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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.

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September 1, 2009 at 11:34 pm

20 Responses

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  1. Aside from the general absurdity of the Guardian quote, he is quite right to place Botton in some kind of tradition. It’s like the feudal system of noble patronage is returning under the name of the New Public, ie, brands, companies, bureaucracies.

    I’m not quite sure I’d agree it’s a good thing, if history is any guide here — while patronage was responsible for a lot of the really good work of, say, the Renaissance, it ends up blighting otherwise solid pieces of work with its demands of being given a favorable depiction. The example that sticks in my mind is one canto from the Gerusalemme Liberata, where Tasso inexplicably launches into a full taxonomy of one hero’s lineage, connecting it to his patron, and places this right before the narrative’s apex. These little required scenes are a genre of their own, and a ruinous one at that. I imagine an emergence of something resembling literary product placement: a short story praising the low prices and wide seats of an airline, a novel about a young woman who wins the lottery and marries a selfish communist sympathizer, an epic about tourists lost in a foreign land returning to their own by the graces of a rental car company, etc.

    For all of the general shittiness of capitalism and the problems with the publishing industry, it remains that this supposed meritocracy (really, anything but, but that’s another story) does give some measurable amount of freedom in writing. I can’t help but thinking that, allowed to develop in accordance with the profit motive, patronization of writers by multinationals can only lead to aesthetic ugliness, or, at the very least, uninteresting-ness.


    September 2, 2009 at 12:34 am

  2. “it’s not pornography”

    Now that would be an interesting industry for Alain to observe and report upon. Exclusive extract:

    “The ripples beneath her thighs excited me in a way I had not felt since seeing my first electricity pylon all those years ago. Her soft rhythmic moans washed around me like the sound of distant wind turbines on a bright autumn day.”

    Heck, I’d buy it.


    September 2, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  3. w.,

    Agreed. Definitely not in favour of multinationals etc. I do think there’s hope in receiving the patronage of public entities, even though there’s the risk of encountering some of the same pitfals. (Would the fiction preoccupied with the comfort of the seats be any better if it’s about, say, publically-owned Amtrak rather than, say, Virgin trains?) I’ll try to say more about this soon.


    September 2, 2009 at 10:07 pm

  4. if the whole thing calls to mind anything, it is a post-privatised version of this wondrous thing:

    Was there an image intended to go after that?


    September 3, 2009 at 5:14 am

  5. I love it when you guys lay into Alain de Botton. I hate him too. In the last book he wrote, he had a tone of ‘I don’t need money, I am just looking at how little people live and work’. Now suddenly, with his new book, he seems to have run out of cash and needs the money like the rest of us. Except, unlike the rest of us trying to make a living from writing, he has swung so much in a ruthless capitalist direction that he’s actually managed to persuade a corporation at the heart of the petro-economy to underwrite him. That’s quite a feat! From aesthete to prostitute in one easy step. At the heart of it all must be simple old greed. De Botton should just accept that you can’t make a wealthy capitalist lifestyle out of writing – and if you want to, then you are going to have to sell out to crooks. This is a guy who should reclaim the high ground and stop selling out to BAA and BA.

    Michel Abrusia

    September 3, 2009 at 9:23 am

  6. I think he needs to shift things around a bit, Alain does. I’d suggest that he begin to call himself Alain G. for his airport gig. Instead of a fake hiphop accent, perhaps he should try an Inspector Clouseau accent – and definitely, I can see hilarious hijinx in the cockpit of jets as he straightens himself out in that m.o.! Quaat is cette kinda steck heor for, monsieur le pilote?


    September 3, 2009 at 6:38 pm

  7. On the other hand:


    September 3, 2009 at 9:38 pm

  8. Oh my God. Glenn Beck is clearly both a genius and a communist. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ – well, quite!

    infinite thought

    September 3, 2009 at 10:27 pm

  9. David,

    Ooops. Fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.


    Yeah, there are some pretty obvious contradictions in play that turn the whole thing rather absurd.


    If only you could, you know, sketch that out and film it.


    Ooof. Fuck. Yeah Beck’s really become something else. We should try to come up with a word for it. Retro-something. Neo-Coughlinism. Ugh.


    September 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm

  10. In an Alain De Botton note, his book “The Architecture of Happiness” gets a small amount of screen time in the recent “(500) Days of Summer” film. Thought you might enjoy that cameo as the film is essentially about the path towards a career, using “love” as the catalyst to push our protagonist into the profession of architecture. An oh so different return to work. More interestingly it takes the failure of the relationship to create positive career movement, that economic ascent inversely correlated with melancholia. (The end is recursive, in the same way the movie opens.)


