On De Botton

 

THE WORKPLACE:The business of interviewing people is a peculiar dance. You meet up with a complete stranger and ask them quite intimate questions, while simultaneously they try to sell something, whether that's a book, a new business, or in many cases, themselves, writes RICHARD GILLIS

Within this game, an accomplished interviewee offers up just enough information to make themselves sound interesting, while protecting their "private life". Given these parameters, the interviewer is left looking for snippets, something quirky they can use. Quite often these attempts at character insight are misguided, and give at best an unreliable view of their subject. But sometimes, a piece of personal information feels so significant and so relevant, it's hard to get beyond it. This was the case with Alain de Botton.

After an exchange of e-mails, I arrange to meet de Botton to discuss his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Workat his apartment in affluent Belsize Park, north London.

I should be clear that I'm a fan. Despite a string of big sellers, de Botton gets a bit of flak for being a "pop philosopher". I take this to mean he makes the subject accessible to people who didn't read the classics at one of the great universities (that would be me). He flatters his readers, they say, by making them feel more intelligent than they are (no problem there), and his use of Seneca, Plato and Socrates to solve the everyday dilemmas of life is, they say, simplistic, and arms pseudo-intellectuals (me again) with just enough clever-sounding conversation to get through to dessert (what more do you want from a book?).

But there is substance too. His early work, How Proust Can Change Your Life, was described as "dazzling" by John Updike, the greatest American novelist of the 20th century. The Consolations of Philosophyand The Art of Travelboth tackle big ideas with the author's trademark light touch.

For two years, de Botton (who's 40 this year) has applied his brain (a double first at Cambridge) to the world of work, an idea driven by frustration at its treatment in literature, which tends to view work with suspicion.

"It is a neo-romantic idea that work is bad, and real life takes place in the countryside, outside the city," he says. "I see this attitude as the legacy of the industrial revolution and over-rapid industrialisation. The brutality of this turned most writers in the 19th century into defenders of traditional values, which they defined as being those found in the countryside."

So far, so typical de Botton: The everyday mashed up with the intellectual, delivered in perfect sentences. His new book is full of this sort of stuff, as he goes around the world poking his nose into the lives and work spaces of accountants, satellite engineers, tuna fishermen, factory workers and others whose lives are largely ignored by the media: "Nobody makes a TV drama about life in logistics."

It's about here that we rub up against the problem, that one fact that changes the context of the book and forces you to read it through a different lens. You see, Alain de Botton is rich. Not just well off, but preposterously rich. His father, Gilbert de Botton, was head of Rothschild Bank in the 1970s and went on to create Global Asset Management, which he turned into one of the most successful fund management companies in the world, selling it to UBS in 1999, a year before he died.

Gilbert left his son a trust fund of over £200 million, which he does not touch, preferring to live off his income from writing, documentary making and other creative work. So what are we to make of his need to spend two years seeking the meaning of work and, as he says, "bounce my own life off the experience of others and compare and contrast"?

His wealth is an irrelevance when reading a de Botton book on, say, travel or love or philosophy. But work? At best it affords him a distance from the day-to-day grind most of us suffer, and at worst leaves you with the obvious question: what does he know about it?

In one scene, he spies a woman in the office at United Biscuits in the unlovely west London suburb of Hayes. She's staring at a computer, "typing up a document relating to the brand performance of the Moments range", which brought to his mind an image from an Edward Hopper painting, which he then shares with Renae, the woman in question. "I wondered out loud to Renae why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the industrial revolution so seldom extended beyond the provision of commonplace material goods." Faced with these questions, she politely tells de Botton where to get off. "Renae had little to add to this analysis. A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her."

Such encounters are commonplace and run the line of excruciating and funny. Here he is on accountancy: "Many accountants do their job for intrinsic reasons; they don't say to themselves I'd love to be painting, but am an accountant just to pay the bills, which was my suspicion. In those I observed, these were people who had found their vocation in a certain kind of numerical needlework."

To dismiss de Botton because of his baggage is to miss the point. "I come from a philosophical background where the highest thing is supposed to be the ability to retreat from the world, sit in an ivory tower and consider mortality and the great questions," he says. "With age I've become a bit suspicious of this recommendation, and one of the great things about work is its ability to close off some of these huge and unanswerable questions and feelings, the greatest of which is death. It keeps us focused on a relatively achievable goal, something you can turn around in an afternoon and feel a sense of mastery over some area of the world. We will always be small creatures in a wide universe and that is an agonising thing, but in a workplace we can put those thoughts aside, feel relatively important and rush about, keeping our worries at bay."

He thinks many other jobs are easier than his own job, of writing. Being a lawyer or doctor, for example, are occupations that "once you master them, you can do them, whereas writing is a genuinely fickle, unstable, unpredictable beast, where you never quite know whether you've done it right and very often at the end of the working day you are left with the feeling that all you've achieved is these two paragraphs and I think they're shit".

"There are certain jobs in life that are meaningful: stitching people together after they've had a road accident, or singing opera - either saving people from massive distress or helping people in some wonderful way. But most of us are not engaged in these activities and exist somewhere in the middle, in some ways alleviating some minor incidental problem of life. All our lives are capable of being rendered meaningless by a certain number of questions." How many questions, I ask. "About four," he replies, smiling.