Something more than neighbours

by
24 January 2007

Tobias Jones, a writer, took his family in search of a communal way of living. It was the communities dedicated to service of others which particularly impressed him, he told Brian Draper

Reshaping community life: a member of the Pilsdon Community in Dorset, relaxes at the potters’ wheel Tara Darby

Reshaping community life: a member of the Pilsdon Community in Dorset, relaxes at the potters’ wheel Tara Darby

From time to time, everyone complains about the pressures of modern life. But Tobias Jones, a travel writer and self-confessed “young fogey”, probably does it more eloquently than most. “Everyone seems caught up in a vortex of debonair desperation,” he writes in the opening chapter of his new book, Utopian Dreams.

The difference is that he has done something about it. Three years ago, he and his young family set off to explore the alternatives to what he calls “mid-terrace, nuclear-family living”, through seeking out and spending time in (mostly) spiritual communities. He recorded the results and reflections in his book, published by Faber this month.

Mr Jones not only carried a great idea for a best-seller with him on his travels, but an existential burden — he was one of “Thatcher’s children”, who grew up wondering whether there really was such a thing as society. “We’re all yearning for perfect relationships, at the same time as insisting that rootedness and belonging are alien to our vaunted autonomy,” he says in his introduction.

When I ask him what it is specifically about today’s culture which compelled him to search for “intentional” community life — with his wife and newborn daughter in tow — he doesn’t hold back. “It’s an instinctive irritation at everything,” he suggests, with passion.

“I think everyone realises that the way we are living is absurd and unsustainable. I can’t believe that we think we can get away with this style of living.”

Narrowing it down, he admits that it was one fact in particular that drove him into the arms of the New Age earth-diggers, Roman Catholic wood-choppers, and strong, silent Quakers he met along the way.

“Thirty-one per cent of all households in the UK are single occupancies. Almost a third of all houses have only one person in them. The ramifications are extraordinary.”

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While the usual accusation against community life is that it’s simply a hippy-style escape from reality, Mr Jones is keen to argue that the opposite is, in fact, true: that it’s people in the so-called real world who are on the run from their neighbours.

“I can’t imagine an escapism that’s more obvious than someone who doesn’t want to confront the people they are living alongside,” he says. And I begin to feel guilty about shunning the chap next door for building an unsightly shed in his back garden.

Mr Jones draws intellectual inspiration from Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots — which he considers to be “the most important book of the 20th century”. Weil, he explains, says that the communal equivalent of marriage — a commitment to your locality unto death — demands “that we should expect never to move house again”. That would, indeed, be a counter-cultural idea in today’s context.

In a bid to narrow down the field before exposing his wife and child to the enchantments — and occasional disenchantments — of life in community, the author visited 20 intentional communities in England and Italy. “There comes a time when the honeymoon wears off; when you’re in the middle of a wet field in the middle of nowhere,” he admits. “I didn’t want to take them to weird or dangerous places.”

Despite the weeding-out process, the journey began at an Italian community that had not only its own hieroglyphic language, comprising more than 300 symbols, but also the biggest underground temple in the world, and a leader (with his own personality cult) called Falcon.

When they arrived at Damanhur, near the French border, it was Year 29 anno horusiano, and they needed to exchange their euros for credito, the community’s own “complimentary” currency.

Their stay was safe enough, but after two months they left, disappointed. It was, says Mr Jones, a community with a market-led economy that seemed to mirror the ways of the “real world”, permeated, he felt, with a consumerist spirituality that was more about perpetuating choice than making hard decisions. It was a place, he says, “which spoke repeatedly about the sacred, but could countenance no sacrifice. No demands were made, and that, in a curious way, made it surprisingly unsatisfactory.”

DESPITE being a Christian, Mr Jones says that he did not set out to prove anything about the spiritual benefits of successful community life. Instead, his criterion for selecting places to visit was “whether they were doing something fascinating and challenging that alters the way we look at the world”.

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In retrospect, however, having experienced life in six communities, Mr Jones is adamant that the best models have a clear sense of purpose, and that the very best are Christian. In particular, he praises a Roman Catholic orphanage between Rome and Florence called Nomadelfia, and the Pilsdon Community, near Bridport, in Dorset, a group of around 35 regulars and “wayfarers”, which provides a haven for people with drink and drug addictions. And even the secular community he visited along the way — Libera Terra, a co-operative in Palermo formed to free people from the grip of the Mafia — was, he discovers, set up by priests.

“If people gather together simply to be in community, that doesn’t work,” he says. On the other hand, “if it’s a community of necessity, as opposed to a community of choice — if it’s there to serve orphans, or drug addicts, or the homeless, or the elderly — then the whole thing has a completely different atmosphere. The strongest bonds are created through survival.”

