TFT Exclusive Excerpt: Alain de Botton Reports Live from Heathrow
9/24. UPDATED Editor’s Note: In the latter part of August, best-selling author and TFT contributor Alain de Botton began his newest work, reporting live from BAA Heathrow, telling the airport’s stories in real time, as the the first writer-in-residence at an airport in the history of the world. The book, which is available today on September 24, 2009, is called A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. TFT received and posted below an exclusive excerpt directly from Alain as he wrote the project in realtime. Check it out again:
In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. Their wings unfolded themselves into elaborate and unlikely arrangements of irregularly sized steel gray panels. Having avoided the earth for so long, wheels that had last touched the ground in San Francisco or Mumbai hesitated and slowed almost to a standstill as they arched and prepared to greet the rubber-stained English tarmac with a burst of smoke that made manifest their planes’ speed and weight.
With the aggressive whistling of their engines, the airborne visitors appeared to be rebuking this domestic English morning for its somnolence. They were like a delivery person who cannot resist pushing a little too insistently and vengefully on the door bell of a still-slumbering household. All around them, the M4 corridor was waking up reluctantly. There were kettles being switched on in Reading, suits being ironed in Slough, children unfurling themselves beneath their Thomas the Tank Engine duvets in Staines.
Yet for the passengers in the 747 now nearing the airfield, the day was already well advanced. Many would have woken up several hours before to catch their plane crossing over Thurso at the northernmost tip of Scotland, a remote-sounding destination for those in London’s suburbs, but like the doorstep after a journey over the Canadian icelands and the moonlit northern pole. Breakfast would have kept time with the airliner’s progress down the spine of the kingdom: a struggle with a small box of cornflakes over Edinburgh, an omelette studded with red peppers and mushroom near Newcastle, a stab at a peculiar looking fruit yogurt over the unknowing Yorkshire Dales. Just past Birmingham, the cabin crew’s smiles would have started to grow strained as they hurried to clear away the trays in time to a series of messages from the cockpit about conditions on the ground, the weather usually being of more concern to pilots than to their passengers, or else just a way for them to make their existence briefly evident to those on whose behalf they have toiled for so long in a narrow cockpit illuminated by vigilantly glowing instruments.
Some passengers would be searching for their in-flight magazines with a new urgency, attempting to picture how they might make their way out of the labyrinth awaiting them below; sensing how close they were to being left behind by the staff whose occasionally abrupt and matronly ministrations they had felt superior to upon boarding but on which they had come to rely during the turbulent night to London.
Yet by now the cabin crew’s thoughts would be drifting elsewhere, perhaps towards their selection of unusual textiles or cutlery sets acquired in a faraway mall. There would be a distracted look in their eyes as they watched passengers clumsily opening up their travel documents, dropping flurries of receipts and cards, and asking questions as to the possible location of the departure gate for the morning’s Dubai flight — a matter for someone else now, a bother too far after dispensing the hundredth tomato juice with ice and lemon.
For the British Airways planes approaching Terminal 5, this was a return to their home base, like the final run up the Plymouth Sound for their eighteenth century naval predecessors. Having long been guests on foreign aprons, allotted awkward and remote slots at O’Hare or LAX, lost in boastfully long lines of United and Delta aircraft, it was now their turn to have the superiority of numbers and line up in perfect symmetry along the back of satellite B.
Sibling 747s that had only recently been separated out across the world parked wing tip to wing tip, Johannesburg next to Delhi, Sydney next to Phoenix. Repetition lent their fuselage designs a new beauty; the eye could follow an identical sequence of motifs down a fifteen-strong line of dolphin-like white bodies, the resulting aesthetic effect only enhanced by the knowledge that each had cost some 250 million dollars, and that what lay before one was therefore a symbol not just of the modern era’s daunting technical intelligence but also of its prodigious and inconceivable wealth.
As every plane took up its position, a choreographed dance began. A passenger walkway rolled forward and closed its rubber mouth in a hesitant kiss over the forward left-hand door. A member of the ground staff tapped at the window, a colleague inside released the airlock and the two airline personnel exchanged a brief and uninterested hello, the sort of casual greeting one might have expected between office workers returning to adjacent desks after lunch, rather than the encomium that would more fittingly have marked the end of an 11,000 kilometre journey from the other side of the globe. Then again, we are unlikely to hear anything more loquacious in the next century when, at the close of a nine-month journey, our shuttle docks in the eerie red midday light at a spaceport in Mars’s Cydonian hills and a fellow Homo Sapiens knocks at the gold-tinted window of our craft.
* * *
Some lovers were parting. She must have been twenty, he a few years older. Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was in her bag. They had oversize sunglasses and had come of age in the period between SARS and swine flu. They were dressed casually in combat trousers and T-shirts. It was the intensity of their kiss that first attracted my attention, but what had seemed like passion from afrar was revealed at closer range to be unusual devastation. She was shaking with sorrowful disbelief, he was cradling her in his arms, stroking her short blonde hair, in which a hairclip in the shape of a tulip had been fastened. Repeatedly, they would look into each other’s eyes and then, as though thereby made newly aware of the catastrophe about to befall them, she would begin weeping once more.
People were passing and evincing sympathy. It helped that the woman was extraordinarily beautiful. I missed her already. She could not have been unaware of her appearance. It would have been a significant part of her identity from the age of twelve and, as if in its honour, she would occasionally pause to look at the effect of her grief on members of her audience before, reassured by their intense curiosity, returning to the dampness of her lover’s chest.
We might have been ready to offer sympathy, but in actuality, there were stronger reasons to want to congratulate her for having such a powerful cause to feel sad. We should have envied her for having located someone without whom she so firmly felt she could not survive, to the gate let alone to a bare student bedroom in a suburb of Beijing. If she been able to view her situation from a sufficient distance, she might have been able to consider it as the high point of her life.
There seemed no end to the ritual. The pair would come close to the security zone, then break down again and retreat for another walk around the terminal. At one point, they went down to arrivals and it seemed as if they might join the taxi rank, but they merely bought a packet of dried mango slices from M&S, which they fed to one other with pastoral innocence. Then, in the middle of an embrace by the Travelex desk, the beauty looked down at her watch and, with the self-control of Odysseus negotiating the Sirens, ran away from her tormentor down the corridor behind a screen towards the security line and the gates.
The photographer and I divided forces. I went airside and observed her remaining stoic until the concourse, then foundering again at the window of Kurt Geiger. I lost her in a crowd of French exchange students near Sunglass Hut. Richard pursued the man down to the Heathrow Express, but so great were the crowds there, he was unable to secure a steady picture of him. The object of adoration boarded the train for central London, where he sat impassively staring out of the window, the only sign of emotion an unusual juddering movement in his left leg.
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