BOOKS: Happy holidays and a philosopher’s tome

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The art of travel

Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, 4.99

FOR millions of people, travel is the new religion. While churches grow emptier, the skies fill up with aeroplanes. Travel offers the readiest means of escape from anxiety and pointlessness. It gives tantalising glimpses of a better world. It makes everything seem simpler, easier, less fraught with responsibility. And yet, like religion, it leaves you wondering whether the whole caboodle is a giant exercise in self-delusion.

I offer this irreverent pensee as a first reaction to Alain de Botton’s thoughtful, amusing and quixotic guide to the torments and paradoxes of the modern pilgrim. He asks some good questions: how can we truly ‘escape’ when we are always condemned to travel in the company of our own bodies and minds? How can we avoid feelings of disappointment, anxiety or depression as we reach our longed-for destination and it doesn’t meet expectations? Suppose we feel too lazy to leave the hotel room? Or fight with our partner in paradise? And if we find beauty, tranquillity and happiness in our travels, how can we ‘possess’ them and preserve them? In short, how can we travel better?

He has plenty of useful advice. Like that other ‘Alain’ (Titchmarsh, the horticultural guru), he is an indefatigable improver, full of optimistic suggestions for transforming the unweeded gardens of our minds and filling them with bright flowers of wisdom, happiness and meaning. This is such an unusual thing for an intellectual to do these days (most believe it their duty to persuade us the world is more tragic and evil than we realise) that one has to fight off disbelief. Can there really be no mention of the awfulness of mass tourism? Pollution, economic exploitation, prostitution, destruction of local cultures, the smothering tide of sameness in food, hotel rooms, transportation...? Not a squeak. Just this funny, articulate character suggesting we become more receptive, more attentive, more open, that we enjoy it all more actively.

Parallels are drawn with the journeys of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Wordsworth and Xavier de Maistre. Painters are called in too. Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and John Ruskin are summoned as witnesses to the beauty of windblown cypress trees or the maudlin poetry of motorway cafes. Even Nietzsche - surely one of the most tortured beings to walk this planet - is quoted.

Of course, the search for happiness implies its opposite - and there is more than a hint that de Botton is a ‘problem traveller’. A spat about creme caramel, bouts of lethargy, neurosis and doubt, he sounds hell to travel with. Yet these comic details lighten up the more serious analytical passages, and prove that the prime candidate for de Botton’s remedies is the man himself. A cynic might say this must be why he is interested in the ‘art’ of travel in the first place - as he is clearly rubbish at it. But cynicism is inappropriate. This is a fine book: witty, alert, written with exemplary clarity and poise, just the thing for a wandering soul in a turbulent and uncertain age.

Alex Martin is co-editor of The Decadent Traveller.