Alain de Botton's new book about the meaning of life and Heathrow Airport was published this week. Sue Ryan asks him what he discovered in Terminal Five.
A philospher grows wings
Alain de Botton's new book about the meaning of life and Heathrow Airport was published this week. Sue Ryan asks him what he discovered in Terminal Five. Airports are so associated in the mind with delays and frustrations, that when Alain de Botton's book A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary failed to arrive the day before our interview, I shrugged it off in the same passive manner one would treat a delayed flight; hopelessly inconvenient but beyond my personal control. It was probably just as well - for buried inside is a treatise on the uselessness of interviews. Journalism, he writes, has long been enamoured with the idea of the interview; the fantasy that the interviewee will reveal his innermost self to a correspondent and "disclose plots for vengeance or his fears about his professional future," whereas in truth it is often an exercise in saying as little as possible while pretending the person is your new best friend.
When granted an interview with the CEO of British Airways, as part of his week in the terminal building in August, de Botton concluded that there was "nothing of standard consequence" that he could ask the man whose company was losing an average of US$2.5m (Dh9.3m) a day. Willie Walsh's pilots and cabin crews were planning strikes, his baggage handlers were misappropriating more luggage than their counterparts at any other European airline, the government wanted to tax his fuel, environmental activists have been chaining themselves to his fences, merger talks with Qantas and Iberia had stalled and, for three days, the British press had been debating his axing of the post-meal free chocolates in business class.
Yet, he says, "There was no point in my bringing up pensions, carbon emissions, premium yields or even the much-missed chocolates - no point, really in our meeting at all, had not events reached the stage where articulating this insight would have seemed rude." Their 40-minute conversation about Mr Walsh's meeting with the trade unions and Airbus ("I felt as if I were interrupting a discussion of beachheads between Roosevelt and Churchill in May 1943") produced a temporary warm "call-me-Willie" friendship, but very little copy in the 22,000 word book.
Instead a passage about a parting couple, with whom he exchanged no words, merited double the amount of ink. As writer in residence for a week, de Botton had unfettered access to anywhere he wanted to go and was free to publish what he liked, but he is no investigative journalist; his talent lies in observation and interpretation. Every action is analysed and a meaning attributed. Under his microscope the minutiae of life takes on great meaning, and as with his other books he frequently calls on philosophers to explain our emotions. The roaring anger of a man who is not allowed to board his flight, although the plane is still sitting at the gate, reminds him of Seneca's treatise written for Emperor Nero; the root cause of anger is hope. The man was naive enough to believe in a world in which he did not miss planes.
The young couple - her with a copy of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, both with oversized sunglasses - "had come of age in the period between Sars and swine flu." He followed them around watching the intensity of their devastation, and continued once they had parted and she had gone airside, finally losing her in a crowd of French exchange students near Sunglasses Hut. De Botton says that instead of feeling sympathetic, there were stronger reasons to want to congratulate her for having such a powerful motive to feel sad. "We should have envied her for having located someone without whom she so firmly felt she could not survive, beyond the gate let alone in a care student bedroom in a suburb of Rio." He predicted that she would one day recognise this as a high point in her life.
The combination of pastiche and perception is clever, though perhaps too clever to be conveyed via intercom as people check-in. We meet at the newly opened Terminal Five by beacon D and the first question de Botton asks is "Did you hear it?" For 10 minutes he has been broadcasting extracts from his book but such is the level of ambient noise that no one pays any attention - even I did not register the deep thoughts emitting from a diffused central speaker.
At Costa Coffee he explains he had a call in mid-July saying that London literary agents had been asked to find a writer for this project. His agent had not expected him to be interested and was not sure it was the right thing for him to do. But he had no problem with the fusion of commerce and art, drawing on the example of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had written his books while being paid and given lodging by of the Earls of Devonshire to whom he dedicated his works. He did not even have to do that; the book is dedicated to his three-year-old son, Saul.
