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.


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…


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:


“Chin, chin Monty”: remembering “Withnail and I” star Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths (left) with Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann)

“My boys” – Richard Griffiths (left) as “Uncle Monty” with “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) in “Withnail and I”

“Monty you terrible c-nt. what are you doing prowling round in the middle of the f-cking night?”

So says “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) upon discovering his rotund, gay, impeccably posh “Uncle Monty” (Richard Griffiths) is the prowler he and “I” (Paul McGann) are so terrified of as they huddle in a room in their freezing cottage in the English  countryside.

For me and I imagine for many of his fans, Richard Griffiths, the English actor who so sadly passed away this weekend will always be remembered as “Uncle Monty” in the cult 1986 comedy “Withnail and I” directed by Bruce Robinson.

For others, he will be remembered as uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films or as the eccentric, but groping and doomed school teacher in the Alan Bennett play, The History Boys.

Living in London at the time, I was fortunate to score free tickets to see the very first performance of The History Boys in 2004 and Richard Griffiths in the lead role.

He was wonderful, and there certainly was an Uncle Monty-like dimension to his character, that of a gay man who can’t hold back his proclivities – (though Uncle Monty preferred tweed and tailored suits and would never have been seen in Hector’s riding-gear leathers.)

The obituaries have been generous and glowing.

Apart from having a short temper, Griffiths is described as lovable, generous, warm and down to earth and someone , who, with out the assistance of good looks or privilege (he grew up in a coal mining town in North Yorkshire and both his parents were deaf) forged a highly successful career as an English character actor who in the words of Guardian writer Lyn Gardner brought “sheer delicacy”to his roles.

All pay tribute to his greatest comic creation, that of Uncle Monty, and so they should.

Upon learning of his death, I pulled out my copy of “With Nails” the film diaries of his “Withnail and I” co-star Richard E. Grant and read what he wrote upon meeting Richard Griffiths for the first time.

Not surprisingly, Griffiths sounds a lot like Uncle Monty; perhaps he was getting into character:

Grant writes:

“Richard Griffiths arrives in the evening, roasted and in agony from too much sun in Tuscany, which doesn’t stop him enjoying five courses, cigs, vino and tales of Thespia. His larger than life avuncularity comes as a great relief for we have been so wound up rehearsing that it was beginning to feel as if we were the only characters in this lark.”

While it would be unfair to say Griffiths had all the best lines in the movie, he certainly got some of the most memorable ones and fans of the movie will no doubt be able to recite many of them verbatim:

Lines like (while discussing the growing of vegetables):

“I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”

…which then turns into a hilarious phallic joke when Monty professes his love of a certain root vegetable:

“There is you’ll agree a certain je ne ses quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot.”

My favourite line is probably, this tender-hearted utterance, when explaining why he can never touch uncooked meat:

“As a youth, I used to weep in butcher shops.”

Griffiths played Uncle Monty with sheer brilliance, portraying him as an eccentric, lonesome gay man with Thespian aspirations to “tread the boards” and fond of delivering soliloquys about his boyhood “friend” Wrigglesworth,with whom he would ride off into the countryside and when night fell,”find some old barn and fall asleep with the sweet perfume of hay on our lips” and “the sounds of nature sighing by our side”.

While “Withnail and I” is a comedy, it is very much a melancholic comedy, with Griffiths as the love-sore, randy and lonesome Uncle Monty, who will “never play the Dane (Hamlet)”.

For those who have not seen it, it’s the story about two out of work actors – “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) living in London at the end of the 1960s who go on holiday “by mistake” courtesy of Uncle Monty’s cottage in the countryside to escape the misery and cold of their Camden Town flat.

The holiday quickly unravels, filled with misadventure, randy bulls, English tea rooms, copious amounts of alcohol, and a procession of bizarre characters (some even more eccentric than Uncle Monty).

withnail and I poster

Neither “Withnail” nor “I” expect Uncle Monty to pay them a visit and pursue the horror-filled “I” with a buggery-induced belligerence that culminates in those hilarious, lines delivered by Griffiths (and quoted in almost every obituary I have read of him):

“I mean to have you boy, even if it be burglary!”

It’s been a while since I last watched “Withnail and I” but feel a tribute viewing in honour of Richard Griffiths is on the cards.

If you’ve never seen it, seek it out in the cult section of your nearest DVD store immediately.

Chin chin and RIP in Uncle Monty!