Books: Fat Wallets, Hungry Hearts the Books Interview; Richard Sennett Explores the Anxieties of Affluence, at Work and on City Streets

By Tonkin, Boyd | The Independent (London, England), October 17, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Books: Fat Wallets, Hungry Hearts the Books Interview; Richard Sennett Explores the Anxieties of Affluence, at Work and on City Streets


Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)


I meet Richard Sennett for a costly coffee in a slick bar that used to be a bank. Waggishly, it namechecks that former purpose in its title. This seems an apt place to find a man who ranks as the most gifted and illuminating writer in English today on the culture of cities and the changing character of work. His new book asks how we have adapted to the swift move from (as it were) bank to Bank. Are we happy with the shift from fixed routine and stuffy hierarchy to chic but brittle lives that may vanish as fast as froth on a pricey cappuccino?

The Corrosion of Character (W W Norton, pounds 14.95) updates Sennett's lifelong concern with the emotional impact of economic trends. It indicts the hi- tech "flexible" capitalism of long hours and short contracts, the fast buck and the early exit. Now, fidelity and trust will get you nowhere except the office of the redundancy counsellor: "the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character". Yet lean, mean business, he stresses, does not even score well on the productivity front: "Thatcher, Reagan, Blair, Clinton - all of them have told us that modernising means people are more competitive. Right? And it's just not true."

Across the road, in his cheerless office at the London School of Economics, Sennett lights up the first of several cigarettes with the raffish glee of a middle-aged radical American who came of age before the advent of the New Puritanism. Urbane, gently ironic, with a trained eye for the nuances of social style (when he tells me he's living in Hampstead, he chortles), this is the academic as artist. Even, perhaps, as virtuoso: Sennett studied the cello at the Juilliard in New York and still plays when he can. "I bought a cello in London - that's when I knew I was serious about this job." Chicago-born, but for many years a professor at New York University, he is now attached to a new LSE unit for city policy. It aims to steer planners and builders away from the high-rise catastrophes of the postwar decades. So have architects learnt the error of their ways? "They have been made to feel guilty for their mistakes. But guilt is not a source of knowledge. That's one of the reasons we started this programme: to give young architects access to social knowledge." Sennett himself grew up in the "fairly tolerant" Cabrini Green estate in Chicago - a project later used, film buffs may recall, as the exemplary urban wilderness of Bernard Rose's classy horror movie Candyman. Now, "it's being dynamited. What they're putting up instead are these little cottage-like structures in the middle of the city - which is another kind of stigma". He has come to the LSE at the invitation of his old friend Anthony Giddens - the school's director, court philosopher to Tony Blair, and apostle of that elusive "Third Way". Sennett accepts that we can never return to the old regime of welfare bureaucracy and corporate jobs-for-life but he really doesn't strike one as a Third Way kind of guy. "One of the things that's extraordinary about its moral values," he comments, "is that it's all about loyalty and commitment: virtues which are not practised by the victors" in the short-term society. He assiduously read all the debates from the recent Labour conference. Blair and Brown appear to his American eyes as "so decent, so capable", yet he sees their Cool Britannia in thrall to a blind optimism imported from his native turf. "American culture is very strongly oriented to the Golden Boy syndrome: the person who effortlessly gets tasks done. They're first in everything, they're kindly, they're good at games. I had the feeling in these documents that so much of the language is of golden boys and girls, not of people who are suffering or confused. Yet that's what the world is like. Most of us, we don't know what our best interests are. If we do, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. We need help. That's life.

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