On journeys, solitude and an enduring admiration for The Art of Travel

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If I knew how to use emoticons, or was as attuned as my daughter to their nuances and status in various communications, I would write, I (heart) The Art of Travel, by the author and philosopher, Alain de Botton. I have not in the least done justice to this man’s significant talent in my introduction, but here is a beginning at least.

‘He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus’ comes to mind, but that reach is too great for my petty mind to contemplate.

The Art of Travel has been my constant travel companion over many years. At the time of its purchase, I inscribed the inside cover ‘August 2003, London revisited’, but quite what I was revisiting I cannot recall. I suspect scenes from a former visit with a former partner that marked some significant turning point in my life, but perhaps not.

I have not yet read the whole book, but that is no great matter. I commented once on Twitter that I am an inveterate re-reader, but sadly I cannot claim the same here. It is a book I dip in and out of with a deep contentment and satisfaction. It is a book I like having on my person, being compact enough to drop into a handbag or rest beside the place set before me on a dining table, without fear of disturbing cuttlery, side plates or wine glasses.

Aesthetically, it has some appeal, that above the clouds view, but I suspect my aesthetics and Alain de Botton’s differ significantly. I regard this book as my companion and reach for it instinctively as I travel away from home for work, much as my daughter has been wont over many years to reach for her beloved rabbit and bear for almost every journey we have made together.

I sit in this rather grand dining room, with its red and gold tapestried chairs, and contemplate how alone I feel. The room is large enough to be populated by many. I passed a grand piano near the entrance, with faded sheet music on the stand, The Soldier’s Return. This room should be busy, lively, crowded, with music ringing out amidst the chatter of jovial guests, made merry with too much red wine, tugging at napkins and calling hurried waiters for attention. But instead, it is just me, and it is nearly eight o’clock, and I wonder if I shall eat my meal entirely in solitude, save for the frequent interruptions of a lone female waiter, with too much time on her hands, and too little to do.

I turn my attenton to The Art of Travel. I cannot recall that I have read these pages before, which pleases but surprises, because the pages I begin to read are near the beginning, Hammersmith, London and Barbados. I wonder if my memory is faulty or if it is just the peculiar way this book has appealed and caught my attention, over so many years, with my dipping in and out, attracted like a butterfly to some image that appeals, then moving on abruptly before the words can settle.

Hopper. I recall that Alain de Botton loves the work of the artist, Edward Hopper, or did, since I have no knowledge if this has been a passing affection or something more enduring. I feel that I am having a Hopperesque experience, like the girl in the picture.

Just as I settle to the comfort of my book and ponder that perhaps I should have stuck to a small glass of wine or else sipped my drink more slowly, guests arrive in the dining room and my solitude is broken. There are two men and two women and I am intrigued because they seem to be speaking in a mixture of English and I muse, Polish or some other East European language that falls alien to my ears. One of the women is strikingly beautiful and exceptionally tall, yet for all the glamour of her red patterned dress and bright blonde hair, she is painfully thin. Not thin as in glamorous, waif-like celebrity thin but in that anguished, uncomfortable to look at kind of thin that indicates some advanced stage of eating disorder.  She reminds me momentarily of the blue-bodied ungainly characters in James Cameron’s Avatar.

The guests settle to their table and chatter away, but the peace I neither wished for nor desired, has been lost. For some reason, the idle waitress has positioned these late arrivals at a table one removed from my own, despite that there are some twenty or more tables begging for diners. The thoughts in my head are crowded out with chatter in a language that I cannot understand, interspersed with English. Later, I hear that the lady in red, with the painfully thin body, orders cabbage soup.

To my left, I catch a glimpse through heavily glazed windows, of the remnants of a garden that once might have been quite beautiful. The hotel hails back to the fifteenth century, and passed from Crown to State and back again, over many centuries. On my arrival at the hotel so many hours before, I took an instant dislike to the sign in the car park that advised ‘this is a residential area – please depart from your car quickly’. I felt a great urge to linger, despite the rain. Now, as I peer outside, I see only the borders of a once great garden, lost to the need for parking, and residential housing.

Bread arrives and I eat far too much of a good selection, and am grateful for that sop to the wine for I have work to do later, and a route to be planned for my morning’s travel. A lady arrives alone and is seated by the waitress, who appears to possess little sense of personal space, on a table immediately behind me. The new arrival sits so close that I can hear the tinny ringing sound of music bursting through almost imperceptible headphones. The woman is dressed untidily, rather as if she had just mucked out the stables and rushed to dine with no time to change, and I begin to think I take this dining out far too seriously.

Despite best intentions, my glass of wine is finished before my starter has even arrived, and I order a second glass, and enjoy my liver parfait, which is so delicately balanced and sculpted, it seems a shame to disturb the plate. I eat and drink and read, and inbetween, consider that for all the beauty of this place, the grandeur of this room, the quality of the food on my plate, a lingering discontent has formed and will not be dispelled. I consider there must be easier ways to earn my keep, ways that dispense with the need for travel so far from home, or endure bleak journeys along the M1, arriving at strange hotels and dining alone. It is ironic and disturbing. At any other time, I would love to be me, to stay where I am staying now, to dine where I am dining now.

I read a little more and am comforted by words that become my solace, as they have so many times before –

“In another paradox that Des Esseintes would have appreciated, it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.”

One day I quite imagine I shall read The Art of Travel from cover to cover, and be pleased and admonish myself for my neglect, these past 11 years, but that time is not now. This book, my constant travel companion, has served its purpose yet again, and brought to my dull days and ways, a comfort and solace that is incomparable.

I have a notion that a good book is rather like the best bits of a relationship, the parts that have been edited out so that an impression remains of the finest, most agreeable conversation, the most harmonious moments, the most joyous laughter. Words that please and fall so carefully crafted, or else accidental and with barely a passing thought, compensate for the absence, at times, of good conversation. A good book engages the mind and soul in a symphony that knows no flaw, that masks no discontent, that bears no ill, that only pleases as it elevates.

When next I am travelling London bound or where’er my work may take me, and find myself alone in a hotel, booked hastily some days prior, via Late Rooms or some such site, I am content to anticipate The Art of Travel shall be my companion. Perhaps next time, I may even read of John Ruskin, or reach Madrid, or Amsterdam.


Alain de Botton

Edward Hopper

 

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