Living in Community, Writing Alone I
‘I’m in love with somebody else, as well as you,’ he had told her. ‘As well as you . . .’ All that honesty. All that pain. Very seventies.
Those lines from David Armstrong’s novel, Thought for the Day, made me think about that decade. Where I was and what I was doing while the rest of my contemporaries were going through all that honesty, all that pain.
Becoming a writer, for many of us, involves this process of poring over the past, of re-evaluation. Of reliving days gone by with the advantages of hindsight and experience.
During the seventies I lived in two different communities. A large rural gathering of three-hundred people living on four estates in the North Yorkshire Moors. And a smaller community, more urban, but with only thirty to forty people. In both cases the communities were built around the concept of living and working with mentally challenged adults.
In the seventies the dream of the sixties was abandoned in favour of bourgeois materialism. The hippies hung up their bells and beads and went to work for Daddy or started toying around with computers. The world eased up on imagination and began to prepare itself for the long slide into the twin nightmares of Thatcher and Reagan.
A few of us found ourselves somewhere else. In a space where we could continue to experiment with social forms. Where we could draw up a model of how we would like to live and then put it into practice, modifying it as we went along. In a way our venture was not unlike the way that Joan Littlewood had managed the productions of the Theatre Workshop and it was in the tradition of Robert Owen and the ideals of the French revolution. Income was pooled and divided according to need.
But we weren’t all the same. Far from it. The age range was more or less the same as in the country at large. People were born and died within the community and among us were dreamers and idealists as well as builders and farmers; there was a smattering of academics, there were crafts people and administrators, gardeners, weavers and teachers. We had our New Age seekers-after-truth who believed in a return to a simpler life on the land, but they had to coexist with others who believed in the technological revolution and still others who were liberals or conservatives or devotees of the Buddha and exulted in the aestheticism of poverty.
Three things held us together. Firstly, none of us received a wage and we learned to look after each others needs; secondly, we wanted to live and work together because of our differences and not in spite of them. But the main unifying element was the sense that the leaders of the western world were hell-bent on subjugating all human and social values to the service of the profit motive. We were a group of people supported by a network of fellow-travellers who believed that there must be another way.
We lived in houses of up to about ten people, wherever possible ensuring that each person had a room of their own. Some people wanted to share a room and there were times when sharing a room was the only possibility of staying in the community. But we didn’t overcrowd. And we tended to specialize; if someone was good at maintaining the community vehicles we didn’t expect them to cook the breakfast as well. Those who enjoyed cooking were allowed to do the cooking, others who preferred, say, to work with animals were encouraged to work on the farms.
It was important that those living in a house together should share a meal at least once a day. This was usually the evening meal. Once a week the neighbourhood or the whole community would come together in a kind of social forum. These meetings weren’t chaired as such, there was an understanding that if you listened to what others had to say then when your turn came you would be afforded the same attention.
This was my life from day to day during that period. Tomorrow I’ll look at how those experiences shaped my writing and helped me to develop a voice. And I’ll attempt to say something about how that time laid the foundations of my approach to the writing of fiction today.