Most people desire to leave airports rather than stay in them. They are points of departure and arrival, not places of long residencies and contemplation. There are, of course, exceptions. Figures such as the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti might well have approved of such places of momentum and machinery, given the views expressed in The Futurist Manifesto of 1909. This week, philosopher Alain de Botton has busied himself with discharging his book contract as Heathrow’s writer-in-residence, jotting down his observations in what was intended to be a $59,375 contract to write 20,000 words. The airport authorities will, in time, distribute 10,000 free copies of the opus.
Heathrow’s Terminal 5 has proven at stages to be a bureaucratic nightmare, a monstrous series of measures and devices that have led to passenger delays and baggage losses. Naturally, these have been dismissed in favour of boisterous nationalist rhetoric: the terminal is Europe’s most advanced, and that’s the end of that. But just to be on the safe side, the authorities have employed a writer to purify the tarnished image and render it new for sceptical passengers.
Is it possible to find, in the sense the Futurists might have intended, something poetic, cultural and worthwhile in Heathrow? If Marinetti could write with erotic intensity about savouring “a mouthful of strengthening muck” from a factory gutter that “recalled the black teat” of his Sudanese nurse, why not Botton over queues, baggage queues and announcements? “I love transport, I love aeroplanes. It is the opposite of routine, even when it goes wrong.” That may well be true for the untested traveller, virgin to airports and flight travel. It hardly applies to the frequent traveller, in which the very act of travel has become the carbon imprint of routine. If no one exhibits much surprise at a desk-bound person in the middle of a departure hall writing his observations about them, it’s probably because no one particularly cares. We are desperate to eventually get on that plane with the hope of getting off it, and not particularly thrilled to be jammed in a queue or deprived of our luggage.
There is little doubt that Botton’s smooth style has been employed to enhance Heathrow’s tattered reputation. He has exerted the writer’s prerogative to be free: “Right from the start I said I can only do this if you don’t even see the text before it goes to print … They just took a big gulp and then, to their credit, they said, ‘Fine, yes, you can say anything you want’.” Botton has promised to spare nothing and no one. Should a cockroach leave its precarious, defaming mark on Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant in the terminal, Botton shall be entitled to write about it. “No lawyers,” he assures us all, “are allowed to vet it.”
Do words get lost in transit? We should hope not. Alain de Botton is spare with his words, supremely economic with the way he pens them. It would be a pity to see them lost in the carousels or on trips he hopes to undertake during his stay. That said, what does this notion of naked patronage say about the arts? In one way, nothing new. Terminal 5 and the British Airport Authority remind one of papal patronage of such artists as Titian or the Soviet state’s employment of artists. Art can flourish at the end of a state or corporate-sponsored contract, though it comes with caveats. More recently, the world of the advertisement and the pen of the novelist combined forces — Fay Weldon’s bedding of the jewellery firm Bulgari in her 2001 novel, The Bulgari Connection was the most blatant form of this union.
That said, the freedom to write anything at all is not a suggestion for independence from BAA. A representative from Heathrow’s publicity machine might well claim that Botton bit their “arms off” in seeking the deal, but in these situations, it is not always clear who is doing the biting. We know exactly where the money is coming from, and what it’s going into.
Whether A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary germinates a new literature is itself questionable. Extolling the virtues of technology, machinery and travel is something that was done with intensity in the last century. But a poetics of machinery and process tends to invert itself: ultimately, it is simply men and women investing false virtues in the inanimate.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.