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A Week at the Airport

by Alain de Botton and Richard Baker

Paperback, 107 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $15 |


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A Week at the Airport
Alain de Botton and Richard Baker

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Book Summary

Meditative writings about one of the world's busiest international terminals liken an airport to a microcosm of modern-world themes, featuring interviews with travelers and workers.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: A Week At The Airport

Chapter 1

While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed-so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport. I have rarely shared this aspiration with other people, but in private I have hoped for a hydraulic leak from the undercarriage or a tempest off the Bay of Biscay, a bank of fog in Malpensa or a wildcat strike in the control tower in Málaga (famed in the industry as much for its hot- headed labour relations as for its even-handed command of much of western Mediterranean airspace). on occasion, I have even wished for a delay so severe that I would be offered a meal voucher or, more dramatically, a night at an airline's expense in a giant concrete kleenex box with unopenable windows, corridors decorated with nostalgic images of propeller planes and foam pillows infused with the distant smells of kerosene.

In the summer of 2009, I received a call from a man who worked for a company that owned airports. It held the keys to Southampton, Aberdeen, Heathrow and Naples, and oversaw the retail operations at Boston Logan and Pittsburgh international. The corporation additionally controlled large pieces of the industrial infrastructure upon which European civilisation relies (yet which we as individuals seldom trouble ourselves about as we use the bathroom in Bia_ystok or drive our rental car to Cádiz): the waste company Cespa, the Polish construction group Budimex and the Spanish toll-road concern Autopista.

My caller explained that his company had lately developed an interest in literature and had taken a decision to invite a writer to spend a week at its newest passenger hub, Terminal 5, situated between the two runways of London's largest airport. This artist, who was sonorously to be referred to as Heathrow's first writer-in-residence, would be asked to conduct an impressionistic survey of the premises and then, in full view of passengers and staff, draw together material for a book at a specially positioned desk in the departures hall between zones d and E.

It seemed astonishing and touching that in our distracted age, literature could have retained sufficient prestige to inspire a multinational enterprise, otherwise focused on the management of landing fees and effluents, to underwrite a venture invested with such elevated artistic ambitions. Nevertheless, as the man from the airport company put it to me over the telephone, with a lyricism as vague as it was beguiling, there were still many aspects of the world that perhaps only writers could be counted on to find the right words to express. A glossy marketing brochure, while in certain contexts a supremely effective instrument of communication, might not always convey the authenticity achievable by a single authorial voice-or, as my friend suggested with greater concision, could more easily be dismissed as 'bullshit'.

2 Though the worlds of commerce and art have frequently been unhappy bedfellows, each viewing the other with a mixture of paranoia and contempt, I felt it would be churlish of me to decline to investigate my caller's offer simply because his company administered airside food courts and hosted technologies likely to be involved in raising the planet's median air temperature. There were undoubtedly some skeletons in the airport company's closet, arising from its intermittent desire to pour cement over age-old villages and its skill in encouraging us to circumnavigate the globe on unnecessary journeys, laden with bags of Johnnie Walker and toy bears dressed up as guards of the British monarchy.

But with my own closet not entirely skeleton-free, I was in no position to judge. I understood that money accumulated on the battlefield or in the marketplace could fairly be redirected towards higher aesthetic ends. I thought of impatient ancient Greek statesmen who had once spent their war spoils building temples to Athena and ruthless renaissance noblemen who had blithely commissioned delicate frescoes in honour of spring.

Besides, and more prosaically, technological changes seemed to be drawing a curtain on a long and blessed interlude in which writers had been able to survive by selling their works to a wider public, threatening a renewed condition of anxious dependence on the largesse of individual sponsors. Contemplating what it might mean to be employed by an airport, I looked with plaintive optimism to the example of the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who had thought nothing of writing his books while in the pay of the Earls of devonshire, routinely placing florid declarations to them in his treatises and even accepting their gift of a small bedroom next to the vestibule of their home in derbyshire, Hardwick Hall. 'I humbly offer my book to your Lordship,' England's subtlest political theorist had written to the swaggering William devonshire on presenting him with De Cive in 1642. 'May God of Heaven crown you with many days in your earthly station, and many more in heavenly Jerusalem.'

in contrast, my own patron, Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, the owner of Heathrow, was the most undemanding of employers. He made no requests whatever of me, not for a dedication, or even a modest reference to his prospects in the next world. His staff went so far as to give me explicit permission to be rude about the airport's activities. in such lack of constraints, I felt myself to be benefiting from a tradition wherein the wealthy merchant enters into a relationship with an artist fully prepared for him to behave like an outlaw; he does not expect good manners, he knows and is half delighted by the idea that the favoured baboon will smash his crockery. in such tolerance lies the ultimate proof of his power.

3 in any event, my new employer was legitimately proud of his terminal and understandably keen to find ways to sing of its beauty. The undulating glass and steel structure was the largest building in the land, forty metres tall and 400 long, the size of four football pitches, and yet the whole conveyed a sense of continuous lightness and ease, like an intelligent mind engaging effortlessly with complexity. The blinking of its ruby lights could be seen at dusk from Windsor Castle, the terminal's forms giving shape to the promises of modernity.

