A Week At The Airport 17.12.09

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Alain de Botton spent a week at Heathrow looking into people's souls. By William Wiles

There is a television programme called Hello Goodbye in which a pretty young presenter lurks near the arrivals or departures gate of Heathrow airport and nods sympathetically as blubbing passers-by tell their tales of reunion and parting. It's nauseating stuff but must have been irresistibly cheap to make. All the film crew needs to do is camp out near the bureau de change and mop up the bitterest and sweetest tears. The airport may be a place designed for the storage of large numbers of bored people, but as the TV producers have found, there's always something interesting going on.

So the omens are both good and bad for A Week At The Airport, a slim book commissioned by airports operator BAA and produced in an incredibly short time by popular philosopher Alain de Botton. He would have no trouble finding things to write about, but this ran the risk of being the thinking man's Hello Goodbye.

De Botton served his week as "writer in residence" at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Sitting at a desk in the middle of Richard Rogers' terminal building, de Botton's "notebooks grew thick with anecdotes of loss, desire and expectation, snapshots of travellers' souls on their way to the skies". The only example of this pursued at length is the kitchen sink drama of David and Louise's dysfunctional marriage, which is as dull as looking at someone else's holiday snaps.

Fortunately, we get little soul-frisking. This intriguing little document is marketing literature, after all, whatever De Botton's protestations of independence. A Week at the Airport takes off when he is taken away from his desk to see the rest of T5, BAA's crown jewel. "Standing before costly objects of technological beauty," de Botton writes, "we might be tempted to to reject the possibility of awe, for fear that we might grow stupid through admiration." Instead, the writer chooses to be awed, and he's right to be. It leads to the best part of the book: in the middle of the night, he is taken out to the end of the south runway and stands reverently on the portion of the tarmac where planes touch down, the focal point of the whole extraordinary enterprise. It's a near-religious site – certainly, more prayers are offered there than in any church in the land.

This enthusiasm – and there are similar moments, such as in the British Airways control room, with its giant map – is great stuff, but it can boil over into a kind of whiggish complacency. In a restaurant in the first class lounge, de Botton is struck by the feeling that all human history and endeavour has been worthwhile because it led to beautiful first-class areas and the opportunity to mingle in them. The astonishing thing about this passage is that it kind of works. The design of these non-places is meant to instil a utopian sense of satisfaction with technological civilisation. They can and should be secular cathedrals.

At their best, anyway. It's entertaining to imagine a parallel book written in the dystopian hellhole that is Terminal 3.

A Week At The Airport, by Alain de Botton, Profile Books, £8.99



William Wiles

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de Botton is struck by the feeling that all human history and endeavour had been worthwhile because it led to beautiful first-class areas and the opportunity to mingle in them

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