The Art of Travel: Reviews

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, 25 May 2002

Alain de Botton aims to change the way we travel. Forget about that breathless search for distant thrills, and concentrate on enjoying where you are – even in a motorway café. Boyd Tonkin meets the visionary voyager.

Having consoled us with philosophy and changed our lives with Proust, Alain de Botton now wants to help us think our way into happier times on our travels. Oh, bliss (so you imagine the reaction from his horde of fans): a six-pack of dreamy, creamy meditations on the glories of those sun-scorched beaches, misty rainforest glades and awesome peaks.

As it turns out, the nation’s favourite mass-market metaphysician finds more succour for the spirit amid the stained laminates and leathery buns of a service station. This forsaken place smells of “frying oil and lemon-scented floor polish” – and of the lonely melancholia of humans on the move. “In some ways I wanted to write a whole book about service stations,” he says, wistfully, pregnantly. “That may yet come.”

The Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) does make it to a Barbados beach, as well as to that mysterious Merry Muncher. Yet De Botton cares more about perceptions than destinations. “At the heart of travel is a perceptual shift,” he explains. “And that perceptual shift doesn’t depend on going to an exotic or a faraway place.”

As you would expect, the De Botton approach to travel would deflate the likes of Monsieur Michelin. In Madrid, the finger-wagging enthusiasm of a guidebook drives him under the hotel bedclothes in terror. A De Botton guide would take another route, he thinks. “It might say, ‘This afternoon, return to your hotel. Lie on the bed. Think – and despair about your life. Then go to sleep.’ And it would allow for that, rather than: On to the next monument!”

Should we cancel that city break, then? Not quite yet. As with De Botton’s self-help studies of the French novelist, and the European thinkers, this latest intellectual adventure sets off in pursuit of happiness. Soon, we learn that no brochure can offer this item for sale. After his Caribbean view has darkened into a cloud of anxieties, De Botton pinpoints the trouble with travel: “I had inadvertently brought myself with me.”

The author and his partner (“M”) bicker about next to nothing. “Squabbling with a partner on holiday is quite humbling,” he says. “You think, human beings are so ridiculous. We’ve just had an argument about the cap of the sun-cream and yet, historically, we’re incredibly privileged.”

The whole book functions as a sort of gloss on a quotation from John Ruskin: “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser.” Add a zero to Ruskin’s 1860s steam velocity, and the point holds. Without a change of mind as well as scene, travel only means a burst of burning fuel. “It goes to the heart of happiness, I think,” De Botton says. “The only way to be happy is to realise how much depends on how you look at things.” Your own viewpoint will fix feelings far more solidly than any vista: “If you have to rank how happiness comes about,” he argues, “beauty is a worryingly weak ingredient, in terms of shifting mood.”

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