Standing before costly objects of technological beauty, we may be tempted to reject the possibility of awe, for fear that we could grow stupid through admiration. We may feel at risk of becoming overimpressed by architecture and engineering, of being dumbstruck by the Bombardier trains that progress driverlessly between satellites or by the General Electric GE90 engines that hang lightly off the composite wings of a Boeing 777 bound for Seoul.

And yet to refuse to be awed at all might in the end be merely another kind of foolishness. in a world full of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic. it was the imaginative centre of contemporary culture. Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilisation-from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel-then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head. I ran out of reasons not to accept the airport's unusual offer to spend a little more time on its premises.

I arrived at the airport on a train from central London early on a Sunday evening, a small roller case in hand and no further destination for the week. I had been billeted at the Terminal 5 outpost of the Sofitel hotel chain, which, while not directly under the ownership of the airport, was situated only a few metres away from it, umbilically connected to the mothership by a sequence of covered walkways and a common architectural language featuring the repeated use of glazed surfaces, giant potted vegetation and grey tiling.

The hotel boasted 605 rooms that faced one another across an internal atrium, but it soon became evident that the true soul of the enterprise lay not so much in hostelry as in the management of a continuous run of conferences and congresses, held in forty-five meeting rooms, each one named after a different part of the world, and well equipped with data points and LAN facilities. At the end of this August Sunday, Avis Europe was in the dubaI room and Liftex, the association of the British lift industry, in the Tokyo Hall. But the largest gathering was in the Athens Theatre, where delegates were winding up a meeting about valve sizes chaired by the international organization for Standardization (or iSo), a body committed to eradicating incompatibilities between varieties of industrial equipment. So long as the Libyan government honoured its agreements, thanks to twenty years of work by the iSo, one would soon be able to travel across North Africa, from Agadir to El Gouna, without recourse to an adapter plug.

2 I had been assigned a room at the top western corner of the building, from which I could see the side of the terminal and a sequence of red and white lights that marked the end of the northern runway. Every minute, despite the best attempts of the glazing contractors, I heard the roar of an ascending jet, as hundreds of passengers, some perhaps holding their partners' hands, others sanguinely scanning The Economist, submitted themselves to a calculated defiance of our species' land-based origins. Behind each successful flight lay the coordinated efforts of hundreds of souls, from the manufacturers of airline amenity kits to the Honeywell engineers responsible for installing windshear-detection radars and collision-avoidance systems.

The hotel room appeared to have taken its design cues from the business-class cabin-though it was hard to say for sure which had inspired which, whether the room was skilfully endeavouring to look like a cabin, or the cabin a room-or whether they simply both shared in an unconscious spirit of their age, of the kind that had once ensured continuity between the lace trim on mid-eighteenth-century evening dresses and the iron detailing on the façades of Georgian town houses. The space held out the promise that its occupant might summon up a film on the adjustable screen, fall asleep to the drone of the air-conditioning unit and wake up on the final descent to Chek Lap kok.

My employer had ordered me to remain within the larger perimeter of the airport for the duration of my seven-day stay and had accordingly provided me with a selection of vouchers from the terminal's restaurants as well as authorisation to order two evening meals from the hotel.

There can be few literary works in any language as poetic as a room-service menu.

The autumn blast
Blows along the stones
on Mount Asama

Even these lines by Matsuo Basho¯, who brought the haiku form to its mature perfection in the Edo era in Japan, seemed flat and unevocative next to the verse composed by the anonymous master at work somewhere within the Sofitel's catering operation:

I reflected on the difficulty faced by the kitchen of correctly interpreting the likelihood of selling some of the remoter items of the menu: how many out of the guests in the lift industry, for example, might be tempted by the 'Atlantic snapper, enhanced with lemon pepper seasoning atop a chunky mango relish', or by the always mysterious and somewhat melancholy-sounding 'Chef's soup of the day'. But perhaps, in the end, there was no particular science to the calibration of alimentary supplies, for it is rare to spend an evening in a hotel and order anything other than a club sandwich, which even Basho¯, at the peak of his powers, would have struggled to describe as convincingly as the menu's scribe:

There was a knock at the door only twenty minutes after I had dialled nine and put in my order. it is a strange moment when two adult men meet each other, one naked save for a complimentary dressing gown, the other (newly arrived in England from the small Estonian town of rakvere and sharing a room with four others in nearby Hillingdon) sporting a black and white uniform, with an apron and a name badge. it is difficult to think of the ritual as entirely unremarkable, to say in a casually impatient voice, 'By the television, please,' while pretending to rearrange papers-though this capacity can be counted upon to evolve with more frequent attendance at global conferences.

I had dinner with Chloe Cho, formerly with Channel NewsAsia but now working for CNBC in Singapore. She updated me on the regional markets and Samsung's quarterly forecast, but her sustained focus was on commodities. I wondered what Chloe's outside interests might be. She was like a sister of the Carmelite order, behind whose austere headdress and concentrated