joined in.
I never take part in any kind of ritual (except for the way I make espresso every morning). As a journalist I watch rituals. As a writer I’m always somehow outside, too, making notes for a way to use such a scene in a future book. This time I found myself moved to be shuffling among the crowd, looking up at the massive columns and stained glass. Somehow I was watching and listening and smelling all the happy Christmases I haven’t had, the unhappy emptiness in which for many people the urge to be a writer is nurtured. But that’s a subject for another time….
<a href="http://www.stadt-koeln.de/">Cologne</a> was almost entirely destroyed in WWII. Miraculously the cathedral suffered little damage. The town’s collection of beautiful Romanesque churches (I particularly loved Gross St. Martin) were rebuilt from what remained. Out of reach of the bombs, beneath the town hall square, the oldest synagogue in Europe was recently discovered. I watched through the side of the marquee where the remains are being unearthed by a freezing group of archeologists.
In the traditional beerkeller Frueh, I warmed up with leberknoedel soup and Haemchen, which is essentially the upper back leg of a pig, boiled. I peeled away the layers of fat, white as an Englishman’s tummy, and a large burnt-umber glob which was apparently clotted blood. Then I put away a good few pounds of delicious, salty, soft ham.
Before my reading that night at the <a href="http://www.lesen-mit-ludwig.de/">Ludwig bookshop</a> in the main station, Miriam Froitzheim arrived from nearby Aachen with a consignment of Printen, the best cookies in Germany. They’re sweetened with honey, not sugar, and covered in a rich chocolate.
The reading was a welcome opportunity to discuss my first novel – which sometimes seems like ancient history to me, as I’ve written four more (one still in manuscript form) since then. Still it was only published in English in 2007 and, in Germany, two years ago.
I dined with some of the bookshop staff, and Udo Hombach, the retired music teacher who read a couple of chapters from my book in German for the audience. An aficionado of churches built by the last Kaiser (several in the Rhineland, and a couple of notable ones in Jerusalem, including the Ascension Church where I did a reading recently and admired the massive ceiling mosaic of Kaiser Wili himself) turned artist, Udo produced a handful of colorful mosaic tiles from his waistcoat pocket. His father had gathered them from the ruins of one of the Kaiser’s churches in Berlin after a bombing raid. Now Udo uses them to make mosaics for his gallery. (You can find it Am Roemerturm 15 in Cologne.)
The following day I trotted around the <a href="http://www.museum-ludwig.de/">Museum Ludwig </a>in central Cologne. It’s one of the greatest collections of Expressionist art anywhere. It was a change from the Renaissance art in which I’ve been immersed of late, and the building itself is light and airy, a little like the cathedral next door. Even the luggage lockers were avant garde.
Then I zipped off to the airport feeling very content. You see, at my reading, a woman pointed to the author photo on the jacket and said: “You look much better in real life.”