The answer is Heathrow Airport’s newest terminal, as seen through the eyes of Alain de Botton, who agreed over the summer to become its first writer in residence. It was a brave task to take on; not only could the result have been very dull but de Botton could have felt bound to be nice. Instead he has produced a work which will do no harm to his reputation for thought-provoking reportage. This slim book is simultaneously poignant and terribly funny, thanks to de Botton’s knack of seeing the philosophical in the mundane and not being afraid to play up the incongruity. It is snobbish, too, but its targets are never the hardworking airport employees. Rather he aims his satire at pricking the bubbles of corporate grandiosity — and at himself.
One of de Botton’s revelations is that the private area reserved for first-class passengers is not, as one might have imagined, horribly naff, but ‘humblingly and thought-provokingly nicer than anywhere else I had ever seen at an airport, and perhaps in my life’. This is not thanks to its faux-marble fireplaces and leather armchairs, but because it encapsulates perfectly the ‘end of the pursuit of wealth, power and pre-eminence’ as described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: ‘To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation.’
Likewise, the airport’s beauty bar makes de Botton think not of bronzing creams but of Bach’s Cantata 106: ‘Set thy house in order / For thou shalt die / And not remain alive.’ As de Botton points out, air travel is not particularly dangerous any more, but we humans cannot help but worry that we may fall out of the sky.
Elsewhere, he is less pretentious. His description of the windowless warehouse where ‘twenty thousand cutlets’ are prepared simultaneously for in-flight trays will do more to turn you off your next aeroplane lunch than anything put about by animal rights campaigners.
Perhaps the book’s best passage is the result of an interview with Willie Walsh, the boss of British Airways, which de Botton was at first reluctant to conduct. They get along so well theorising about the poetry of aviation that Walsh drops his guard and becomes an overgrown schoolboy playing with a giant model plane. Then the encounter goes wrong: de Botton suggests that he might one day assume the role of Writer in Residence on a flight and Walsh — either because he fears that he is being mocked or because he is terrified that he is being felt up for a free ticket — brings their meeting to an immediate close and summons security.
It is a pity Walsh did not jump at the idea: he might have found himself responsible for de Botton’s most imaginative work yet.