I had a fascinating conversation the other day with Tobias Jones, author of A place of refuge and this recent Observer article on communal living. I am in quiet awe of what Tobias and his family have achieved at Windsor Hill Wood and how they have gone about it. I’m also hugely impressed by the openness of his thinking and the clarity of his writing.
Tobias is exploring commonalities in different approaches to ‘community,’ from communalism to community development to neighbouring in its most manifest - and presumably least manifest - forms. As I understand it, he is searching for ways of strengthening those commonalities. We scratched the surface of a few issues. While I would have my doubts about attempting to package insights into evidence of a lasting contemporary grassroots movement – I’d love to be proved wrong – I think there is much to be said for a more systematic sharing of understanding. I look forward to what Tobias is writing next, an essay for New Statesman.
Just thinking about communal living in comparison with neighbouring is helpful. The amateur anthropologist in me is immediately muttering about how communal living is where we all came from: in the evolution of humankind, neighbouring is a rather more recent way of organising social relations. Tobias neatly offers communal living as ‘an alliance with the past to critique the present in the hope of a better future.’
This lived experience of time eludes most of us, however neighbourly our locality. In the contemporary neighbourhood context, it is much harder to remain immersed in ways of doing things that are mutual and sustainable. Allotment gardeners might have a grasp of it, commuters are less likely to. We struggle to appreciate how to do things sustainably in the sense of reducing emotional and spiritual damage as well as environmental damage. It’s no coincidence that gardeners do most of what they do outdoors, and commuters do most of what they do indoors or cocooned in vehicles. We often get the pace of living wrong and we lose much of the vocabulary of stewardship. I’m reminded of a quote from the wonderful Erri de Luca:
‘Holy man of Africa, I think, you come to impart your wisdom to a European savage who follows the moon on the calendar and the clouds on the radio and can’t read a word without an alphabet.’
Communalism comes with the category heading ‘Lifestyle’: neighbouring does not. I note also that the settlement co-residents described by Tobias are there at least partly to establish or regain a sense of stability in their lives. The context of neighbouring is different: much of it is about asserting and retaining – and often defending – stability. Tobias and his family welcome ‘visitors’ – some for a day or two, some for months: this is about transience – again, acknowledging the natural passage of time, not the generally implied permanence of neighbourhood relations.
There is much to be learned I think from this path of enquiry that Tobias is opening up. A healthy society needs a range of ‘community-related’ institutions functioning smoothly, and we should be exploring commonalities across them all:
- a public realm to maintain the principle of commonality across many aspects of life;
- a democratic structure that allows for reflection and deliberation and reflects the involvement of all participants;
- formal care services for particular needs;
- semi-formal and informal processes (like Good Neighbour schemes and other voluntary initiatives) that provide social support, association and other opportunities;
- third places at local level so that people can encounter one another informally and serendipitously, and by arrangement for specific purposes;
- recognised forms of neighbouring that contribute to a sense of security, belonging and identity; and
- communal environments to help people recover or establish stability, and to articulate the broader context of humans living together on a fragile planet.
The image above, with its delightful pun, apparently refers to a number of refugee chickens that are taken in at Windsor Hill Wood. I was wondering if anyone thought that the message of communal living is also about ‘re-co-operation’ (not to be confused with ‘eco-operation’) – about refreshing our ability and readiness to co-operate and collaborate. I’m up for it if you are.