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Alain de Botton checks in as the writer-in-residence at Heathrow

21st August 2009

Alain de Botton has been appointed writer-in-residence at Heathrow's terminal 5 airport. The acclaimed author, broadcaster, journalist and speaker leapt at the chance to spend a week at Heathrow because of his fascination with the secretive nature of airports.

“It is an incredibly paranoid place, because it has to be. If you stand in certain places then a patrol car will come along and you will be arrested. It’s brave of them to have me, but it’s better for them to have a book that tells the truth than a glossy brochure that people will just throw away.”

Alain will create a book of observations drawn from his experiences at the airport. The book will have a print run of 10,000 and will be handed out to passengers as they make their way through the terminal.  

Alain promises to explore high-minded themes such as the power of technology and the frenzy of the modern workplace, although he seems most animated by the chance to observe private moments such as families greeting one another at the arrivals gate. 

No one at Heathrow Terminal 5 seems the slightest bit surprised to see a man sitting at a desk in the middle of the departure hall writing his observations about them. Even as Alain's typed words appear on a giant plasma screen behind him, passengers bustle blithely past as if a writer-in-residence at an airport were as normal as overpriced sandwiches or duty-free Toblerone.

BAA, the airport operator, is hoping that there will be no more embarrassments during Alain's week at the airport, after the terminal opening last year to scenes of chaos when the baggage system failed. The company has no higher ambition than generating some free publicity, but Alain has no intention of writing a book to please his paymasters. “We have devised the cockroach test,” he says. “If I see a cockroach coming out of Gordon Ramsay [the restaurant] then I’m allowed to write about it. No lawyers are allowed to vet it.”

British Airways staff have already visited him to offer gossip on what goes on behind the secure doors.

He also has permission to be escorted behind the scenes to see things for himself. “Airports are incredibly restrictive, but they have agreed to let me go wherever I want. I’ve given them a whole list of unrealistic demands. I said, ‘I want to stand on that black patch on the runway where the planes actually land and the rubber comes off their tyres’, so they are going to take me out there at night when the planes have stopped.”

Being a writer in residence in an airport is like being allowed behind the scenes in a nuclear power station or a morgue, he says. “These are places where you think you know what it’s like, but you don’t really.”

Many other locations in the UK have appointed a writer-in-residence. Sarah Wardle was made poet-in-residence at Tottenham Hotspur and the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent installed Steve Dearden as writer-in-residence in 2006. 

In the past decade resident writers in prisons have been sentenced from Holloway to Cardiff, Brixton and beyond.

The residency of Fay Weldon, at the Savoy in 2002 had its rewards. In exchange for her words, the fee for her £350-a-night room was waived for her three-month stay, but she did have to pay her mini-bar bill.


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