26 October, 2009Issue 10.2PhilosophyPolitics & SocietyTravel

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Notes from Nowhere

John Maloney

A Week at the AirportAlain de Botton
A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary
Profile, 2009
112 Pages
ISBN 978-1846683596

When the Greek historian Herodotus visited the Great Pyramid of Giza in 450 BC, he set about writing what remains one of the most comprehensive records of the monument. At the time of his visit, the 2000-year-old pyramid was the largest building on Earth. It would remain so for nearly another two millennia. “Man fears time”, says the proverb, “time fears the pyramids.” It was England’s own Lincoln Cathedral which in 1311 finally outgrew Giza’s pinnacle, and by all accounts in fine form—the writer John Ruskin proclaimed the cathedral “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”.

Though England lost the title to Estonia’s St Olaf’s Church in the 16th century, Great Britain’s propensity for greatness has continued to express itself in dimensions other than height. In March 2008, some 26 years and ¬£4.3 billion after its conception, Heathrow unveiled not the tallest but the largest building in the United Kingdom, Terminal 5. It’s difficult to convey just how ridiculously large the structure is, at least without the aid of obnoxious factoids: three Empire State Buildings could be laid end-to-end in its main hall; its steel roof weighs 18,000 tonnes, and in a serendipitous nod to its gargantuan forebear, Heathrow’s official website boasts that “T5” is designed to handle “the equivalent of the population of Lincoln every day of the year”. Even the most hopeful of Lincoln’s vicars probably never ventured such a claim.

It seems only appropriate that those responsible for a feat of such magnitude should seek to have it recorded for posterity, or at least publicity. And so they have: earlier this year, Heathrow owners BAA commissioned author, presenter, and social commentator Alain de Botton to spend a week living within the generous confines of T5 as the airport’s writer-in-residence. The scale of BAA’s achievement stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the pyramids and the great cathedrals of Europe. Yet de Botton’s mandate, and so its result, A Week at the Airport, feels closer to the commissioning of Andy Warhol’s “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” than the commentaries of Herodotus or Ruskin. The appeal and power of this short book lies, in large part, in its quiet striving to understand why.

If it seems dull, odd, or irritatingly postmodern to spend a week at the airport, then it is perhaps strange to reflect that an increasing number of us will have done just that by the time we’ve reached adulthood. Of course, unlike weeklong visits to the pyramids or among the cathedrals of Europe (a full week in Lincoln seems excessive), the time spent at airports is a means to more meaningful ends: waiting for the arrival of loved ones, a connecting flight to a holiday destination, the commencement of a new life in an as yet foreign city. And it is this which sets de Botton’s brief apart; that for all its size, the airport terminal will usually pass by unnoticed. We are no more engaged or concerned with its experiential or aesthetic properties than those of the offices, public bathrooms, bus shelters, waiting rooms, and elevators which collectively swallow up a great deal more than a week’s worth of our lives. These are places we pass through, rather than into. They are what A Week at the Airport’s blurb describes as “non-places”—places about which we feel, and think, as little as possible, for which we do not hold ourselves responsible, of which we are neither proud nor especially ashamed.

Nowhere is the glib disavowal inspired by non-places more remarkable than in the ritual of plane travel: we arrive, and promptly entrust our luggage to a mysterious rubber flap and our lives to an enormous metal container that attains heights and speeds we are mercifully incapable of grasping through processes most of us hardly understand. It is unsettling, then, that a non-place should become the biggest place in the country; that somewhere we instinctively feel amounts to so little should amount to as much in magnitude, manpower, and money as the most sacred and glorious sites of past civilisations, including our own.

For de Botton, such modern contradictions are familiar ground. His previous two offerings, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Architecture of Happiness, were also thoughtful contemplations of the everyday. This expertise is manifest throughout A Week at the Airport. Where a greener writer might have rushed to make something of the experience, to construct a grand unifying appraisal, de Botton’s approach is patient, modest, and conscientiously neutral. The opinions he does offer—on the absurdities of anti-terrorism and human resources management, the paradox of luxurious passenger lounges staffed by migrant workers, the rabid commercialism of the duty free strip—are cautious and self-deprecating, and for that, all the more persuasive. De Botton is intent on suspending judgment, putting the experience before himself, and finding in it only what is there.

Ultimately, this faith in his subject is well-placed—like the dimensions of the Pyramid at Giza, the vast machinations of T5 are sufficiently arresting and bizarre by their own lights: we are told of the parallel journeys taken by our suitcases across 17 kilometers of subterranean robot-supervised conveyor belts; nightly forages for jetsam on somber moonlit runways; the ritual of composing 80,000 identical, crumbed lamb fillets. Set against the landscape of this non-place are the faces of its non-people; the world-weary legion of cleaners, priests, cooks, and shoe shiners, the parting couples and the bickering families are chronicled with a good-natured wryness that seems to come naturally to the eavesdropping diarist.

If A Week at the Airport is inconclusive and non-polemical, it is perhaps because de Botton’s aims are satisfied just in the looking, in the challenge posed by the looking itself: to have us look—and so lay claim—to the world we have created, to whom and to what we actually amount. The picture that emerges in Week is one of human beings bewildered by the pace and scale of modernity, whose frailty and simplicity are movingly at odds with the flawless grandeur of their mechanical and material achievements. Insofar as he seeks to do no more and no less than show us to ourselves, de Botton is doing what our good artists and thinkers have always done. A Week at the Airport is time well spent.

John Maloney is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.