studies in travel writing

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Staying Put

The word ‘travel’ is often taken primarily in its restricted sense, the one that designates the voluntary – vacation or high-end business – kind of long-distance travel or the restless cosmopolitanism of the privileged few who move fairly effortlessly between several ‘homes’ across the world. But such travel could not take place without travel understood in its broadest sense, the one that would include the (often restricted or forced) movement of people who serve the better-off. There are, we might say, no tourists without refugees.

It is to Alain de Botton’s credit that A Week at the Airport – perhaps his first travel book (since The Art of Travel is not primarily about the author’s own travel experiences) – keeps both of these aspects in view.

In an executive waiting area, for example, he wonders
how we decide the relative standing of a tracksuited twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur reading the Wall Street Journal, against that of a Filipina cleaner whose job it is to tour the bathrooms of an airline's first-class lounge, swabbing the shower cubicles of their diverse and ever-changing colonies of international bacteria.
And for a writer who is often berated for making a lucrative career out of stating the obvious, it’s worth pointing out that very few travel writers acknowledge the social and economic chasm that separates one kind of traveller from the other.

This awareness is partly the result of staying put. To stop in one place while everyone around you is on their way somewhere else is to confound expectations that travel writing must always revolve around a single mobile narrator and his or her encounters with (often anonymous) individuals who are usually treated as static objects, part of the landscape like buildings, trees, or mountains.

And so, while we learn next to nothing about the author, beside the terms of his residency (an invitation by the British Airports Authority to spend seven days at Heathrow's Terminal 5), most of the people he observes are endowed with backstories. We learn where they came from and where they are going to - not only the passengers, but also the people who work at the airport (day after day, year after year). Finally, the commuters, migrants and refugees secure equal billing with the tourists.

Still, there is something not quite right about these stories. Sometimes they seem to be merely rhetorical, thrown out as examples of what might plausibly be the case, rather than pieced together from a long conversation over lunch or a protracted discussion at a departure gate.

Like this one:
Yesterday lunchtime, one had fried plantain in the Wuse District to the sound of an African cuckoo, whereas at eight this morning the captain is closing down the 777's twin engines at a gate next to a branch of Costa Coffee.
Or this:
Although each suitcase was a repository of dense and likely fascinating individuality - this one perhaps containing a lime-coloured bikini and an unread copy of Civilization and its Discontents, that one a dressing gown stolen from a Chicago hotel and a packet of Riche antidepressants
It’s a device that must come easily to de Botton, who, a philosopher by training, may prefer imaginary examples in order to make a point. When Wittgenstein talks about keeping a diary in which he notes with an 'S' the recurrence of a certain sensation, we are not meant to believe he actually did such a thing. We are supposed to think about what keeping such a diary would mean.

On other occasions these stories seem to have more empirical validity, with signs (such as personal names) that the author has gathered from people he actually met.
David was a thirty-eight-year-old shipping broker, and his wife, Louise, a thirty-five-year-old full-time mother and ex-television producer. They lived in Barnes with their two children ... Their final destination was a villa with a pool at the Katafigi Bay resort, a fifty-minute drive away from the Greek capital in a Europcar Category C vehicle.
But even here de Botton is surely embellishing beyond what he has been told: a Europcar Category C vehicle? And when he goes on to evoke the months of planning and expectation that preceded this moment ('He had checked the weather reports online every day ... He had pictured himself playing with the children in the palm-lined garden and eating grilled fish and olives with Louise on the terrace') we know for sure he is hoping to reap the benefits of some poetic license.

The status of his descriptions is confused further by the declaration on the last page of the book that 'some names have been changed to protect identities'. (A peculiar device that at once proclaims a work to be factual and fictionalized). Only in one case are we given a reason for being so cautious: the cleaner from Transylvania who worries about her friends and relatives reading his book and discovering that she is not a successful singer after all. Although one might suppose that the prostitute he chats to in the late-night bar, who tells him of her monthly rendezvous with a Lebanese engineer, might not care to have her real name disclosed either.

So the thought does cross the mind that many of these stories were made up. But does it matter? I’m not sure. De Botton’s brief is to encourage us to look at our surroundings in a fresh way, to break habits, rather than primarily to give an accurate account of a personal experience. And in fact his characters – despite being furnished with certain telling details (a name, a job, a hometown, a mannerism, a distinctive item of clothing) – are quite flat. They certainly lack the social and psychological density associated with his hero Proust. This may be deliberate: a way of emphasizing they are meant to be taken as typical examples only. Or it may be that de Botton just isn’t good at characterisation (as are, say, in their different ways, Colin Thubron or Jan Morris).

But it bothers me. Not because I can't quite imagine these people, or thaty I feel they are not entirely plausible. It’s because I can’t quite rid myself of a suspicion that de Botton doesn’t really care.

