Updated: May 11
Populist philosopher Alain de Botton says that he loves his new project - a £30,000 fee for writing a book about Heathrow. He says that airports are "the imaginative centres of our civilization." On the day his appointment was announced, I was in Terminal 3, on my way to Stockholm. So here's my immediate take on the subject. I doubt BAA will want to sponsor me. For all their polish. pomp and circumstance, airports are really nothing more than meat processing plants. So forget the glamour and excitement; as the cannibals would have it - you are a long-pig with luggage. Like a process-engineered version of Dante's Inferno, there are three circles of hell through which you must pass to achieve the very reason for your visit, to whit, boarding a plane. So sophisticated and devious have the architects and designers become in their black craft, that these stepping stones to the world have become destinations in their own right. (Indeed, I know someone who proudly boasts to have visited every international airport in the US, in some cases deliberately diverting his route - at considerable cost in time and money - to complete his quest. Then again, at one point he had also visited all 92 Football League grounds, often without a match being played, so we won't take him as the norm. Or normal.) The ingenuity of these halls of Beelzeebub is their ability to distract you from their real purpose. You may be presented with overt messages about Efficiency, Security and Pleasure, but subliminal goal is far more invidious: to strip you and your fellow travellers of all sense of personal identity and free will. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. CIRCLE THE FIRST: The Coding Hall
Check-in: cavernous, functional, shining like a kitchen in a glossy magazine, a seething mass of bodies fighting for space. Everyone in a hurry. You are a wo/man on a mission. The first circle is designed to disabuse you of this self-delusion. You are about to entrust your soul to others, and you must do as you are told. This will be a personal transformation, from complex being filled with hopes, dreams and aspirations to a carbon-based logistics packet. If you're old enough to remember 'The Prisoner', you'll recall Patrick McGoohan's mantra "I am not a number". Airport designers have seen through this, recognising that even abstract digits have meaning (a birthday, a phone call, unlucky 13), which would be a lifeline back to your sense of self. So at check-in, you are transformed into a barcode. From Freddie or Janet or Suzy or John to thin-black, thick-white, thick-black, thin-white, thin-black... You have no more individual identity than a shrink-wrapped steak on a supermarket shelf. In recent years, the dehumanizing process has gone a stage further, with the introduction of e-tickets and self-check-in (a clue in itself: any term with two hyphens is most certainly the work of the devil). In keeping with the times, airports now 'empower' us to remove our own soul. The smiling, reassuring face of the desk clerk has been replaced with touch-screen pods that guide you through the eight steps to a seat, including probing security questions like 'could anyone have tampered with your luggage without your knowledge?' - a conundrum to keep the most capable philosophical mind engaged for the rest of the journey. Get to the end of this test, and you're in the system. Onto the next level - the airport equivalent of crossing the River Styx. CIRCLE THE SECOND: The Disrobing Portal
Great interrogators know that the way to the truth is an indirect path. Similarly, the servants of the Prince of Darkness know that before they completely strip you of all identity, they must reinforce negative aspects of your personality, so that - at the moment of transformation - you give up everything willingly. They achieve this by playing on your conscience. Air travel is, indeed, a guilt trip. From the moment you take your boarding pass from the check-in pod, you are subject to forces of scrutiny that would make St Francis have doubts about his motives with animals. You are a suspect, and over the next half an hour you will question every action leading up to this journey. Notice that YOU will question. The sophistication of the technique is masterful. There are no shining lights, no spills under fingernails, no water torture. Just a sly second glance at your boarding pass, a doubtful 'hmmm?' as you try to make a joke with an official,another check of your nine year-old passport photo, and you're willing to confess to every cross-border crime on Interpol's "Most Wanted" list. In the midst of this, as a diversion to really throw your sense of self into a tailspin, you are asked to remove all liquids from your hand-luggage. The ignominy is not the removal; rather, it is having to place them into a sandwich bag which you carry before you, a bottled insight into your personal habits. The doubts about your guilt are now joined by an overwhelming sense that everyone can see you have a dandruff issue, two deodorants, and an ointment that comes with its own applicator. "Guilty until proven innocent, guilty until proven innocent" the voice in your head is shouting. Which is just where you're meant to be, because then the priests take over. In their green shirts and latex gloves, they are the judge and jury of The Disrobing Circle. With gentle authority, they offer to take away the pain by taking away the objects of personal identification: the items that make you 'You', and all that you have done wrong in your life. Your coat, your jacket,your belt and, most importantly, your shoes. There is nothing - NOTHING - quite so levelling as standing in socks in a public place, and realising that the tip of your big toe is showing. Your watch, your computer, your Blackberry. And through the nakedness and vulnerability, comes relief. For a moment, you are free - from schedules and emails and text messages; from having to chase the incompetent and answer to the insecure. You are free, and willing to give yourself up completely. You wait while the priestess at the screening monitor takes an inexplicably long time looking at YOUR bag. What can she see? Did you forget to take out your nail clippers? Is taking a water pistol to the office such a good idea? The priests on the other side of the portal beckon you forward. You have removed all items of metal, save for your fillings, but you still hold your breath as you walk through. And sure enough an alarm sounds. Instinctively, your hands go forward, ready for the 'cuffs. This is the key moment. Everything that has gone before has been ritual, everything that follows will be reinforcement. But in this moment, your fate is in the hands of a man or woman with the power to damn you for eternity. You are asked to stretch your arms outward. It is a symbolically charged position. You are then patted from head-to-toe, as the priest looks for your sense of self-worth. Occasionally, he or she will use a whining wand, which will be waved over you seeking your will. And then, it is over. You have passed through. You are cleansed. You collect the accoutrements from the previous world, but now they are no more than items of convenience, devoid of all identification. They are without meaning. You may pass into the final circle. CIRCLE THE THIRD: The Chamber of Consumption
Inevitably, such a process leaves you feeling empty. The physical stress can result in hunger, the psychological damage cries out for a new sense of identity.
The architects understand that better than they understand planning regulations, and so they have created an emporium of entertainment to give you comfort and solace. You can shop. Coffees and crepes and cakes. Sandwiches, salads and side-orders. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea. Perfumes and papers and pearls. Cameras and cognacs and chocolate. Duty-free and conscience-free, you can shop 'til they shut the gate. Sit and watch fellow travellers as they kill time in a permanent amble, lost souls drifting from outlet to outlet, without purpose, without reason - other than to rebuild a sense of self through consumption: "We never thought we needed a sonic toothbrush, but with a £30 tax saving, you can't say no, can you?" "Don't you think Champagne" - that's a six year-old child, not a drink - "would benefit from a waxing kit?" "Well, a 50-inch plasma must fit in the overhead bins, otherwise they wouldn't sell them." The key to the success of air-side retail is that it one-step removed from daily life. There are no Matalan or Argos stores here; every brand is upwardly mobile, as befits the direction of your flight. Like the planes overhead waiting to land, so you circle in a holding pattern, waiting for the hours to pass and your boarding to be displayed. You might buy an 'airport' edition of a novel that you'll never finish, another adapter plug that you will again leave in your hotel room, or a third medio cappuccino that will later add to your jetlag woes. And while you tap away at your mobile or watch the football in the bar, consider these (contradicatory) problems: If were so "time-poor" why do we spend so much of it doing this (where 'this' = nothing)? And in all the schooling, university education, on-the-job training and personal development that we've received, why have we never learned the fine art of waiting?
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