    September 6, 2009 at 7:56 pm

  11. I saw this mentioned actually in a review of the film today and was gonna post something snarky. Just for consistency’s sake, you know…


    September 6, 2009 at 8:00 pm

  12. Tokyo

    September 6, 2009 at 8:03 pm

  13. Michel,

    Any “Jewish conspiracy” stuff will be deleted. Rule of this blog. I enjoy having at AdB, and for a few different reasons, but his Judaism has nothing to do with it.


    September 7, 2009 at 10:30 am

  14. OK, let’s leave de Botton’s jewishness out of it if you like, but I’m glad you agree with me that there are a lot of decent reasons to enjoy having a go at AdB. Here’s a short list, some surprising (I have done my research) – and some more well known:
    1. He can’t write.
    2. He’s simplistic
    3. He’s too complicated
    4. He shouldn’t try to ‘improve’ our lives
    5. He doesn’t improve our lives
    6. He sells too many books
    7. He pretends to have been awarded a Double Starred First from Cambridge in history. In fact, a study of the records shows that he briefly attended Birmingham university where he studied and abandonned a law degree.
    8. He looks odd (see Charlie Brooker’s devastating and spot-on critique of his odd looks).
    9. His father was a capitalist crook.
    10. He can’t write
    11. He is writing a new book about Roland Barthes (How Roland Barthes can change your life!)
    12. His publisher has paid him £240,000 to write the book on Barthes!!!
    13. He lives in a historic restored castle in Scotland, surrounded by 400 acres – when he pretends to be a fan of modern architecture!!
    14. His new school, The School of Life, is in thrall to Freudian ideas.

    Michel Abrusia

    September 7, 2009 at 11:02 am

  15. PS: Anyone who hates de Botton as much as I do might like to read some really good books of popular philosphy instead. For these people, I really recommend the work of someone called Mark Vernon. Look him up on Amazon. He is sincere and really underrated. I also recommend someone called Julian Bagini. These are people who take philosophy back to its earliest task: to answer the questions that we all ask ourselves on the way to work – rather than indulging in fancy abstractions about how language works and the metaphysics of being, like de button does.

    Michel Abrusia

    September 8, 2009 at 1:57 pm

  16. Hey friends, de Botton is back – his book about Heathrow airport is published today. Shouldn’t one of you rip to shreds. It apparently costs £8 from shops, but quite frankly, why not just imagine what the book says and go for it. It’s sure to be:
    – philosophical
    – really pretentious
    – hard to understand
    – effeminate
    – rich rich rich rich
    Come on guys, the revolution isn’t finished, let’s cut this guy up into small pieces and throw him to the wolves. Yeah!!!!!!

    Michel Abrusia

    September 24, 2009 at 9:17 am

  17. PS: I often see de Botton walking around my part of Acton/Shepherd’s bush, dropping his kids off to school.
    He drives a green Skoda. Anyone inclined to let down the tires as a joke, or even go a bit further?

    Michel Abrusia

    September 24, 2009 at 9:18 am

  18. Alain, stop it, we know it’s you – seek help, for everyone’s sake.


    September 24, 2009 at 3:53 pm

  19. Yeah, Gabe. Seriously.

    What would be amazing is the idea that AdB, even after the kicking he received in the press for what he said on CC’s blog, still somehow can’t help but get involved in the comment boxes, albeit this time with sockpuppet prophylaxis snuggly in place.

    On the other hand, I’m a bit resentful: tell me you want me to die, AdB, and sign your own name to it. I could use the hits that a mention in the Guardian Saturday Review would garner me.


    September 24, 2009 at 10:48 pm

  20. Just to be clear, there’s more than just inference in play here. One of the commenters on one of the previous AdB post was sockpuppeting – ended up in conversation with someone at his or her own IP.


    The car / dropping kids off stuff is super creepy. I think I’m worried either way, whether you are AdB or not. You also played the Jewish line above (I deleted the comment) – which no one but AdB himself has brought into this discussion (he played that card, truly unfairly, with IT).

    What’s the deal? No one anywhere who’s sane wants to harm anyone. We might not like the books, and we might (justifiably) resent the way AdB’s life is financed, but no one hates him, wishes him harm. Christ.


    September 24, 2009 at 10:58 pm

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