Ayant retrouvé, grâce à Internet et des musiciens conviviaux, le contact avec Hylda Sims (des City Ramblers du Skiffle Cellar dont je parle dans ce livre), quelle fut notre joie de découvrir son intérêt pour les écoles de Summerhill et son expérience d’une « vie communautaire » ; un bon document, ce passage de son livre sur :
Home is a four-letter word, an oath of obedience. Home sends you out to work for it five days a week, demands to be maintained, improved, scrubbed and polished, inhibits your deepest wishes and desires. It is the place where we are most likely to suffer manipulation, accident, abuse, rape, burglary and even murder. Going out is safer than staying in. Home is claustrophobia, conformity and sitting on settees opposite people who embarrass and annoy you but for whom you feel responsible.
Home is where the heartache is.
Most homes are habit and convention rather than choice and the late twentieth century nuclear family home is a particularly dangerous convention environmentally, socially, economically and above all psychologically.
One solution is to live in a larger unit, the so called commune or ‘intentional’ community where amenity, property, chores, ideas and celebrations can be shared among a larger and more diverse group of people whilst at the same time the individual, relieved of the constraints of life in a small family, can be more independent. Because of the possibilities offered by community living - more space, shared expemse, division of labour, a more varied interplay of personalities, the possibility exists of taking back powers which have been usurped by the state for its own manipulative purposes such as the education of children. Adult members can educate each other too, sharing their skills, interests and ideas - ideas which expand and flower from the practical experience of building and maintaining the community...
This was a debate much in vogue in the early seventies, a time of small deeds communism which imagined change being achieved through creating exemplary pockets of a better lifestyle inside the rubbery and unexpectedly resilient fabric of capitalism. Going into the commune stewpot along with the beans was respect for the environment, self-sufficiency, organic farming, shared use of energy, transport and childcare as well as concern for the individual psyche.
Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism had showed that fascism was nurtured in the authoritarian family, Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling had exposed our dis-education system and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful had outlined the wastefulness and destruction of macro-economics and the usefulness of intermediate technology. Feminists had written extensively about the constraints of the patriarchal family. Free schools and wholefood co-ops proliferated. The word alternative was heard in the land - Nicholas Saunders published a yearly listings, Alternative London, and Peace News a fund-raising suppliment the Companies Levy for Alternative Projects (CLAP) inviting established businesses to fund the social revolution. The seventies was a time of interregnum between the beautiful but doomed spring and summer of sixty-eight and the political amnesia of the Thatcher years...
Freer and I had both been pupils at A S Neill’s Summerhill, where every child had a vote in the general meeting, ran things for themselves and didn’t have to go to lessons unless they wanted to do so. We thought a kind of Summerhill for adults was what was needed, so when we heard about the village we set off up north to see if it would do.
We stood on the road and gazed at the awesome bleakness of Townhead. It consisted of nineteen blue-black houses (two terraces and a pair) each with its walled back yard and outside toilet. In Barnsley, Wigan or Manchester you would have expected snotty-nosed kids and women in pinnies to emerge in a pre-play of Coronation Street. But these houses sat round a hump of sturdy grass above a remote, windwracked and magnificent valley in the South Yorkshire moors. Below the village of Townhead flowed the River Don fed by streams and waterfalls which could be seen glistering among the crag and bracken on the other side of the valley. There was silence and emptiness but for the sound of wind racing across the treeless planes of the land. The houses had all been abandoned it seemed. Then out of number sixteen in the middle of the lower terrace came a man who proved to be Spencer Gaunt, a retired railwayman, followed by his wife Annie.
‘Are you going to buy t’place?’ Spencer asked while Annie put the soot-blackened
tin kettle on the stove, ‘we could do with a bit of company.’
The houses had been built in 1902 for railway workers at the marshalling yard nearby. The yard was closed sometime in the early sixties and the other families had gradually left.
Townhead was blue-black because it was made of strong engineering bricks, left over, one supposes from Victorian railway stations and tunnels. They had taken a battering from the wind and the rain but the houses in the middle of the lower terrace which was slightly more sheltered from the elements where more or less habitable.
In the summer of seventy-three we moved up there with a few friends and people who’d heard about the project and established base camp in number fifteen, next to Spencer and Annie. Lifespan was born.
An early discussion paper outlining its philosophy says optimistically:
We believe that the broader-based extended family could lead to more co- operative, loving and communicative people and from the example of our community, society, in the long run, could change for the better... and continues... We do not see this as being a drop-out community for we see the members continuing their involvement with society as a whole, through work, study and friendships. We believe that the community will provide the possibility for creative fulfilment which for many people cannot be obtained in the commercial world nor in the family unit. Children could be educated within the community in greater freedom; freedom from the conformity of state education and from the often stifling and restrictive attitudes of a small family. We posit the community as a practical framework for living. It goes on to suggest that The detail is dependent on finance and the siting of the community.
