Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My week: Alain De Botton
Heathrow’s new author in residence enjoys a smooth takeoff, despite the distractions
From The Times.

The week begins with a trip to my new home and office, terminal 5 at Heathrow. I have agreed to take up a post as a writer in residence.
My desk is positioned near the entrance, opposite check-in post D16.
I am regularly taken to be airport staff, fielding inquiries such as the way to the Vat desk, the cashpoint and (twice) a condom machine.
Only when a woman who has missed her Nairobi flight starts to pound my desk and accuse me of theft and double-dealing do I gently refer her to a colleague.
Still, it’s a good place to write. Here, a writer’s desk seems to be an invitation to offload stories — quite soon, it turns into a confessional booth.
There is a man who is going on a last holiday in Bali with his wife before she succumbs to brain cancer. She is in a wheelchair and has complicated breathing apparatus. At 49, she was entirely healthy until April when she complained of a headache.
Another man explains that he has been visiting his family in London — and has another one in Los Angeles ignorant of the first. He has five children and two mothers-in-law but his face bears none of the strains.

On Tuesday I am shown around the security department and spot two beautiful young women who might be students on an internship programme. I smile at them in the hope of making them feel welcome, so they come over to say hello and introduce themselves as senior security officers. They are responsible for training security staff at the terminal, instructing teams in how to disarm a terrorist and what position to adopt if a grenade is thrown.Their interest in anti-terrorism colours their lives. In their spare time they read all the available literature on hijacks and terrorism in airports over the past 40 years. One expresses a particular fascination for Operation Thunderball at Entebbe in 1976, but the other protests that the incident lacks the deeper resonance of her favourite, the Hindawi affair, where a Syrian man, Nezar Hindawi, gave a bag of Semtex to Anne Marie Murphy, his pregnant Irish girlfriend, and asked her to board an El Al aircraft alone, promising to join her in Israel a few weeks later.

I bump into two clergymen on Wednesday outside a perfume shop. The elder, the Rev John Sturdy, is in a high-visibility jacket with the word “airport priest” printed on the back. In his late sixties, he has a vast ecclesiastical beard and gold-rimmed spectacles. His delivery is impressively slow, like that of a scholar who is never able to lose sight of nuances.
“What do people tend to come and ask you?” I ask outside an outlet of Reiss. There is a long pause before he answers: “They come to me when they are lost.” My mind turns to consider the varieties of ways in which we can forget our spiritual bearings in a heedless world. “What might they be feeling lost about?” I ask.“Oh,” sighs the reverend, “they are almost always looking for the toilet.”

On Thursday I have a meeting with Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways. It is a rocky moment in the airline’s history. Civil aviation has, collectively, never made a profit. But, just as importantly, nor has literature. In this sense, Walsh and I, despite our apparent differences, are in similar businesses, ones that must ultimately justify themselves not so much by their financial results as by their capacity to touch our souls. It would be as absurd to evaluate an airline by its balance sheet as to judge a poet by her tax returns.
The stock market cannot possibly price the thousand moments of beauty and interest that daily occur around the world under an airline’s aegis: the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, the ecstasy of takeoff, a glimpse of the curvature of the Earth over the Pacific.Walsh is inspiringly philosophical about his airline’s situation. It’s like golf, he tells me. He’ll try to win with every fibre of his being, but if he doesn’t, he isn’t — as is more my style — going to throw down his clubs on the putting green and start to cry.

On Friday the journalist Terence Blacker accuses me of having sold out to dark commercial forces for having accepted an invitation to study and write about Heathrow. The truth is infinitely more worrying. Such is my interest in airports, like the half a dozen or so plane spotters permanently camped outside terminal 5, I would have done this for free.

If you missed my post last week about Alain's appointment as writer-in-residence at Heathrow then link here. I reckon the resulting book is going to be a cracker!

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