Paperbacks

9th February 1996 at 00:00
The way we smell, eat, dress and have sex . . . these are not the first preoccupations of all historians. However, Flesh and Stone by Richard Sennett (Faber Pounds 13.99) concentrates entirely on such matters for it is a history of the relationship between the human body and the shape of our cities. It is both a revelation and a pertinent critique of where we have gone wrong.

Sennett believes we fail to honour the dignity of the body. He therefore begins with a tribute to the confident nakedness of the Athenian gymnasium where "a boy learned how to use his body so that he could desire and be desired honourably"; one's body (and voice) were part of the democratic body politic.

He next considers Roman urban design; shows how the medieval city was a sanctuary (and, later, ghetto); and admires the sense of freedom in post-revolutionary Paris (and in the parks or lungs of London). He concludes with our present contradictory desires for freedom of movement and insulation from "those who are Other". To be read by all town planners and architects.

In The Uses of Disorder (Faber Pounds 9.99), he argues more specifically that security-minded parents and the urban middle classes in general are creating a compartmentalised society which is stultifying and which ultimately provokes violence. We need room, he suggests, for creative disorder.

Northern disorder comes under Charles Jennings' cruel gaze in Up North (Travels Beyond the Watford Gap) (Abacus Pounds 6.99). As a Northerner, I like Northern humour. For example, Victoria Wood's television announcer: "We should like to apologise to those of you viewing in the North. It must be terrible. " Effete Southerners are not allowed to make such jibes - except that Jennings (I regret) is often spot on target.

There are as many bushes and saplings growing out of semi-derelict buildings in Manchester as in southern Turkey, Yorkshiremen such as Sir Marcus Fox, Sir Bernard Ingham and Fred Truman can "make 15 minutes seem like a fortnight" and as for Blackpool, well, yes, "the whole town does have halitosis". Anyone teaching north of the Trent should find plenty here to provoke cynical debate or inspire a creative counterblast.

Those further north will find an equally stirring anthology of source material in The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales (Pounds 8.99). Neil Philip's collection of over a hundred witty, chilling and moral stories draws on the oral traditions of the Highlands and Islands and of the Lowlands. Be ready to do battle with ogres, devils and dialect.

An honorary Scotsman is the subject of Mike Seabrook's Max (Gollancz Pounds 14.99), a biography of Peter Maxwell Davies which favours his music above his life. Indeed, it is positively coy about the inner man (who now finds peace and inspiration on Orkney) but there are fascinating pictures of Max the boy and Max the music teacher.

At Leigh Boys GS in Lancashire, Max's headmaster was an appalling philistine called Bill Major and known as "Pig". Less confident souls might have suffered under such a man. Max simply composed a new piece for the end-of-term concert: Funeral March for a Dead Pig in B major.

As a young man, Max was obviously an inspiring teacher. He elicited dazzling creativity from an inner circle of chosen pupils in those heady days when teachers could be friendly, charismatic and idiosyncratic without alerting the Thought Police.

Anyone depressed by modern dullness might turn to the late Erich Fromm for inspiration. The Essential Fromm (Constable Pounds 6.95) is a short anthology drawn from the writings of the German psychoanalyst who articulated the difference between merely "having" and healthy "being", between craving and creativity. Or, as he puts it more specifically: "The main question is not 'Am I loved?' The main question is 'Can I love?'" Back to Athens.

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