Many communities were founded in the seventies and a good handful of them survive, having made few or many accommodations to the changing world around them. They network and support each other. The differences between them are based as much on their physical siting and financial solvency as on philosophy and the character of members. No commuity, I believe, set out with so little money, in such spartan conditions and with such an open mix of people as Lifespan.The early period of Lifespan was almost entirely taken up with making our houses fit to live in. Building building building this is what we did - renovating, repairing and opening up the houses themselves and doing building work in the local area to earn money. It meant that the aristocrats of early Lifespan were manual workers: handymen, brickies, chippies, plumbers, electricians and plasterers. The intellectuals were the apprentices and we felt this was as it should be. We rarely emerged from our overalls, never discussed Marx, Kropotkin, Shakespeare or Beckett, being either too tired to talk at all or needing to arrange who was going to paint the local post office or how we might move a door or two to stop the wind raging through our newly knocked-through sitting room. (These houses were two up, two down, no-bathroom houses and much experimentation was needed to make larger communal spaces and more up-to-date amenities). The humdrum nature of our conversation at dinner was frequently noted by the journalists who turned up to find out what was going on. Notebooks and cassettes at the ready they were hoping for something more high-flown and, yes, alternative..
Nevertheless, as many communities have found, our first months were our most united
when everyone was working hard and experiencing the satisfaction of physical problems overcome and the bricks and mortar being shaped to our intentions.
Our diary entry for Friday 16th August 1974 reads as follows:
Today was decided to be a holiday but some people decided to work anyway. Geoff wants to get his woodwork finished - he’s making shelves and a seat in the living room of number fifteen, Freer and Virginia are painting the kitchen, Michele and Johnny took off all our washing and did the shopping in Holmfirth. Rom (my daughter then aged eleven) John, Susan and I went for a walk down the valley, or rather, a scramble. John fell into a hole very suddenly without serious injury. Then we came upon a herd of grazing cows which Rom thought were bulls and got rather scared about... it’s amazing how well everyone works together and gets on with each other.
By the summer of 1975 we had fifteen adults at the village including Spencer and Annie plus three children. Most of them had come on short visits, then longer visits, then asked if they could join us. By that time also, rifts and schisms had formed, been resolved, reformed and been resolved again. In the course of these several people had left. These arguments were mostly about relatively minor things such as cleaning rotas, who should care for the several cats people had brought with them, and more importantly which of the visitors should be invited back or encouraged to join us. In general these arguments were positive for the development of Lifespan for in sorting out these issues we instituted regular meetings and procedures for dealing with day-to -day problems. It also made us more thoughtful about which visitors would be invited to join on a permanent basis.
As the long and icy Townhead winter gave way to late spring and an unusually hot summer we felt inspired and confident. A number of the houses in the lower terrace had been made quite comfortable, we had begun to diversify our money-making activities, running conferences and study weekends at the village, giving talks about ourselves to local organisations and being paid for a documentary made about us by Yorkshire Television. We began to organise classes and other activities for the children and planned a series of discussion groups for the adults inviting our outside contacts to take part. On June 20th, ‘75 I record:
A S Neill Trust had their weekend meeting here the weekend before last. As usual a great success with no fuss on the catering side. The weather turned into a brilliant heatwave which lasted for about six days. About fifty people came. Down in the valley we dammed up the river somewhat and made a paddling place. Idyllic scenes of people paddling, boating, sleeping out under the stars. The A S Neill people spent a long time sitting around in the sun marvelling at our way of life.
A month later in my next entry I write:
Re-reading the last entry is like reading about a different world never to be recaptured. Things seem to have changed so much, mostly in some strange atmospheric way hard to pinpoint.
Like many communities the second phase had been signalled by the loosening or breaking of ties between couples accompanied by many anxieties and jealousies. Couples had bust-ups and people took sides as to who should go and who should stay. Various sojourns at other communities were organised so that couples could have time apart from each other but mostly this further polarised things or created new liasons even more dangerous to the stability of the initial couple. People who had been living for years in tight nuclear families now felt this wasn’t good enough and wanted sexual freedom. The difficulties between a couple who had come to Lifespan with their two children now broke into open warfare, an event which polarised the community. All this seemed to affect other aspects of life at Townhead. Opinion also polarised as to whether we should do away with the cooking and cleaning rota (which had been working pretty well) and just let people do these chores ‘as the spirit moved them’ This led to mess as well as argument. Meantime we were inundated with visitors and the community itself was growing. We now had 4 children, 3 teenagers, chickens and ducks (looked after by Spencer and Annie - the latter also providing frequent bacon sandwiches and Daddy’s Sauce to non-vegetarians) goats, bees and a well-cultivated garden providing organic produce for the kitchen as well as lots of visitors. People were having fun but one felt the centre wasn’t holding. We decided not to have any visitors for a while and to do some group therapy. This was initiated by a friend of ours who was a therapist and consisted of a weekend of intense and personal discussion.
On the 8th January 76, I attempted to sum up our progress to date.
We have undoubtedly done a great deal of physical work here... we have learned a lot and are improving at these things... I know how to build a brick wall and can do simple plastering, though neither very well. Most of us can cater for up to fifty people without too much fuss. Our village still looks much the same from the outside - rather grim and dour. However inside, the comfort, and warmth compared to last year is noticeable. Everybody has a comfortable room mostly well and interestingly decorated and furnished. On the lower terrace we have just numbers eleven and eighteen left to finish.
