Books: Fat wallets, hungry hearts

The Books Interview; Richard Sennett explores the anxieties of affluence, at work and on city streets.
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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."

This sense of mortal frailty and mutual need gives Sennett's prose a rare depth, and plenty of rueful charm. He emphasises that "the theme of human insufficiency" has fuelled his writing ever since The Uses of Disorder in 1970. "The notion that people can make themselves complete, whole, seems to me the greatest of all modern illusions." In The Corrosion of Character, his interviewees include some downsized former IBM executives who live near his home in upstate New York. Their cafe-table conversations come to grips "with this forbidden subject: failure. We never talk about it: that risks will go wrong, that the likelihood is, if you're unemployed at 50, you are going to remain that way". He found the IBM rejects "neither ravaged by guilt, nor are they rising in rebellion. It's something that struck me: they are really adults."

Sennett tends to view the calamities and cock-ups that attend all human striving with an almost priestly sympathy. You suspect a lapsed-religious background - and so there is, in a very particular way. "My mother and uncle were members of the Communist Party; so was my father, but he was a rather dreamy communist. My uncle tried to organise a communist autoworkers' union in Chicago; my mother tried to organise the black women who came up from the South to work during the war."

He was raised in the odour not so much of faith as of bitter disenchantment. "The real struggle they had with communism was not how to believe but how to salvage something from the ruins of this terrible system which most of them had come to reject. My uncle fought in Spain. He was one of the last of the International Brigade to leave. One day in 1939, he was listening to the radio in some village and he heard the Hitler-Stalin pact announced. `What will these Francoists stoop to next?' he thought." What his uncle took for vile propaganda was, of course, the awful truth.

A Forsterian feel for incorrigible mess and muddle lends his writing a rich texture that can pull it closer to fiction than standard social science. His new book revisits the Boston scenes of his 1972 study of blue-collar anxieties, The Hidden Injuries of Class - a classic of its time that belongs firmly in the same frame as early Bruce Springsteen or Martin Scorsese. Now, that era's solid economic ground has melted into a stream of transient, hi-tech jobs. Yet, oddly, Sennett's tone has lightened: his stories provoke as much mirth as regret. In a computer-controlled Boston bakery, the "bakers" can't make bread. Their Bible-quoting Jamaican foreman gives "voluntary seminars in the art of baking". Only a pair of Vietnamese refugees bother to attend.

Best of all, we meet Rose, wisecracking landlady of Sennett's favourite Manhattan bar. At 53, she tires of her Cheers-like cast of regulars ("even you, Richard, sweetie") and goes uptown to work in advertising. It all ends in tears. The thin young things at the agency patronise her into the ground. When they come to work on a vodka account, her 30 years' experience of serving booze counts for zilch. "They were talking lite this and lite that," she says, "and I said `Nobody goes to a bar to lose weight'." How did the others take that? "Like I was an exhibit in a museum: the Old Bar Maid."

Sennett does - occasionally - find time to write proper fiction. "I have these periods when it's all I want to do". Palais-Royal, his sumptuous panorama of Paris in the 1840s, can stand comparison with the mid-19th- century recreations of Byatt, Carey or Bainbridge. Another novel, An Evening of Brahms, explores the meaning of music, his early and abiding love. His great book about the shifting boundary between self and social role, The Fall of Public Man, cites as inspiration not a philosopher but two pianists, Clifford Curzon and Murray Perahia.

In his work - as in his ideal city - contrasting styles touch and bloom. The social observer draws authority from the realm of the creative arts; the political radical gains gravitas from the cultural - and emotional - conservative. Always, he respects distances and distrusts the modern cult of intimacy. When he speaks about giggly TV confessionals, bemusement veers into distaste. "Why do people demean themselves to do this? Rather than having that little nervous laugh, they should be in despair."

In Germany, where The Corrosion of Character has ridden high in the bestseller charts, he had to endure the tag of "postmodernist" because he writes about a mixed-up brave new world that no amount of nostalgia will cause to disappear. He spurns the label with some vehemence. "I am an old-fashioned humanist and, I suppose, an old-fashioned democratic socialist. I think that modern society, in lots of ways, demeans the dignity of the human subject, and that dignity is something that people need as much as they need bread."

We know that new-model bakers can't bake bread. Can new-model politicians deliver dignity? Sennett prefers DIY social action but talks warmly of Lionel Jospin, the French premier. "He wants to make ordinary people feel that their lives are more worthwhile. He may not give them more money, but he wants to give them more-self-respect." It's a credo that fits Jospin's admirer like a glove. Just don't expect to hear him voice it on Richard and Judy's sofa.

Richard Sennett, A Biography

Born in 1943, Richard Sennett grew up in Chicago, in a family of union organisers. He took a first degree in music, studied the cello at the Juilliard School in New York and sociology at Harvard, then became professor of sociology and humanities at New York University. His first books, in 1970, were Families against the City and The Uses of Disorder. He then published The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), The Fall of Public Man (1974) and Authority (1980). In the 1980s he wrote three novels, followed by two books about urban culture: The Conscience of the Eye (1990) and Flesh and Stone (1994). His new book is The Corrosion of Character, published (like his previous works) by W W Norton. He is married to the political economist Saskia Sassen, with a stepson, Hilary, who is a sculptor.