If you were traversing Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow last August, you may have seen a writerly-looking chap sat tapping on a computer, his words being displayed on a large plasma screen over his head. This was the temporary Writer In Residence, Alain de Botton, and he was writing a book about what airports really are.
The book’s out – and no, I haven’t read it for one pitifully ludicrous reason: I’m savouring the fact that there’s an Alain de Botton book in the world that I haven’t read. It’s a delicious feeling, like the anticipation of dessert or the summer holidays. But since he’s one of my favourite writers, it’s time I stopped fooling around. His previous work awoke my child’s eye, allowing me to question and appreciate all the things rendered invisible by habit, deadened curiosity or sloppy generalization. (You can see his influence on me here). I regard his Art Of Travel as valuable reading not just to travel-writers, but to anyone with a pulse.
The last thing I want to do is label him Important, because that implies stuffiness and the damning authorial status of Oft Quoted, Never Read. No, none of that. His work is wry, sly and gently rebellious. It’s fun. Also – and I’m deeply envious of this – he uses exactly the right words in precisely the right quantities. It’s breathtaking, and sometimes even a little scary (the good kind of scared).
When was the last time you willingly lingered in one? Or a shopping mall? Or a high-rise car park?
The obvious question is “what the hell for?”
Interesting word, “obvious”. The portcullis of our mind has slammed down, well oiled by cultural norms, postmodern fashions and bitter experience. We’ve all had dreadful stays in such places. They’re urban deserts, traversed as quickly as your body will allow, and to tarry is to invite suffering. In airports, there’s the added pressure of a ticking clock. Everything tells you to hurry along and nothing tells you to soak it all in.
Consequently, our minds render them heaving, noisy, lonely and barren.
Upper lip curling, we write them off with a flourish. And I’m fascinated by that – the same way I’m fascinated by certain towns that gain a reputation for awfulness that’s reinforced by people who have never been to them. There’s a sleight of hand here. Something is being hidden.
In his recent World Hum interview, de Botton gives a clue: for starters, we’ve lost the ability to arrive. We reach destinations too quickly and so we underappreciate them as rewards for our efforts, and as places in their own right. They’re merely “on the way” somewhere. When we spend time in them it’s an unwanted event, foisted on us by collapsed schedules, missed connections and stroppy weather – and that makes them undesirable as a destination in themselves.
But beyond that – just how offensive is the average airport? My short spell at Munich Airport was long enough to see that it’s a marvel – and a protracted bout of sweaty, semi-chaotic queueing at Paphos Airport in Cyprus convinced me of the exact opposite. Some are amazing, some are grim – all are different. So why are they generally labelled “bad”?
Perhaps it’s that these places aren’t themselves what dreadful – it’s our relationship to them. Maybe it’s like this: all the places we occupy in the world are inventions (we make them places), and we pin labels to the places we spent time in – but some places, for obscure and complicated reasons, get values attached to them as well. Airports, soulless and horrible; pubs, cosy and charming, and so on. Yet we’ve judged them on all the baggage we brought with us at the time (pub = beer + friends = happiness; airport = remainder of food poisoning from that dodgy kebab + jet lag + ticking clock = abominable). Could that change? Couldn’t airports be like pubs if we neutralised and then tinkered with the way we use them?
The next time you look at a shopping mall or a hotel lobby or a bus station – try taking yourself out of the equation.
In the meantime, I’ll be over here, reading about airports.