My flight from Brisbane to Sydney had been delayed en route, due to 60kph winds at Sydney leaving only one runway operational, and so the plane was directed into a holding pattern. Presumably we were stacked alongside other aircraft, though none were visible.
The Australian landscape had also disappeared surprisingly quickly into the gloom of evening outside the window, a gigantic land mass suddenly and easily secreted away. On take-off from Brisbane an hour earlier, ascending above the mangroves and oil refineries at the mouth of the Brisbane River, the lower stratosphere of South East Queensland had been suffuse with a yellowy haze from the dust storms apparently now firmly ensconced along the east coast. But now the view out of the thick starboard window was complex in composition and banal in content, a multi-layered montage of grime and moisture in the foreground, vast inhuman darkness pocked by the odd spot of light in the background, and my trousers reflected in the cabin reading light somewhere in-between.
The delay, which again reminds me of the brittle nature of the oft-inappropriately-named civil aviation (and the essentially unsustainable nature of domestic commercial aviation in the long run), does however give me enough time to both start and finish Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, his account of spending, well, a week at the airport, as writer-in-residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, courtesy of BAA.
To my mild surprise, I enjoyed it hugely.
I’d picked it up at Brisbane airport’s sorry-excuse-for-a-bookshop, like I had previously picked up Jacques Attali’s A Brief History of the Future and Stephen Carrol’s The Art of the Engine Driver, both of which had also been enjoyable - a decent hit-rate from a poor shop, so far. De Botton’s is a small book, like those I referenced here, and that too was in its favour. (The book is also punctuated by rather nice documentary photographs by Richard Baker.)
I’ve had issues with De Botton’s work in the past, most of which are too nebulous to articulate, or indeed dwell on. But constraining the man in this format - literally constraining him to one location, and then to the format of a short book - seems to have worked. There’s a focus and passion to the writing, at least in his reserved English-Swiss style, that is also insightful and, at a few points, genuinely affecting. It’s also funny.
De Botton can be critiqued for lack of critique. He’s about as far from the ‘intellectual as attack dog’ that you recall Denis Healey’s description of Geoffrey Howe - “like being savaged by a dead sheep” (which would actually be rather unpleasant, when you think about it). Yet behind the pale visage and courteously benign manner there does lurk a subtle critique of sorts. In this context - Heathrow - he repeatedly points out the associated externalities (destruction of green belt, carbon emissions, noise, negative first impressions of Britain, and so on). But they’re expressed as mere descriptors rather than sustained critique. Put simply, he doesn’t stick the boot in and he clearly could’ve done.
Perhaps with this in mind, he addresses the issue of his patron, BAA, right away, and does so carefully, thoughtfully, and with humour. He’s intensely aware of his delicate position here, and the power structures around him. He partly suggests that the new economic reality of the publishing industry has made him consider this alternative, and ancient, business model for the writer - the wealthy patron. I’m not sure that’s relevant - it’s a well-understood model, and we can judge the book on its merits, reading between lines as we see fit. Having been given the green light to say what he likes - and as mentioned above, BAA have chosen a writer that is hardly going to stick the boot in; at worst, a thin smile disguising a delicate stiletto nick - de Botton would clearly jump at the chance of this commission.
And who wouldn’t? Airports are fascinating places, and emblematic tokens of our civilisation. This last year has been a year of flying for me. I’ve probably done over 2000 km per week for the last year, on average (with an appropriately hideous carbon footprint as a result) and so I’ve overly familiar with certain of these spaces. But curiously, I still enjoy them, as places. They perform a compression of so many things the experience is both everyday (almost) and surreal simultaneously.
And de Botton picks apart that paradox from almost every angles one can imagine. In fact, his starting point is that the airport is essentially the emblematic human structure:
“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 - then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.”
A Week at the Airport is not as learned or as deep as David Pascoe’s rich cultural audit Airspaces (part of the brilliant Topographics series). Then again, it’s not one quarter as long. But Pascoe’s book does dwell on a figure that is absent at the feast here. The one figure who would really explore a space such as this, suggesting its essence through an entirely different mode, and thus via all the angles one would not imagine. A figure whose relatively recent absence is felt all the more keenly when reading this book.
“In Ballard’s utopian vision, even the curtain-walling of the terminal buildings and the multi-storey car-parks behind them belonged to an enchanted domain; such houses ‘of glass, of flight and possibility’ are, according to the narrator (whose surname happens to be Ballard), ‘the departure point for our own lives and deaths’. Almost a quarter of a century later, this stark view of airspace seems unchanged: ‘Airports and airfields have always held a special magic, gateways to the infinite possibilities that only the sky can offer.’” [From Airspaces, by David Pascoe]
Anyway. Back down to earth, and de Botton’s book will have to suffice.
