Open Eye: Ignore the folklore: what do the residents of Milton Keynes think about living there?

If Tony Blair was a place, he'd be Milton Keynes - a statement from an Independent article in 1996 speaking volumes about the popular image of Milton Keynes, which has entered modern folklore as the ultimate symbol of the 'soulless city'. And perhaps quite a bit about the Prime Minister, too.

How do we picture urban life and how is this picture constructed? Are such negative views of city life shared by the people who actually live there?

These are some of the questions posed by OU Professor Ruth Finnegan, Professor in Comparative Social Institutions, in her latest book, Tales of the City.

Professor Finnegan's focus is on Milton Keynes, which happens to be where the OU is physically based. But her concerns are broader than the image of one city, and reflect her interest in storytelling and myth and how they shape our understanding of the world.

Despite its underlying sociological and anthropological content, what gives the book most interest for the general reader is probably the varied collection of personal stories from a wide range of 'ordinary people' living in the city: the woman who became a taxi-driver to support herself after losing her business and leaving her partner; the girl who left home at 14 and found herself a job in a clothes store; the man in his seventies who fell in love with a young girl, exactly forty years after the death of his wife.

Professor Finnegan treats the urban theories of planners and academics as another form of storytelling, and one of the things which emerges from the book is that the anti-urban themes often prominent in the theorists' tales are in contrast to the more positive views which many city-dwellers seem to hold of their environment.

The book can be seen as a companion volume to Professor Finnegan's earlier work on music-making in Milton Keynes, The Hidden Musicians, or it can be read as an independent work.

Tales of the City: A Study of Narrative and Urban Life by Ruth Finnegan, published by Cambridge University Press price pounds 14.95 (paperback). ISBN A 0521 626234.