Work - Reviews
Independent, Interview by Katy Guest, 27.03.09
It is difficult to know how to prepare for a meeting with Alain de Botton. What kind of questions should one ask a man who, in times of emotional trauma, turns not to gin and crying but to Epicurus and Schopenhauer for support? What do you talk about with someone who likes to spend his holidays at Heathrow – including lunch courtesy of Gate Gourmet, an "emotional audit of the airport", and a lecture on the topic of luggage handling techniques by the man who designed the very last word in baggage carousels?
How do you even relate to someone who, in his latest book, writes about electricity pylons: "In different species, I noted varieties of modesty or arrogance, honesty or shiftiness, and in one 150-kilovolt type in ubiquitous use in southern Finland I even detected a coquettish sexuality in the way the central mast held out a delicate hand to its conductor wire"? De Botton is a Wordsworth for a modern world of warehousing, satellites and logistics, and earth has not anything to show more fair than on an Optional Night Time Walk in Terminal 5. This man could just be Britain's greatest living geek.
Happily, this is not something that he would deny. "I think I do have a sort of planespotter side... that is often seen as male and autistic," he says, seriously. "Although I do feel the need to rescue that. I find technology quite interesting and moving because it's the result of so much labour and so much dedication. We're used to seeing a cathedral and thinking of all those people who chiselled away at it. But we don't think the same when we look at a radiator... And so what I was trying to do, in a modest way, was give [the radiator] some glamour."
We meet in de Botton's sunny north London flat (in whose tidy back-room is a huge, framed poster of a soaring cathedral ceiling and, yes, some radiators) to talk about the book that has this audacious aim. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is a devoted analysis of jobs from career counselling to cargo ship logistics, transmission engineering to biscuit marketing, and an effort to understand, among other things, what on earth it is that other people do for a living. It was, he says, "research heavy"; his minute observations about the cargo of a container ship, in one page of the first chapter alone, for instance, are mind-boggling. They include elegant, convoluted, Bottonian sentences, such as (to choose one at random): "This peripatetic leviathan is headed not for the better-known precincts of the river, where tourists buy ice-creams to the smell of diesel engines, but to a place where the waters are coloured an intemperate brown and the banks are gnawed by jetties and warehouses – an industrial zone which few of the capital's inhabitants penetrate, though the ordered running of their lives and, not least, their supplies of Tango fizzy orange and cement aggregate depend on its complex operations."
Photographs by Richard Baker – of the author looking queasy on board a fishing boat in the Maldives, or of his eight-year-old son Sam in Bristol eating a tuna steak – prove that he really did follow a fish from sea to processing plant to plane to warehouse to lorry to supermarket to plate in order to show the vast, global intricacies of packing and chopping and epic transportation that go into providing a seemingly simple element of our dinner. This particular adventure was merely to provide a 20-page photo essay within the first, teeming chapter of an equally fact-rich book. De Botton has put the hours in.