Concrete facts and urban myth

Tales of the City
January 8, 1999

When asked to give his opinion on Daniel Liebeskind's design for the V&A extension in London, the critic Brian Sewell stated that it might be all right in the middle of Milton Keynes but had no business in Kensington. He could have chosen 100 alternative locations but he knew that the new town in Buckinghamshire would conjure particular images in the mind of his audience. Similarly Ruth Finnegan focuses on Milton Keynes, not because she is writing about that city, but because it provides the ideal laboratory for her study of narrative. The fact that it was created only 30 years ago, that it was planned within a particular ideological framework, that, as a result, most of its population has not been there for long, and that a mythology has developed around the city makes it attractive to researchers, particularly if, as in this case, they are based in one of the city's main institutions, the Open University. But this book is less about the place than about the telling of stories about it.

Narrative is an established academic subject with a body of theory, some of which is discussed in the first chapter, which also sets out what the author understands a story to be: it must have a temporal dimension and some kind of plot; it must contain the possibility of universality and be told within recognisable conventions. As becomes apparent in the book, these parameters do not restrict the range of stories that can be analysed but they provide the context in which the analysis takes place. The examples start with academic theories about the city in general; Milton Keynes does not figure at all in these abstract tales, which nevertheless have the characteristics of "stories" about cities.

The third chapter deals with four types of tales of the city: first, heroic ones as told by town planners and the Development Corporation; the second type places Milton Keynes within the "garden city story"; the third is more multifaceted and encompasses all those stories, often originated in the media, about the artificiality of the town and its lack of soul; in contrast the last type groups locally generated tales that reflect on its humanity and ordinariness. Finnegan summarises: "There is something about the concept of a 'new city' which seems to attract the extreme versions of the tales I" The most substantial part of the book deals with personal narratives, told by 35 residents of one housing estate over four to six weeks in 1994, and reproduced here almost verbatim; the author explains her method of recording, transposing and editing the oral material collected. In itself this is a "story" that could be subjected to the same kind of analysis as the tales that are her subject, something the author is no doubt aware of. The role of stories for the teller and the listener, the circumstances of the "performance", their importance in shaping reality are some of the subjects discussed, too many to list here.

At the end, some specificities of Milton Keynes emerge. Most interesting is the view that in this city the apparent paradox between nature and artificiality has been resolved; the concrete cows have become real and Milton Keynes is both town and country.

Sebastian Loew is editor, Urban Design Quarterly .

Tales of the City: A Study of Narrative and Urban Life

Author - Ruth Finnegan
ISBN - 0 521 62623 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00, £14.95
Pages - 212

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