Community: Digging and Dreaming
Updated: Jan 7
This article has been written in response to Diggers and Dreamers’ latest book Intentional Community in Britain, which they have asked us to review. Although I haven’t done a very good job of actually reviewing the book (my mind wanders off down tangential lanes and sometimes doesn’t come back until dusk), I have found it interesting and am really glad to celebrate the work that they do in supporting these experiments in community living.
For most of human history, community has been the context in which we know ourselves. It was feasible, even expected, that we may never leave the nest of recognised faces, family history and politics, and comfortingly familiar land-forms that make up the backdrop of life. The image of this, as embodied perhaps in 17th century rural English life, plays in my mind in turns as both idyllic and stifling. But the image is a remote one: that world had already experienced the disruption of the enclosures, and the disparity of power through wealth and land accumulation, and was pouring towards the seismic changes of industrialisation and urbanisation.
The fractures of these migrations, forced or by choice, have been exported around the world through enslavement, deportation, eviction, and the benign or tormented push/pull of emigration. This is quite an inheritance: from the arrival of Rome on the shores of Celtic Britain, to the European settler colonies and their displacement of indigenous cultures across the world, to the ongoing asset-stripping of much of the world by corporate and industrial pressure (as financed by our purchases, retirement funds, and credit cards), there is a lot of trauma sloshing around as community breaks apart. The very fabric of life has been un-woven.
Luckily, we have a new book and communities directory by Diggers and Dreamers to steer us through. This book, alongside the inaugural Communities Conference at Braziers Park in July, have given me a new sense of the loose network of intentional communal living which exists in the UK, and in which Tinkers Bubble participates.
It is relatively easy to express the Bubble’s ongoing experiments with land work and healthy low-impact living. What isn’t so clear to me is how to make sense of the community aspect of what we do – it is painfully obvious that we do live with each other in unusual, delightful, and often maddening way, buy why?
After attending the conference and reading the book I don’t think that I’m any closer to a satisfying answer, but what does feel refreshing is to get a sense of the other people and experiments that are occurring. There are common threads that weave through TB and seemingly disparate projects such as urban co-housing and big-house communes. Perhaps a large part of what drives us is a faith in the fundamental goodness of human nature, as well as the pain and coping strategies that come with that faith being regularly shattered by the unfortunate requirement that we live with each other. What is clear to me is that none of us actually know what we are doing: this is, after all, an experiment.
Diggers and Dreamers have been a hub for those experiments in the UK (Check out Eurotopia for European projects). Alongside their online directory they have published various collections of articles and print versions of their database, as well as a tea-towel that makes it onto my celebrated ‘Top 5 Tea-Towels that I’ve Seen’ list. Particularly thought-provoking for me in their recent book is Pete Linnel’s experience of low impact community and how they were in part a response to the politics of a Thatcherite Britain. Of the stresses of planning permission in the early days of Tinkers Bubble, he says;
“…it was still better than living at the side of the road and facing instant eviction at any time.”
I was struck by this because intentional community in the UK often presents as an extension (or perhaps evolution) of white middle-class privilege. At the Communities Conference a group of us, talking about diversity and accessibility, felt that this image is one of the key barriers to many people choosing this way of life.
Tinkers Bubble has changed from the early days, when it was a small step on from a squatted protest camp (we developed out of the road protest movement in the 90s) and has become something more settled, and (if the stories are to be believed) probably healthier.
Although the majority of us living here now have at some point spent time in squats, protest camps, and sleeping by the sides of roads, it has generally been positive choices which have taken us there. So it makes me wonder: when is ‘alternative living’ and alternative to homelessness, eviction, and economic hardship, and when is it an alternative to upward mobility and the gross privileges of modernity (and when do these distinctions serve us)?
Diggers and Dreamers won’t answer that directly (unless perhaps you meet them for a cup of tea), but they do present us with 176 places (including the Bubble) that are each coming up with their own answer, many of whom may be open to volunteers and/or residents. If you are interested then have a look here – may it lead to interesting things.
Whilst writing this I was thinking back to some (mostly fiction) books that have influenced the images I carry. There is a lot that touches on this, in fiction and non-fiction, across various times and geographies: I have found the following particularly evocative in their very different ways.
Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee
Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
Boudicca – Manda Scott
On the Black Hill – Bruce Chatwin
I’d be interested to see other recommendations in the comments section below – particularly those from the perspective of modern indigenous communities.