Why go abroad? Reading Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’

the-art-of-travel-alain-de-botton“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” laments the melodramatic Withnail in the cult film ‘Withnail and I’ as his escape from his filthy London squat for the fresh country air of the English Lake District turns out to be anything but idyllic.

Withnail and his of out-of-work actor chum “I” are enduring what so many have experienced for real on their own travels: when the pictures on the holiday brochure (or in one’s imagination) turns out be nothing like the real experience.

This all too familiar feeling of traveller’s gloom is one of the many aspects of that great human urge to “go on holiday” that the British philosopher and best-selling author Alain De Botton explores in his highly entertaining and insightful book The Art of Travel.

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, [but] we hear little of why and how we should go,” muses De Botton in the first chapter called “On anticipation”.

De Botton recalls his own disappointing experience of a tropical island holiday to Barbados where he went with his partner one year, to escape the London winter.

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Withnail and I: We’ve gone on holiday by mistake

Prior to traveling he imagined only “a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun”, a “bungalow with views through French doors” and an “azure sky”.

What he didn’t imagine was the “large petrol storage facility” near the airport, the long line of people waiting to have their passports stamped, adverts for rum above the luggage carousel and “a confusion of taxi drivers and tour guides outside the terminal building”.

It’s not just that the holiday ‘looks’ nothing like the brochure. Even when the author does find himself in a place which should be restful and calming – the idyllic sandy beach of his imagination – he struggles to relax, his mind is full of worries about “back home” leading De Botton to the depressing realisation that he has taken ‘himself’, with all its anxieties, fears and frustrations, on holiday with him too.

“…the mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”

This candidness and almost painful honest is one of the great joys of reading De Botton. He is never afraid to draw on his own bitter experiences, failings and annoying habits to illustrate a key point; in this way, he makes himself a very likeable and sincere narrator.

As with the other books of his I have read (The Consolations of PhilosophyThe Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life)  De Botton draws on the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past – philosophers, artists, writers, painters and poets – to provide answers to the questions he has about the paradoxes, ironies and mysteries of the travel experience.  (Surely no other writer has managed to make philosophy so interesting and so practical).

These include the American realist painter Edward Hopper whose evocative scenes of lonely travellers waiting in empty motels rooms, gas stations and automats, De Botton relates to the idea of travel as a journey of reflective introspection. The poetry and power of these melancholic scenes De Botton also says explains why we take pleasure and comfort in ugly highway rest stops, where we find kingship with other fellow travellers amid the harsh lighting and plastic furniture.

I particularly enjoyed De Botton’s description of a lacklustre visit to Madrid, where he could barely muster the strength to get out of bed, despite the great Spanish city with its palaces, museums and art galleries beckoning him from below his hotel room. Only the fear of the hotel maid entering his room for a fourth time and exclaiming “Hola, Perdone!” roused him from his depression.

While one’s first reaction is to be annoyed with De Botton for squandering such a great opportunity to see the sights, who on their own travels has not grown lethargic and bored at the prospect of a visit to yet another ancient ruin, art gallery or museum, which our travel guide tells us we should be enthusiastically visiting and gazing at in wonder.

Here De Botton takes his cues from the great German explorer and naturalist Alexander von HumboldtGerman explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt whose curiosity for all the things strange and unusual he discovered and catalogued on his expeditions reminded De Botton that what we find pleasurable or interesting on our travels should not be determined by the latest edition of the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Humboldt did not suffer such intimidation…He could unselfconsciously decide what interested him. He could create his own categories of value…

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Curious explorer: Alexander von Humboldt

De Botton’s other guides include Vincent Van Gogh, whose vibrant paintings of bright yellow wheatfields and whirling Cypress trees in Arles reveal the hidden beauty and power in seemingly ordinary places and the poetry of William Wordsworth, which celebrated daffodils, sheep and trees – as an explanation for why we yearn to escape the city for the restorative piers of the countryside.

(It’s just a shame my paperback edition of The Art of Travel reproduced all the artworks and photographs in black and white, though its easy enough, albeit a little disruptive to one’s reading, to look up the full colour version on one’s smartphone or tablet.)

There is of course another message that De Botton is so eager to share: that one does not have to jump on a plane and fly 5000 miles to a remote island to undertake an enlightening journey. Just exploring one’s own neighbourhood with a curious eye and alert mind can reveal wonders, as the author does himself with a meditative walk through his London suburb of Hammersmith.

In fact, one does not even have to leave one’s bedroom to “travel” if one subscribes to the wisdom of French writer Xavier de Maistre whose bizarre book Journey Around My Bedroom, published in 1794 De Botton brings back from obscurity.

While De Botton acknowledges there is clearly something rather silly about de Maistre’s suggestion that rather then go travelling we instead admire the elegance of one’s bedroom furniture,  he also recognises a more profound message that “the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps more dependent on the mindset with which we travel then on the destination we travel to”.

