Patrick Pittman on Alain de Botton
London is unhappy. It’s never been a city for smiling, but the clouds that have settled over its sprawl in late 2011 don’t look like leaving any time soon.
Spilling out of the same tube station I did fifteen years ago, back when London was the center of the universe, I see no signs of Cool Brittania. Damien Hirst at the Royal Academy. The Heavenly Social. The ground outside our flat torn up for the extension of the Jubilee line, running to the Millennium Dome. That rubble is gone. The record store where I worked, now an off-brand clothing outlet. My markers, dust.
Earlier this year, this city tore itself apart at its neglected seams in an explosion of tension and rage. At St Paul’s, the police and the people and the priesthood are now warily staring each other down as the City pushes for the ejection of the Occupy protestors. The canon chancellor has resigned. St Paul was a tentmaker, he reminds them. Any kind of messiah that might be born now, he ventures, could well be born in one of these tents. Glimmers of the simple, of the self, of the brave.
My search for a smile takes me to a shopfront in Bloomsbury. The School of Life, the sign says. Ideas to live by, it says. Now, whenever I hear the words ‘self help’, I reach for my politely-but-quickly-backing-out-of-the-room-and-breaking-into-a-sprint manoeuvre. But this place is something else. Under headings like ‘work’ and ‘happiness’, works by the great thinkers are stacked alongside modern lit. The day before, Miranda July had encouraged an audience to auction the contents of their handbags. Its teaching space, all crumpled velvet curtains and dim light, is the sort of place I could imagine hatching Situationist plots to subvert a city. The School is a place of play and whimsy and big talk. It is accessible, it is warm, it is stylish, and it is serious. Kind of like the man behind it.
Later, in the North of London, near Primrose Hill, I’m walking tranquil backstreets towards Alain de Botton’s office. Next door to his home, a work of modern architectural beauty, he sits at the window of a small block of flats, in a surprisingly humble work space. He is one of the most generous and kindhearted interview subjects ever to have hosted me. The audio of this interview is littered with little interruptions as he stands to refill my water, while I pepper him with questions on faith and fatherhood.
Alain knows that living is hard. That the world is a place of urgent protest, and war, and famine, and disease. But against that backdrop, questions of the self are critical. What is a functioning society, after all, without happiness? Without dignity? And, for that matter, without love? If the millions who buy his books (amongst them, Essays in Love, The Consolations of Philosophy, Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work), watch him on TV, listen to his radio shows and stay in his holiday homes are an indicator, these are questions that still matter.