At one point, recounting an interview with Senior First Officer, Mike Norcock, de Botton imagines this calm, collected man must have his 'unprofessional' outbursts in private, even though he never gives a hint of them. But we could say the same about de Botton himself.

He frequently makes disparaging remarks about injustice, but we are left in some doubt whether he would risk breaking a nail in doing something about it. De Botton’s writing itself is often praised for its elegance: but then the price it pays for this elegance is the ruthless exclusion of the vernacular, demotic speech of others which would otherwise ruin the careful arrangement of his polished prose.

This is not an accusation you could make against Roger Green's Destination Nowhere, a diary of repeated visits to South Mimms Motorway Service Station on the M25 north of London, between December 2000 and July 2002.

Green does little more than record what he sees and hears from his various vantage points: a cafeteria table, a toilet cubicle, a parking space. There are some silent encounters, but by and large the book is a cacophony of different voices: sentences he overhears, dialogues in which he participates, and longer sections where he transcribes (and presumably abridges) the confessions of a few customers and staff who agree to be interviewed.

The verbal richness is further enhanced by a range of quotations that weave in and out of the text: epigraphs (many of them from famous travel writers), old-fashioned summaries that head each chapter, short passages in italics which appear to be extracts from Welcome Break promotional material, fragments of radio traffic news, official transport policy documents, menus, signage, grafitti.

The book is not without its faults. The author is over-fond of exclamation marks, his similes are uninspired, and he repeatedly describes people by noting their resemblance to a celebrity (one customer looks like Karl Marx, another reminds him of Neil from The Young Ones) or popular stereotype (off-duty policeman, East End villain). There are also numerous typographical errors and spelling mistakes (George Monbiot memorably appears as George Mowbrot)

But perhaps most surprising is how exceptionally unguarded it all is. We learn even less about Green's past history than we do of de Botton's, but he makes little effort to conceal his tendency to subject women to a sexualized gaze, even while ostensibly documenting it as routine:
Parading up and down is a 40-something-year-old woman wearing a short black tight skirt.

'She's showing the tops of her stockings,' my blond-haired woman neighbour in the queue whispers in my ear.

'Not bad,' a blue-suited businessman next in line to her remarks loudly to his colleague.

Maybe it's the see-through black top that she is wearing which collectively turns the heads of the males in the breakfast queue. She returns, her slip-on backless shoes clipping over the tiled surface.

'It was two eggs, sir?'

'Yes,' I reply, my attention still drawn to the promenading in front of me. She sits down at a couple of tables up from me.

It's taken fifteen minutes to get my order in but the waiting was worth it. God, how I love brown sauce.

The man in front of me, a chubby fresh-faced thirty-year-old but looking fifteen, can hardly believe his eyes or is it luck? Legs open, with a full view of her 'wares', he shuffles in his seat as if adjusting his 'lower carriage'.

I am not sure whether to laugh or cry as she fiddles with her silver mobile phone. Her elbows rest on the Sun newspaper. Strangely she reminds me of Mary Quant who I once saw in Biba along the Kensington High Street in the 1960s when I was waiting for a girlfriend who was looking at some bras.

I keep my head down as her eyes scan the horizon. I notice I am not alone in doing this. She takes her coffee and paper off for a cigarette.
Remarks such as 'I fart loudly' or an admission that he is 'bored out of my head', which might have been deleted had he enjoyed the services of a judicious editor, happily survive the final cut. At one point he admits trying to pass a foreign coin to pay for a coffee; later he tells of finding a wallet and entertaining the possibility of keeping it (without revealing what he decided to do).

So awkward and prevalent are these solecisms that this reader at least did begin to wonder if the whole book was a parody of a certain kind of self-published autobiography. The inside cover tells us:
Roger Green is Director of the Centre for Community Research at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, and is a regular contributor to academic publications. He lives in East London. Destination Nowhere is his first book.
If I hadn't found evidence to the contrary, I might have been tempted to suggest that author was actually someone like Julian Barnes or Martin Amis writing under a pseudonym.

In any case, the unfiltered granularity of his observations makes for a compelling read. Green in particular reminds us – in a way that de Botton certainly does not – that those who feed travellers and clean up after them are probably more seasoned, experienced people-watchers than travel writers themselves:
Unknown to me a table clearer has been watching me and is now alongside, her hands reaching out to take my tray and assorted rubbish.

She smiles and disappears with my tray. Now this is unheard of, a table being cleared whilst a punter is still at it! I feel honoured. Get the feeling the table cleaner staff are simply acknowledging that this man, i.e. me, sits at tables longer than most other punters and is always writing. I feel vulnerable. Do they stand and watch me and talk about me?
Appallingly written, woefully edited, embarrassingly voyeuristic, and yet teeming with the voices and mannerisms, foibles and obsessions of a wide cross-section of British society. Perhaps in Destination Nowhere the soft underbelly of the transport network has finally got the masterpiece it deserves.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Mon 30 May 2011 12:35 GMT+0100


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