A few notes and quotes.
A central theme is the (accurate, I think) impression that few industries are as “vulnerable to disaster” as commercial aviation, but that this leads essentially to a kind of pervasive frustration running through much of the experience. Here, the business simply cannot win. It is perpetually teetering on the the edge of delivering failure. All that changes is the scale of ‘disaster’. The fact that you’ve been delivered safely to and from 25000 feet is conveniently ignored by passengers in favour of being miffed by the size of the taxi queue, or by being infuriated by a mildly officious attendant at the check-in desk, or sitting for hours on the runway due to pre-departure engine failure at Bangkok, or by one’s luggage flying to Belgrade while you fly to Buenos Aires. Focusing on these smaller ‘disasters’ is perhaps a way of dealing with the extreme nature of the experience of flying, and the everyday aversion of real disaster by these incredible systems of technology and people. The whole act is too surreal to think too deeply about - so people don’t, generally rejecting thoughts about how precariously they’re travelling by distracting themselves with the more mundane and everyday breakdowns in a system that’s far too complex to run smoothly. (This perhaps necessary obfuscation is also why Brian Eno’s Music for Airports will rarely actually be played at airports.)
He is particularly good on the peculiar sense of pervasive yet largely internalised tension created by the emotional and psychological pressures of airports. He makes a series of acute observations predicated on this interplay between banal environment and heightened emotional intensity. Perhaps it’s that the situations are indeed essentially emotionally intense, often being a series of greetings and goodbyes, set to the backdrop of persistent minor failures of complex systems amidst the possibility of major disasters. It’s quite a brew. De Botton wryly skewers this extraordinary emotional confection, describing the long goodbyes of couples or the simmering cauldrons that are families on holiday.
“We may spend the better part of our professional lives projecting strength and toughness, but we are all in the end creatures of appalling fragility and vulnerability. Out of the millions of people we live among, most of whom we habitually ignore and are ignored by in turn, there are always a few who hold hostage our capacity for happiness, whom we could recognise by their smell alone and whom we would rather die than be without. There were men pacing impatiently and blankly who had looked forward to this moment for half a year and could not restrain themselves any further at the sight of a small boy endowed with their own grey-green eyes and their mother’s cheeks, emerging from behind the stainless-steel gate, holding the hand of an airport operative.”
Oddly, given de Botton’s various stated predilections there is comparatively little direct focus on the architecture. (Just as a visit to British Airways’ Customer Experience Division reveals less than I’d hoped.) He doesn’t ignore it, several times pausing to praise the immense interior and its engineering (by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and — disclosure alert — Arup et al), but he doesn’t really take it apart spatially for us.
Nevertheless, he does offer a lovely, hopeful point about the function of the architecture to stamp a version of Britain onto visitors’ minds.
“The structure was proposing a new idea of Britain, a country that would be reconciled to technology, that would no longer be in thrall to its past, that would be democratic, tolerant, intelligent, playful and lacking in spite or irony. All this was a simplification, of course: twenty kilometres to the west and north were tidy hamlets and run-down estates that would once have contravened any of the suggestions encoded in the terminal’s walls and ceilings.
Nevertheless, like Geoffrey Bawa’s Parliament in Colombo or Jørn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, Richard Rogers’s Terminal 5 was applying the prerogative of all ambitious architecture to create rather than merely reflect an identity. It hope to use the hour or so when passengers were within its space — objectively, to have their passports stamped and to recover their luggage — to define what the United Kingdom might one day become, rather than what it too often is.”
This is a fine assessment of an ambitious architecture: ambition explored in terms of attempted strategic aspiration rather than simple programme or form.
There’s a fascinating note on the entire point of civil aviation - and how simple economic measurement is not a ‘fair’ judge of the business, as if it were almost an art-form instead. This comes during a chat with Wille Walsh, CEO of British Airways. Perhaps his artwork had begun to leak and engulf his entire surroundings by this point; in a peculiarly infrastructural case of Stockholm syndrome.
"Considered collectively, as a cohesive industry, civil aviation has never in its history shown a profit. Just as significantly, neither had book publishing. In this sense, then, the CEO and I, despite our apparent differences, were in much the same sort of business, each one needing to justify itself in the eyes of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul. It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to the profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements. The stock market could never put an accurate price on the thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline’s banner: it could not describe the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong King ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenalin thrill of take-off.”
As someone fascinated by measurement - or value - of non-quantatitative experiential criteria - such as the urban experience - I whole-heartedly agree, particularly as I spend so much time flying over Oceania, with the aforementioned dust clouds over South-East Queensland coast, the peculiar terra-forming of the Gold Coast, the drab brown wrinkles of Victorian terrain, the startling skeins of Sydney harbour and the wriggle of the Parramatta river.