It’s one worth remembering the next time we reach for the chunky travel guide wedged in our bookshelf, when the urge to go on holiday hits us again.

(Readers of The Art of Travel, might also enjoy an accompanied documentary Alain De Botton made on the topic, which you can watch for free on YouTube:

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Doxxing, Journalism and the anonymous Casefile host

So it’s true. I doxxingbriefly “doxxed” the anonymous host of popular crime recital podcast Casefile.

I’d actually never heard of the curious word – ‘doxx ‘or ‘dox’ – until I wrote an article on this humble blog a few months ago revealing a few personal details about the mysterious “Brad” whose spooky Wikipedia-inspired retelling of famous crimes has turned him into a surprising, and apparently extremely reluctant podcast superstar.

Doxxing, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary is:

slang : to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge  

My now deleted article included the host’s full name, age, the town where he lived and a few other bits of trivia about him. I also included a smiling photo sourced from social media.

It only took a couple of hours of digging to work out who he was – my motivation was neither malicious nor vengeful,  only pure curiosity. Anybody using a bit of lateral thinking could have found as much, if not more.

After removing the article as a favour, I wrote a fresh post about my interactions with the Casefile host and then another about his subsequent blocking of me on Twitter.

Among the many responses, came this from Laura: “I was also curious about who this fellow Aussie was, now after seeing his response to you doxxing him I agree his identity should remain completely anonymous”.

Digging around online I found that the fan-run Casefile Reddit page has a strict “zero tolerance Doxxing Rule” which it says applies “to victims” (strange, as Casefile podcasts are full of personal details of the victims of crimes) “but also to the host”.

“We will remove immediately any posts regarding the identity of the host unless they come from the Casefile Official Website. Period,” the Reddit page says.

It’s a curious kind of inverse vigilantism since unlike many infamous doxxing cases (like that of Brennan Gilmore, who tweeted the video of the car driven by a white supremacist madman that ploughed into anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville last year and was then doxxed by far right activists who posted the home address of his parents on online message boards) there appears to be no genuine reason for the host’s anonymity, apart from him not wanting anyone to know who he is.

Bear in mind,  I didn’t hack any databases or emails to find out who he was, nor did I post his home address or phone number. Every bit of information was publicly available at the time to anyone who cared to investigate.

I think it’s also worth considering the issue of doxxing from a journalistic point of view.

Journalists doxx all the time: we write about people who wish to remain anonymous in the interests of a good story.

As a property writer, it is part of my job to reveal who is buying and who is selling real estate even if those doing the buying or selling wish to remain anonymous.

In almost all cases the doxxing is justified in the interests of a transparent property market where millions of dollars are involved. Plus our readers want to know who is buying and who is selling. It’s that simple.

This is not to say that sometimes anonymity must be respected and protected, but the reason have to be compelling; no journalist wants to tell only half a story.

Even more important, often a supposed case of “doxxing” can reveal what is hiding in the shadows.

As a Melbourne judge recently remarked of a once anonymous property developer who illegally demolished a historic Melbourne pub and then dumped asbestos waste from the pub near homes and a childcare centre: “I hope everyone knows your name.”

A new owner for Gisborne’s Macedon House

IMG-1231In June, I blogged about Macedon House, the 170-year-old crumbling wreck in Gisborne (where I live) north of Melbourne that had stood vacant for more than a decade.

The once grand property which the  Victorian Heritage Council called “a rare surviving example of an early Victorian hotel” and with a rich and colourful history had passed through successive ownerships in recent years, with plans including to turn it into a retirement village – none of which came to fruition.

Then on August 4 it went to auction as a mortgagee sale, with the hope that the buyer would restore it to its former glory.

For the new owner, Macedon House came with the caveat that whoever bought it would have to carry out urgent repairs under a Victorian State Government order aimed at protecting historically significant properties.

I can report, the August 4 auction through Kennedy & Hunt Real Estate was a success – Macedon House has a new owner after selling under the hammer for $1.36 million in front of about 60 people.

According to our local community paper, the Gisborne Gazette, the buyer is former Gisborne resident Troy Daffy, who owns and runs Brisbane-based developer Silverstone Developments.

Encouragingly for locals, Mr Daffy told the Gisborne Gazette he would carry out repairs to Macedon House as ordered by the State Government to bring it back to its former glory, but has no plans yet for the land surrounding the homestead.

“I may live in Brisbane, but at heart I am still a Gisborne boy,” he told the paper.

Silverstone has undertaken apartment developments in Brisbane, as well as commercial and retail projects

In June it paid $7.15 million for a 1.3 hectare site in Rochedale in Brisbane’s outer southern suburbs with plans for a medical and retail centre plus townhouses. Silverstone also owns property in the Brisbane CBD, Fortitude Valley and a retail subdivision in Upper Coomera.

As to what Mr Daffy’s plans are for the large Gisborne property – only time will tell. But a restoration of what has become a sad Gisborne eyesore, will be welcomed by locals.