Book review – A Week at the Airport (Alain de BOTTON)

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Perhaps poignantly after just returning from a long and splendid transatlantic Christmastime holiday, and getting back into routine in the return to work, I finished Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport.

A Week at the Airport is a short and compact book (“Slender enough to pack in your carry-on”, Daily Mail). It can be considered an addendum of sorts of his previous book, The Art of Travel (from which one learns that de Botton is a home bird, really; see my separate review).

I’ve always liked Alain de Botton’s use of illustrations and imagery interspersed with his narratives. In this case, Richard Baker adds wonderful value with his insightful photographs.

A Week at the Airport is just that — the chief executive of BAA granted the author unrestricted access throughout the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow.

“In such lack of constraints, I felt myself to be benefitting from a tradition wherein the wealthy merchant enters into a relationship with an artist fully prepared for him to behave like an outlaw; he does not expect good manners, he knows and is half delighted by the idea that the favoured baboon will smash his crockery.”

Thankfully de Botton does behave himself and doesn’t offend the airport staff, or perhaps more importantly, the security folk at the Border Agency.

The book is divided into four sections, reflecting the main dimensions of our airport experience — Approach, Departures, Airside and Arrivals.

I like de Botton’s philosophical insights into the otherwise mundane, or at least those aspects of daily life that we usually don’t think twice about.

For example, airport hotels. Even with their poetic menus, which de Botton does his best to elevate, an airport hotel is functionary; unlike their countryside siblings, you don’t select an airport hotel for its environmental surroundings.

Though there’s no harm in trying to appeal to aesthetic beauty. Terminal 5 “wanted to have a go” at replicating the experience of arriving at Jerusalem’s elaborate Jaffa Gate, to welcome those who have travelled great distances to the promise and prospect of a new country.

But baggage retrieval and finding your car in the parking lot (or silent taxi transfer) quickly erases such euphoria.

de Botton’s strength is inserting the human condition in every aspect of life. Lest you think he doesn’t really recommend airport travel, de Botton is an unfailing romantic (and thankfully so). When he describes our human encounters — in this case with hotel staff, fellow passengers, border control agents, and those we’re departing and reuniting with — de Botton evokes the universality of our existence. At least those of us who have ever experienced airports.

Essays Photography

Contraband at Belfast Exposed

Belfast Exposed has on display an exhibition by Taryn Simon. Entitled Contraband, to view is a sampling of 1,075 photographs of items detained or seized from passengers (and express mail) entering the United States.

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The Belfast Exposed exhibition is in the main gallery, with a weekly lunchtime talk every Wednesday. I caught the last talk; the exhibition runs until 30th December.

Today’s talk (see above) was given by Belfast Exposed staff member, Alissa Kleist, who explained that the main theme of the exhibition is desire. Every kind of object shown represents some element of what is valued and desired by the recipient society.

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Some of these illicit items are universal: alcohol, drug paraphernalia, fake gold, pirated movies, sexual stimulants.

Others are specific to the cultural identities of the population, e.g. duck tongue, fried guinea pigs, vegetables (used for voodoo).

And there are some items that are forbidden only because of the state’s politics: witness the confiscation of Cuban cigars.

I suggested to Alissa that it would be interesting to see a similar project done in another country, especially one less conspicuously consumerist.

For example, Madame Oui and my experience travelling into the Maldives was that they are very strict about prohibiting any importing of alcohol of any description, including miniatures. (Not that we were attempting any smuggling!)

How about a cataloguing of what would be confiscated in a less open society? What would customs official in Iran seize? Are foreign newspapers actually detained in China (or anywhere else)?

Meanwhile, on the theme of airports and customs, Alissa advised me of the work of Christien Meindertsma, whose project, Checked Baggage, reveals over 3,000 items confiscated in the course of a week at Schipol Airport baggage control. The outcome is more specific to our new world of airline travel post 9/11, with the display of expected items — scissors, corkscrews, razor blades, pen knives, etc.

But what I particularly like is how she attached one of these items to each of the books published in the same name, thus disabling it from being transported in person over the air. Touché!

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Copeland Island adventure

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After many times talking about taking a boat trip to Copeland Island, Madame Oui and I finally got our finger out and jumped onboard “The Brothers” on a sunny afternoon.

Not surprisingly for us, immediately we noticed the captain’s dog, who kept himself very satisfied up in the cramped bridge:

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“The Brothers” captain’s dog. It’s a dog’s life.

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There were a couple dozen of us in the boat, and the journey was relatively smooth.

I was glad I had my camera ready as we entered the island harbour, as the first sight was some sunbathing seals. I was hoping we would loiter a bit, as one swam towards us:

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Disembarking, the large signpost instructs all visitors that this is a private island, no dogs allowed (oops, too late of a notice for some), and that we are to stay to the coastline. That last instruction would have been easier to comply with if there were any path markings on the island. Madame Oui and I did our best, but we did manage to wander through someone’s drive at the end. At least we smiled and waved at the home owners as we walked through!

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Evidence of rabbits. Artistically, I like this image.
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Rabbit in action. There is abundant tall scrub for them to hide.

Copeland Island is reputed for its birds, seals and rabbits. For a while, the only evidence of the preponderance of rabbits were their droppings, which were absolutely everywhere. And a few carcasses. But thanks to Madame Oui’s sharp eye, we stumbled upon some living specimens, which I duly captured with a long range camera lens.

One fellow walker told us how much the island had changed since he last visited 40 years ago. First, for him, the rabbits were out of control, far more than before. He also noticed how much the thistle had taken over the island.

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Island graveyard desecrated by rabbits. Not how I want my corpse to go!

Some houses were very secluded. With no mains electricity, this is certainly a sure way to get away from the bourgeois routine. But then the constant bourgeois trekker visitors must get annoying.Madame Oui and I were impressed that there were several occupied houses on this small island. I’ll add that they were loyal British families, with their Union flags withstanding the constant wind.

As is our wont, we examined as much of the island as we could. Madame Oui said that it reminded her of Los Lobos, Fuerteventura, and as such did not want to wander too far lest we miss our boat return. I assured her that if need be we could run across Copeland Island in 5 minutes.

Hidden from view from Donaghadee is the northern side of Copeland Island, which reveals two more islands — Lighthouse Island and Mew Island. Fittingly, Lighthouse Island is the one without the lighthouse; overnight accommodation available via the Bird Observatory (RSPB me thinks).

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All in all worth the journey. We picked a fine day to do it.


Book review – The Blue Cabin (Michael FAULKNER)

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Michael Faulkner, son of Brian, loses his Sante Fe style furniture business and home in Scotland. Retreats to family cabin on an otherwise uninhabited small island in Strangford Lough, Ards Peninsula, Northern Ireland.

This is reading through a couple’s challenging times, that part of the wedding vows that read, “for better or worse”.

There are plenty of happy times — the guests, the picnics, the sublime peace of the place. All the while checked by the harsher realities of no mains electricity or regular water supply, and a barely insulated house.

Faulkner writes in a simple yet effective prose. In few words and sentences, you’re perhaps suddenly caught by the deep emotion involved.

The Blue Cabin is an enjoyable read, proving the adage of the road less travelled…