De Botton reflects on life at London's Heathrow

Richard Baker

During the summer Swiss author Alain de Botton spent a week at Britain's newest passenger hub, Terminal 5, as Heathrow airport's first ever writer-in-residence.

This content was published on October 14, 2009 minutes

His time spent in full view of passengers and staff would provide material for a book just published called A Week at the Airport – A Heathrow Diary. De Botton spoke to about the unique experience.

De Botton, a popular philosopher and the author of The Art of Travel, had unprecedented access to all parts of the airport - groundside and airside, as well as back rooms where pilots pick up their route maps and engineers work through the night rigorously checking the aircraft for any faults.

He spoke with everyone from flight crews to shoe polishers, from catering staff to security officers. During the week was there anything in particular that struck you about the way people travel?

Alain de Botton: I think what struck me most of all is that travellers when they go into an airport are leaving behind everything that's familiar. To arrive in an airport is to be cut off from even your own country. You're in this intermediate zone – it doesn't belong anywhere, it just belongs to the land of airports. And that frightens a lot of people and people respond to that fear in different ways.

It might explain odd patterns of behaviour at the airport: why people who are parting at the departure gate are incredibly tender and gentle with each other in a way they might not be in the ordinary run of their lives; why some people suddenly start to pray; become noisy; or simply start to shop and eat. What sort of role have airports played in your life?

A.d.B.: Airports for me were always incredibly emotional places, because I left Switzerland to go to boarding school in England when I was eight. So I travelled with a plastic pouch around my neck with "Unaccompanied Minor" stamped all over it and with my passport and ticket inside.

I hated having to go to school, so the journey between Zurich and London was terribly emotional and the arrival at Heathrow was horrific. It was the beginning of going back to prison basically. But similarly the reverse journey, arriving at Heathrow to go back to Switzerland was terribly exciting, as this was the journey back home to paradise. Sitting at your desk in the departures hall of Terminal 5, pulling together material for your book in full view of passengers and staff, did you find yourself slipping back into you as a child, or you as a young man travelling?

A.d.B.: I think the interesting thing about airports is that for everybody who uses them there is an element of personal nostalgia, because they remind you of all the airports and all the different moments you've ever been through.

By the time we reach a certain age we've all had a level of experience at airports - the teenage romance; the goodbye scene; travelling abroad with your family for the first time. They're all there I suppose and that's why it's easy to fall into daydreams at the airport and remember the good and the bad trips and where you are in life's journey. Did you find it easy approaching people and getting them to tell you their personal stories?

A.d.B.: I actually found a lot of people would come to me and tell their stories, so that my desk almost became a confessional.

There were many poignant stories. A man told me he was going on a trip of a lifetime and he gave a wry smile. And I said, "Oh that's wonderful." And he said, "Well no, my wife will be dead soon but we've decided to put all our savings into a trip." His wife was out of earshot in a wheelchair strapped to a tank of oxygen watching over the luggage. She had brain cancer and they were going off on, as he put it, "a trip of a lifetime to Bali". Did you ever think that your position as writer-in-residence at Terminal 5 and the publicity surrounding it could be construed as a blatant PR exercise for Heathrow Airport, rather than simply an observation of modern day travel?

A.d.B.: Yes, I was the guest of Heathrow Airport, and as a guest there's an impulse certainly not to be nasty. But for me as a writer it felt important to say whatever I felt like saying, which I did. And some of what I wrote I think the airport's thinking, "Hmm, I'm not sure I like that bit." But, you know, they've been grown-up about it. This is not Soviet Russia. They realise if they are going to invite somebody to write, that person is going to write whatever they want to write.

There were comments about the environmental impact of flying and about some of the working conditions. It's all part of the reality. I think at the end of the day the issues are fairly well known and easy to imagine. It wasn't as if I was breaking new ground. What were some of the highlights of your week as writer-in-residence at Terminal 5?

A.d. B.: I think it was doing things I normally couldn't get to do. I went and spent time at Gate Gourmet, the Swiss-owned company that makes eighty thousand meals daily for all the aircraft out of Heathrow. And you get these long runways of trays and robots and people, mostly from Southeast Asia and the Baltic states, who are constructing the meals that in a few hours will be eaten by somebody in the skies above without any thought of the person who had made it.

I'll also always remember being taken out at the end of the day for the runway inspection. Every night after 11 o'clock once the airport has closed a guy goes out in a jeep with a powerful lamp and just scours the runways for stray bits of metal. They turn off most of the lights and suddenly Heathrow seems like farmland. There were foxes in the grass and mice and you had this wonderful sense that Heathrow had never happened.

Andrew Littlejohn in London,

Alain de Botton

Born in Zurich in 1969, he is the author of the best-selling Status Anxiety, about our desire to climb the social ladder and our worries about what others think of us, and The Art of Travel, which explores the meaning of travel.

Alain de Botton made headlines recently after launching into an extraordinary internet rage following a bad review of his book, The Pleasures of Sorrow and Work by New York Times critic Caleb Crain.

De Botton lost his temper while blogging Crain, telling him: "I will hate you until the day I die". The offending review described de Botton as being condescending, mean-spirited and spiteful. The author accused Crain of having "now killed my book in the US, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900-word review". de Botton has since clarified why he made such comments and clearly regrets his outburst.

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