Mr Jones concedes that his visits, which were always meant to be temporary, were tempered by the fact that he knew he could go home when he wanted to. “There are lots of community-hoppers in Britain, freeloaders who go from one community to the next, do a bit of washing up and weeding, eat the food, and enjoy the view,” he says. “But we did think very deeply, in the end, about going to live at both Pilsdon and Nomadelfia.”

While he found the four daily offices and the theological reflection at Pilsdon inspiring (he talks fondly of discovering kenosis and koinonia,) there were other, less lofty reasons why he found the life there attractive — such as the babysitters.

“It’s not natural to try and bring up children in a mid-terrace nuclear family. Until 50 years ago, this was not the way it had ever been done in human society. The relief as a parent of being able to give your child to someone else for an hour or two is massive,” he says, clearly meaning every word.

“And the people in the community were often desperate to hold them,” he continues, “people who have often lost touch with all their children and grandchildren, because of drink or drugs or prison. So immediately you have a bond: you can give them what’s most precious to you, and at the same time give them something more than that.”

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Sometimes, the lure of community life appears so counter-cultural that you’re left wondering whether its principles really could apply more widely. Mr Jones, for instance, believes that effective communities have clear rules, strong leaders, and hierarchical authority structures that are willing to evict those who don’t comply. “You have to evict them,” he argues. “If the community is there to help drug addicts, and someone starts doing smack in the stables. . .”

But he is most emphatic about the part played by manual labour in the strengthening of the community. From collecting wood in Damanhur, to digging ditches in Nomadelfia, and laying willow hedges in Dorset, his experience has convinced him that manual labour helps people them to tackle addiction and reconnects people to the rhythms of life.

“The amazing thing about Pilsdon is that you can work alongside someone who is far away from the church, but that kind of person is working alongside the most devout Christians in the country. That only happens when there’s manual labour at the core of things.”

In today’s information age, it’s hard to imagine manual labour catching on again. Is there a more realistic approach to building community in the places that most of us find ourselves, day-to-day? It’s something Mr Jones doesn’t seem concerned to answer. Nevertheless, he is convinced that small, individual communities — pockets within the wider world — can provide ideal centres for Christian mission.

“It’s the perfect way to persuade people that we’ve got good news,” he says. “With the book of Acts as the centrepiece, Christians understand community in a way that is so much more profound, informed, and nuanced than non-believers.” While he emphasises in his book that “for a community to work it wouldn’t have to consider the same thing sacred,” it would, he says, “have to consider the search for the sacred an integral part of what it means to be human”.

Having returned from his travels, Mr Jones decided to do the unthinkable for a travel-writer — stop travelling. Instead, enriched by the principles he had discovered along the way, he and his wife decided to get a map of their locality in Bristol and draw a circle on it, with a radius of one mile from their front door. Everything inside that circle would become their community.

They would commit themselves — for the time being, at least — to their area. “I had to see if there was a practical application to the journey, whether the values we had learnt would really survive exposure to the macroscopic, multicultural world.”

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As he began to see the place through fresh eyes, he was amazed to discover that a small community has been there all along, at the end of his own road. And, in the southern area of the circle, he found an Emmaus community that he was particularly drawn to. The community has a hostel, giving people not only a bed but “a reason to get out of it”, he says. The homeless can, “in a tiny way, become businessmen”, through finding and selling unwanted furniture.

Today, he spends time working with the people of Emmaus, driving vans and playing pool, while his family have an open-door policy, “so that instead of being the guest at all these communities, we are now the host”, he explains.

Mr Jones believes that one of the most significant ways in which his faith developed on the road was that he learned forgiveness. Amid communities of drunks and drug addicts, the homeless and orphans, “forgiveness becomes massive. You can’t do this without forgiveness,” he says.

Perhaps most importantly, he also realised that his search for Utopia has not, in the end, been about finding the perfect community.

“I hate the title Utopian Dreams,” he says, “because this has nothing to do with Utopia. The whole point in the search is not that you find perfection, but that you finally understand your own imperfection.

“Community,” he concludes, “is the only place where the last really can come first, and that, obviously, takes human society closer to what you and I would call ‘the Kingdom’.”

At Pilsdon, he writes in his book, “it was as if everyone was on the margins together.” And that, for anyone caught in today’s “vortex of debonair desperation”, might seem like a heavenly way back to reality.

Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones (Faber, £12.99, 978-0-571-22380-0) is January’s travel book of the month in Foyles’ bookshop.

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