Selected to take the post of writer in residence, he set up a desk by beacon C and stayed at Terminal Five's Sofitel Hotel. The book took just six weeks to write and it came out on Monday with 10,000 copies currently being given away to passengers. "It is a weird place; I view it with a mixture of love and horror," de Botton says, pointing out 20 or so people standing on the roof across the way. "They are all plane spotters; you wouldn't see people waiting at Tescos to see trays of chicken tikkas being delivered."
He has long been fascinated with airports, seeing them as the single most tangible place to describe modernity, and admits to secretly longing for his flight to be seriously delayed. They represent a microcosm of so many themes, from the giant managerial headache to the philosophical; the sense of elsewhere and otherness evoked by a departure board, and momentous reflections about existence which result from a sense of possible impending catastrophe. "It's why some people think there are too many shops. The plane might crash and there is a sense that we need to cleanse the soul, but people are carrying bags of duty free Johnnie Walker; moralism is impeded by commerce. I flew easyJet the other day and they were giving out scratch cards and I wished they would stop. It is so incongruous to be looking out at the curve of the earth and playing with scratch cards."
De Botton's favourite airport is Oslo because of its wooden roof and the fact you seldom see anything natural in an airport, and he thinks Richard Rogers' other airport, in Madrid, is slightly more attractive than his building at Terminal Five, but overall Heathrow is the best in northern Europe. "The point is Oslo may be nice but where can you fly to?" Terminal Five, he says, represents the future of Britain as Tony Blair may have imagined. "It's democratic, a nice place where people sit in Costa Coffee; there is a sentimental vision about the place, the promise of new kind of Britain, an optimism."
Most of all he loved getting access to behind the scenes; the BA control room in which the daily future of the 57 Boeing 747s and 60 airbuses are mapped out; how the 212 from Washington becomes the 129 to Mumbai, then goes to Wales for its service before becoming the 121 to Johannesburg. "Each has it own complex history and quirks - on one plane the hydraulics keep jamming, on another it is something else."
Passengers also have no idea how often the fire engines are sent out. "When I was there a Cathay Pacific plane got its nose stuck in the grass after it landed badly. Another two planes almost met on the runway. The thing you realise is how much error an airport can absorb and still be OK. A crash is the result of nine things going wrong, not one." He says that there is a once a week flight to Romania where the plane is so old the workers clap their hands when it takes off. Another staff member explained her trick of dealing with grumpy customers. "She tells them that they have been upgraded, let the news sink in, and then she looks again and says 'Oh, no sorry, I made a mistake'."
Most of these stories have made it into the book, but others, part fiction, part universal truth - can only be understood by reading it - characters such as David, who had been thinking about his holiday ever since he first booked it, imagining the perfect family holiday but - he was already rowing with his wife and children. "As David lifted the suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to the unexpected and troubling realisation: that he was bringing himself on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact that he would be in the villa as well." email@example.com
We're often told we live in a modern world, but it's quite hard to know what this means till you get to the airport: here you can see, feel and smell the crazy, beautiful, impressive, deranged world we've built
Nowhere is the airport's charm more concentrated than in the screens placed at intervals across the terminal which announce, in deliberately workmanlike fonts, the itineraries of aircraft about to take to the skies. These screens imply a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggest the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rings out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understand nothing of the language and where no one knows our identities. The lack of detail about the destinations serves only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau ... all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we can appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation
Look how kind people are to one another as they say goodbye before the security zone. It seems that most of us benefit from a flight across an ocean to recognise and express the important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognise from day to day
It seems as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements. The stock market can never put an accurate price on the thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occur around the world every day under an airline's banner: it cannot describe the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, it has no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it has no means of quantifying the adrenaline-thrill of take-off
Treasure the first few minutes after disembarking. Despite one's exhaustion, one's senses are fully awake, registering everything - the light, the signage, the floor polish, the skin tones, the metallic sounds, the advertisements - as sharply as if one was on drugs or a newborn baby or Tolstoy
It seems curious but in the end appropriate that life should often put in our way, so near to the site of some of our most intense and heartfelt reunions with lovers and family, one of the greatest obstacles known to relationships: the requirement to pay for and then negotiate a way out of a multi-storey car park From Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, published by Profile Books