Monday, 22 April 2013

Week Sixteen - Jeanette

The Art Of Travel by Alain de Botton (2002)
Recommended by Mark

Hello from LEAGRAVE!

Leagrave sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’re thinking it's a small fishing port on the west coast of Scotland, or a quaint Cornish hamlet accessible only via a meandering B road.

It is neither. It is a soulless Luton suburb, and I am in the bar of a chain hotel, having paid £3.80 for an indifferent (small) glass of red wine and a flickering internet connection.

I’m not finding much artistry in this particular travel experience.

I know that a lot of people don’t like Alain de Botton. His detractors see him as some kind of intellectual parasite who condenses and over-simplifies the ideas of eminent minds for the lumpen proletariat. He doesn’t do much to deflect this reputation. Look at this recent article, 'Ten Commandments for Atheists': who’d ever have thought that being polite was a nice thing to do? Thanks, Alain!

However, I’ve never personally read any of his work; and I do know that de Botton’s recommender Mark needs no commandments (from de Botton or anyone else) to be polite, empathetic or funny. He is one of the two people I’ve known longest on this list. I find that quite upsetting; only two people from my home city that I wanted to get something as simple as a book recommendation from. (Well, there were three, but one didn’t recommend).

Mark used to work on Saturdays at the bread shop down the road (note, ‘bread shop’, that’s the Norwich way. ‘Bakeries’ are for people from Guildford). He was a little bit older, he was in a band, he went to indie gigs at the UEA. I was a young teen, with puppy fat and emotions written all over my face. I loved talking to him, and of course I had a little crush on him. It was one of those early pure crushes: he was way above me and there was no hope of fulfillment, and that was its point. Given that my next crush was to be serious, complex and painful, well, I appreciate those innocent earlier feelings even more.

He even got on TV! Look at this (Mark’s the guitarist with the Mr. Bubbles (??) t-shirt):

He left school, and left the bread shop; eventually he left Norwich too, and went on to have lovely children and a gorgeous wife. It was ace to get back in touch a few years ago, and particularly ace to know that he still made music. Now Mark is better known as the subtle and brilliant electronic pop project Mono Life.

Anyway: the past is another country. Here I am, in the Leagrave present with Mr. de Botton. Can he help me find the pearls among the suburban swine?

The Art Of Travel encourages reflection. Why go away in the first place, and how might we get the best from travel? Too often, de Botton says, we simply assume we’ll have a good time on our holidays, and we don’t. He relates his experience of Barbados.

My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination. The body found it hard to sleep, it complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.

He’s in Barbados and I am in Leagrave. It’s tempting to shout: down a couple of rums, and shut up.

But de Botton’s point is important (even if he expresses it in an irritating manner). We want travel and holiday to be entirely transcendental, to take us away from our problems and our normal selves. When we find our normal selves along for the ride – and usually our problems don’t take the hint to stay at home either – it doesn’t matter what the surroundings are.

How do we square this particular circle? De Botton ‘asks’ artists, writers and thinkers. He surveys how great men (and it is only men that de Botton consults) have looked at the foreign and the native alike, and then connects their words and art with various aspects of the travel experience: anticipation, arrival, sightseeing, return. When de Botton concentrates on those he admires, his style transforms. He no longer moans about non-existent problems. He’s enthusiastic about the ideas of those he writes of, and wants his readers to be so, too. It doesn’t come across as cynical or exploitative. And far from being obvious, de Botton uses a wide variety of carefully chosen source material: he’ll quote from correspondence, speeches and minor works as well as the well-known.

If it is de Botton’s aim to open up minds, then I have two words for you: Gustave Flaubert.

The chapter ‘On The Exotic’, where de Botton discusses the work of Flaubert – in particular, Flaubert’s ambivalence towards France and his attraction to the Middle East – left me wanting to abandon the rest of the Two Readers project and immediately read every scribble Flaubert has ever written. How, how, have I never read this man before? My God! He’s hardly Johnny Nobody. On the basis of the material in The Art Of Travel, Flaubert could easily be my favourite all-time writer.

My life, which I dream will be so beautiful, so poetic, so vast, so filled with love, will turn out to be like everyone else’s – monotonous, sensible, stupid.
                                          (Letter to schoolfriend)

I was really taken, not only with Flaubert’s style, but also with his more general thoughts on life. And this is where credit must go to de Botton for interpreting them in an attention-grabbing and direct way.

[Flaubert] proposed a new way of ascribing nationality: not according to the country one was born in or to which one’s family belonged, but according to the places to which one was attracted. It was only logical for him to extend this more flexible concept of identity to gender and species and for him to declare on occasion that, contrary to appearances, he was in truth a woman, a camel, and a bear.
I’ve Madame Bovary sitting on my shelf at home. I’m now so anxious to read it that I’m physically shaking with excitement.

The other ‘guide’ de Botton follows who especially affected me was John Ruskin. The fearlessly sharp tongue this man had! This from his speech to a group of wealthy holidaymakers in 1864:

The Alps themselves you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with ‘shrieks of delight’.

Ruskin was not just being obnoxious (although he clearly relished being so). He was keen to shake people from their apathy, to get them to really, truly, see – not to merely glance, and not to simply understand things as they related to their own egos. And this is what de Botton is trying to do, too; he ends the book by travelling ‘at home’: around Hammersmith, peering at gravy adverts and nosing into office windows.

So let’s have another look at Leagrave.


But I’ll have another glass of wine, and shut up.