Sunday, 17 March 2013

An Extended Prelude

My ridiculous itinerary involves a lot of time on aeroplanes, so I thought it would be fitting to include some books about airports on my list. As it turned out, my first day provided ample time for airport reading and musing, with a six-hour delay at Heathrow leading to a missed connection at Kuala Lumpur. Lucky me.

There are two key problems with books about flying. One: books revolving around aeroplanes and airports tend to focus on their potential as settings for disaster. Not something I particularly want to think about. Two: when nothing is going terribly badly wrong, airports are pretty dull.Nevertheless, I pressed on, and read two books the main purpose of which was to convince me that airports are valuable, interesting places to spend extended amounts of time.

The first was The Textual Life of Airports by Christopher Schaberg. This is a book about "the common stories of airports that circulate in everyday life, and about the secret stories of airports - the disturbing, uncomfortable, or smoothed over tales that lie just beneath the surface of these sites." A noble exercise, but his thesis is a bit confused, and by the end of the book I still wasn't quite sure what he was trying to get at.

On the other hand, A Week at the Airport, by Alain de Botton is a beautiful ode to the airport, taking us from departures to arrivals in a lovely narrative arc. While Schaberg always wants to complicate the airport, adding layers and layers of meaning we didn't (want to) know existed, De Botton points out the simple humanity of the airport that is right in front of us, if only we'd look for it.

Schaberg starts from the position that the airport is a 'non-place' of 'super modernity', where identities are troubled and politicised. In contrast, De Botton is keen to stress that who we are when we're travelling is inseparable from who we are the rest of the time. He illustrates this through the anecdote of an office worker who has been dreaming of his family holiday for months, but has a fight with his wife the night before, and is forced into the "unexpected and troubling realisation: that he was bringing *himself* with him on his holiday." This messes with the idea of the 'gap yah' as a time when you go off to 'find yourself'; as it turns out, you've been there all the time, whether you like it or not.

Schaberg spends a lot of time on the double identity of airports as a place for those on holiday and as a place of work. There are so many layers of everyday activity that go on with passengers barely noticing, until something goes wrong. Like a six hour delay, for example. As I waited in the very long check-in queue with the ranty passengers, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the ground staff; it must be difficult to arrive at work, see that a service is delayed, and know that you're going to spend a considerable portion of your day being yelled at. Spending a week living at the airport, De Botton gets to see the other side of the airport too, and makes this very sensible point on staff-passenger relations:

"However skilfully designed it's incentive structure, the airline could in the end do very little to guarantee that its staff would actually add to their dealings with customers that almost imperceptible measure of good will which elevates service from mere efficiency to tangible warmth... The real origins of these qualities lay... in the loving atmosphere that reigned in a house in Cheshire, where two parents had brought up a future staff member with benevolence and good humour..."

Schaberg points out that the 'textuality' of airports expressed in signs and written instructions codifies the space, making acceptable and appropriate behaviour obvious to all. Which makes the airport sound like a temple of beautiful order, until you miss your connecting flight because you spent five minutes running around a circular terminal following signs for a transfers counter that never materialised. Signs pointing to the trees in the middle of said circular terminal are of no help to me, Kuala Lumpur International.

A lengthy delay also takes the shine off the dream of flying that De Botton is keen to recover; the idea of the airport as a gateway to luxurious "hours in the air free from encumbrance, [feeling] spurred on to formulate hopeful plans for the future by the views of coasts and forests below." At this point you become acutely aware of the fact that De Botton's patron is the airport authority, and the dream he's talking about is the one they're always trying to sell us. Sitting on a hard bench with a very numb bum, I'm struggling to value the airline for "its ability to stir the soul."

But waiting for what De Botton describes as the airport's "emotional climax" makes it a bit more bearable. He very poignantly expresses one of the truly great joys of travelling a long way:

"There is no one, however lonely or isolated, however pessimistic about the human race... who does not in the end expect that someone significant will come to say hello at arrivals... Even if our loved ones have assured us that they will be very busy... it is impossible not to experience a shiver of a sense that they may have come along anyway, just to surprise us (as someone must have done for us when we were small, if only occasionally, or we would never have made it this far)."

And Tammie was there to meet me at the other end.


Botton, Alain, A Week at the Airport (2009)
Schaberg, Christopher The Textual Life of Airports (2012)

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