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Via One-Way Street, Bob McCrum on Alain de Botton’s new gig in the Guardian:

De Botton has taken quite a bit of flak for this assignment, and no doubt some of the abuse will be reheated and thrown at him all over again when his book comes out later this month, but what’s his crime ? Why shouldn’t he accept the BAA shilling? Sure, it’s not Proust or Happiness (two of the themes he has so successfully made his own), but it’s not pornography or racism, either, and – why the hell not? It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the challenge of a seemingly impossible task of writing about check-ins, fast bag drop and airport security. Dickens, no question, would have had a lot of fun with BAA.

Alain de Botton is not Dickens, but in taking this job, he is behaving like a very traditional literary animal. I’m sure there are many other examples of the resilience of literary life in the new world of cyber-publishing, but these three, coming together, do seem to make a trend

Just to be clear, and especially for the benefit of non-UK readers, BAA is a company that owns many of the privatized airports in Britain. It’s neither British Airways (itself privatized in 1987, under Thatcher) nor is it a public entity. It’s owned by the Spanish company Grupo Ferrovial, world-leaders in managing (mismanaging?) formerly public infrastructure. Even the BAA’s name is misleading. While it originally, while still public, stood for “British Airports Authority,” the company now claims that the letters don’t stand for anything at all. In other words, it pays to impersonate a public authority.

Notably BAA has of late been involved in a protracted PR / legal war with climate protestors (actually, the Climate Camp people) who’d rather BAA wasn’t permitted to build a third runway at Heathrow. It’s impossible not to see the De Botton book as the product of some PR firm’s mid-to-highbrow targetted re-branding campaign. Ah, BAA – patrons of the arts, patrons of the nice guy who writes about Proust. And in fact, if the whole thing calls to mind anything, it is a post-privatised version of this wondrous thing:

But of course, Auden and Britten were actually working for the GPO Film Unit when they made Night Mail, and of course again, this was long before the GPO was split into a million privatized and semi-privatized pieces by, yep, Thatcher.

This, of course, is mostly just politics talking, but in my ideal world, not only would Alain de Botton not be shilling CO2 for BAA, but there’d be no BAA Ltd., only the old, public BAA. There’s been a little spate of public organizations going into the publishing business lately, mainly as a sort of fund raising scheme. (I’ve not started reading, but will treasure for a long time, my Royal Parks boxed set of short stories, which I purchased at place I’ve been coming to, albeit far more frequently of late, since the mid-1980s, the restaurant at the end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park…) It’s very very red, but I’m not sure the general decline of prose fiction couldn’t be reversed if all prose was commissioned and paid for by entities like Transport for London and the NHS, the US Mail and, christ, the IRS. At some point (promissory, promissory – forgive me, for I am soooo tired), I’ll try to write about the aesthetic effect that such a development might possibly have.

On the other hand, what De Botton’s up to is just what it is – providing a profit hungry corporation with a bit of good PR, all dressed up as if it were simply a matter of one of the purest things on earth – infrastructural enthusiasm.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 1, 2009 at 11:34 pm

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