A Week at the Airport, By Alain de Botton

Terminal Five pushes De Botton

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Wednesday 02 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Admirers of the genial equipoise that Alain de Botton brings to his journeys behind the surface of everyday life have long suspected that he breathes a purer air than the rest of us. So it proves at the outset of this shrewd, perceptive and gently ironic record of the week he spent as a writer in residence at Heathrow's Terminal Five. Our favourite philosopher admits that he often longs "for my plane to be delayed" to secure more airport-haunting time. That craving places him in a perverse minority smaller than that of travellers who actively look forward to the in-flight meals prepared at Gate Gourmet's kitchens: one of several access- restricted sites he visits to show us that "behind each successful flight lay the coordinated efforts of hundreds of souls".

With Richard Baker's photographs in support of the words, we witness tearful departures and ecstatic arrivals, the bliss – or panic – of travellers and the boredom – or satisfication – of staff. Mundane routines intersect with heightened passions in this palace of thresholds, where "notions of the divine, the eternal and the significant accompany us covertly to our craft".

At de Botton's T5, banality and sublimity circle in a perpetual holding pattern. A weeping couple pause to buy some M&S mango slices. The scream of a tardy Tokyo-bound passenger turned away at check-in evokes Seneca's suggestion that "the root cause of anger is hope".

And late night, in the hotel bar, a Belle de Jour moment unfolds as the Polish postgrad explaining her thesis on Romantic literature turns out to be waiting for an engineer who comes to London for cancer treatment; the young thinker is also "registered with an agency, which had a head office in Hayes". Creatures of earth and air, fear and hope, soaring minds and grounded bodies, the human traffic through T5 allows de Botton to deliver, in a compact portion with first-class ingredients, "a kind of writing that could report on the world while still remaining irresponsible, subjective and a bit peculiar".

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in