Yet this is also overly-romantic tosh, for if this were the case, and airlines were more akin to literature or equivalent, then surely airlines would offer a far more interesting experience. The problem with civil aviation - one of them - is that it is run as a business to a very tight profit-and-loss statement, and so tends to cut as many corners as possible. It’d be fascinating to idly speculate how, over and above a baseline of completely safe operation, civil aviation would be a different experience if it were seen as a subsidised art form. Something more akin to the Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey perhaps …
Some general asides occur, including this one on how productively he was able to work at a nondescript desk installed in the middle of the the busy departure hall. As a fan of working in public spaces like libraries and cafes, I wholeheartedly agree with the following:
“Objectively good spaces to work rarely end up being so; in their faultlessness, quiet and well-equipped studios have a habit of rendering the fear of failure overwhelming. Original thoughts are like shy animals. We sometimes have to look the other way - towards a busy street or terminal - before they run out of their burrows.”
On the influence of literature on essence of place, while browsing in WH Smith:
“Milan Kundera was being suggested as a guide to Prague, and Raymond Carver depended upon to reveal the hidden character of the small towns between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. Oscar Wilde once remarked that there had been less fog in London before James Whistler started to paint, and one wondered if the silence and sadness of isolated towns in the American West had not been similarly less apparent before Carver began to write.”
My own impressions of T5 tally with de Botton’s to a large extent, for what it’s worth. It’s an impressive space, and generally beautifully equipped. Some rough edges - as it’s not actually Munich or Tokyo - but essentially it does single-handedly lift Heathrow from one of the worst cultural assimilation experiences in the world, to one of the better ones. However, to me, the retail mix seemed entirely out of kilter with the times, as I briefly noted before. I remember gawping at unit after unit of Prada, Harrods; Dior; Mappin & Webb; Gucci, Mont Blanc; Smythson; Tiffany & Co and the like. All predictably empty; nothing in the middle range.
De Botton does talk about retail, and the considerable amount of retail that T5 entails:
“…(M)ore than one hundred separate retail outlets vied for the attention of travellers - a considerably greater number than were to be found in the average shopping centre. This statistic regularly caused critics to complain that Terminal 5 was more like a mall than an airport, though it was hard to determine what might be so wrong with this balance, what precise aspect of the building’s essential aeronautic identity had been violated or even what specific pleasures had been robbed of, given that we are inclined to visit malls even when they don’t provide us with the additional pleasure of a gate to Johannesburg.”
(I don’t like lazy use of ‘we’ in that last sentence.) But fair enough. Yet those complaints are actually quite straightforward, and perhaps the converse of what de Botton says I.e. there is no particular connection between flying and retail either. Hence the odd fit. De Botton does actually get to the bottom of this, in his own way, after an observation on religion, a chat with the airport priest, and by once again invoking the ever-present potential of imminent death. He suspects that duty free shopping bags are the last things one wants to surround oneself with when “setting thy house in order” before dying; that it might reveal an uncomfortable truth about the role of consumption in contemporary society - that we should place retail at the heart of what might be a final resting place; that the act of flying is a near divine, eternal experience. It’s a morbid, elegiac thought, and hardly one that will consciously run through the retail planners at BAA, but perhaps at the heart of this almost subconscious discomfort.
Lest you imagine him tramping around in a post-consumerist rage, on the very next page de Botton succumbs to the pleasures of the terminal’s first class lounge - the Concorde Room, presumably named without irony - which he describes as “humblingly and thought-provokingly nicer than anywhere else I had ever seen at an airport, and perhaps in my life.”
Finally, de Botton reflects again on his project:
“I worried that I might never have another reason to leave the house. I felt how hard it is for writers to look beyond their domestic experience. I dreamt of other possible residencies in institutions central to modern life - banks, nuclear power stations, governments, old people’s homes - and of a kind of writing that could report on the world while still remaining irresponsible, subjective and a bit peculiar.”
I like this last phrase, reminding me as it does of the work of some of my favourite writers. De Botton’s not in that list, yet, but this small book is peppered with interesting thoughts, observations and references nonetheless, not all of which I agree with or find resonant but which spurred numerous thoughts of my own, and continue to do so.
I said farewell to my family at Sydney airport today, as they went up to Brisbane for a few days, and felt the acute and immediate longing and loss that is occurring right now to people at airports all over the world. I’m getting on a plane tomorrow morning to fly to Hong Kong and then Beijing, where I expect to discover a quite different airport experience altogether.