In the time we’ve been here we’ve passed from obscurity to fame, especially in the local area, having had two major television programmes made about us as
well as much other media interest. Most of the locals seem to accept us as a
more or less respectable if unusual collection of people. Even the right-
wing admire our ‘pioneering spirit’.
A most important breakthrough is people’s attitude to money - everything is pooled and people just ask for what they need in so far as money is
available. We often go happily for weeks and weeks without a
personal penny in our pocket, nor are people up-tight about
fairness or one having more money than another.. The general
honesty and indifference to money is remarkable. Likewise
people are getting better at looking after communal property as
carefully as they would their own. Own rooms tend to be
personal palaces and property consciousness and ownership feelings
The most dramatic breakthrough has been in the area of
relationships and personal changes. The group therapy sessions initiated last
year have had much to do with this. Happily we don’t seem to have
looked back since then and people are solving and working through inter- personal feelings as they go along. There has been a great deal of honesty achieved on the sexual front with people sharing partners, sleeping freely with whom they wish. This contrasts strongly with the closed up almost monastic atmosphere of the early days.
We have seen our children and teenagers change a lot over this first year
developing their own attitudes, pursuits and lifestyles rather than being
the apprehensive appendages of their parents’ problems.
Danny, one of our original Lifespan members has just left - the first Lifespan graduate leaving from choice and strength. He has grown and changed a lot in the time he has been here, especially in articulacy, confidence and
All in all the ideas originally worked out by Freer and I seem to be happening in practice as a natural result of freedom from wage-slavery, establishment
life-styles and all they entail.
I left Lifespan about a year after this and Freer not long after me. There were many reasons to leave but perhaps the reality is that we are both starters rather than finishers, setter-uppers rather than carry-oners.
About the time we left a man joined Lifespan who was a printer and he brought with him his printing equipment. This led to Lifespan becoming printers for the alternative scene and gave it a regular, not too demanding source of income. For the first time it had financial stability.
Britain in the eighties, under Thatcher had little interest in community living. High unemployment made people less experimental and unprepared to risk a life outside the establishment. Communities became more inward looking and kept a low profile. With less and less people seeking the experience of the communal lifestyle especially at anywhere as muddy and cold as Townhead it was hard to maintain the population at a viable level. Nevertheless it was not until Nevil the printer left, some sixteen years after his arrival, taking his equipment with him, that Lifespan, loosing its main source of income as well as an experienced and influential Lifespanner, began to deteriorate to the point of collapse. In a 1982 Lifespan brochure, when there were just 9 people at Townhead including 2 children, Caroline writes:
Lifespan for me is many contrasting situations and feelings. Mealtimes with lots of people and children making an amazing amount of noise; sometimes I love that; the racket, the jokes, the big family feeling. Or peace and silence in my beautiful room, overlooking the moors. Sometimes I sit and dream for ages gazing at the clouds and sky or the colours of the hills. No one disturbs me... The thing I love about living here is that I can always find a challenge and I usually don’t have to look very hard to find several.
But by 1996 another member, John was writing retrospectively about Lifespan :
The core group of the eighties were long gone, Billy and Mggie had just left, boot marks on behinds, sowers of ill seeds and dispersers of members and visitors... cracks cleaved wider by Adam... chasms rifted courtesy Sarah and Rat...
and so on: a catalogue of ill-feeling and ill-intent which seemed to culminate somewhere towards the end of 97 in the entire village being left to the mercy of a disturbed, violent and dangerous individual who after ten days solitude there trashed the houses with the assistance of local hooligans and was finally re-housed by the council...
Does this mean we failed ? Did we become even more dangerous than the nuclear family?
But wait! In March ‘98 the Sheffield Star runs a headline ‘A New Age Dawns for Townhead’.
It seems a group of people have arrived at Townhead, unkempt, in a strange variety of old vans and rusting vehicles. There are many dogs and not a few children. They find 19 empty derelict houses, holes have been smashed in the roofs, some floors have been torn out, washbasins and baths smashed to pieces. It’s a mess. But these people are used to mud and dirt: they have lived in tunnels, up trees, in benders, in the path of JCBs and tractors, they have known Newbury and Twyford Down and Manchester Airport. In the kitchen of number 15 above the rusting remains of an old Aga they find a tree mosaic made from bits of broken green glass pressed into the roughly rendered wall. There are two signatures in the cement: Freer and Hylda, 1974.
They move in, begin to clean up the mess, install windmills with which they light the houses and run a computer. They till the garden, keep goats. They are in love with Townhead and I am in love with them.
What you do and the spirit in which you do it leaves a trace, carries on being done in some way. Townhead is now a three times community: the original railwaymen and their families who first brought it to life and left us with the link of Annie and Spencer Gaunt (Spencer’s ashes are scattered on the roots of one of the trees we planted, now grown big and giving just a little pause to the wind) Lifespan itself and Townhead Collective - the third generation.
First published in Home, Katabasis 2000 ISBN0 904872 33 5
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