On Saturday, I had the luck to introduce Alain de Botton at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He’s the nearest thing we have in this country to an intellectual, filling the gap left by the late George Steiner.
Like Steiner, Mr de Botton is brainy to an extent that only a European can be: he is Swiss. His latest books, however, both offer reflections on London, where he now lives. I discovered A Week at the Airport, written after voluntary incarceration at Heathrow, in the travel section at Waterstone’s, on a shelf labelled ‘aircraft recognition’.
It isn’t, however, a plane-spotter’s manual, so much as a meditation on what Mr de Botton calls ‘the imaginative centre of contemporary culture’. Just before going on stage at Cheltenham, he begged me not to mention this work, ‘because otherwise they’ll all want to buy it’. An unusual request from an author. It had the effect of making me forget the names of all the other de Botton books I’d intended to describe.
Instead, attention was to be focused on Mr de Botton’s latest, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which opens with a hymn to the container terminal at Tilbury. Charles II built a handsomely geometrical fort at Tilbury to defend the Thames after the Dutch raid on Chatham you can watch the mighty cargo ships from there.