It was around 1978. I was about 16 years old when I went with my friend Sophie to stay on a hippy commune near Castle Douglas in Scotland. Her big sister, an artist, had moved there a few years before.
I was living in leafy suburban London with my two parents and sister, and my friend Sophie lived across the road. You couldn’t have found a more white middle-class part of London. People who moved there felt they had made it. Quiet, tidy streets. Big front and back gardens. Well-resourced local state primary school. Many kids went ‘missing’ at 9 to go to prep school, and at 11, a large majority went off to private schooling, being picked up in large coaches in their blazers and boater hats. This was a Tory heartland, aside from my Labour-voting household. But Sophie’s sister Louise was different. She was exciting to me because she’d gone to art school. What on earth was that?! She made paintings, sculptures and structures – some filling the whole of a room in their house, which amazed me. She felt different, cutting her own path. When Sophie told me Louise had left London to join a commune I couldn’t believe it. Then again, maybe I could. She was already her own person , not following a set path. In my memory, communes had a very particular reputation. Young people dropping out of society and making new ways usually in rural tumbledown settings. People making up their own rules. People growing their own food, eating together, co-parenting kids, experimenting with different, ‘free’ ways of loving. People with long hair and huge bellbottom trousers or harem pants. Men and women and whatever identity in between, not afraid of nudity. People doing drugs. People into eastern mysticism. People who were peaceniks and ecological. People who loved music, who made art, who made everything around them out of scant and recycled resources. People who hated capitalism and shunned the ‘rat race’. People who were feminist and lesbian…
So, for us two nice obedient suburban girls to go and visit Wow Hall was really something! Sophie had been before and her parents were even older and more conventional than mine! It must be ok! Yet my parents wanted to drive us up there, drop us off, and then stay in a B&B nearby having a short break themselves. I didn’t think at the time they might have been nervous about me.
It was a vivid few days. This shabby huge former stately home and surrounding land had been taken on, somehow, by a commune of a few dozen people and their children. Given the reputation, to be honest I half expected everyone in the commune to be off their faces on drugs, or the place to feel chaotic or at least totally improvised. But no, I didn’t see any of that. Louise was very calm and showed us round. In the house, the cavernous entrance area was where we all ate, queuing up for ladles of hearty food. The neverending corridors and hallways were freely painted in unexpected and sometimes crazy psychedelic ways. Doors of people’s rooms were covered in posters, painting, cards, notices. I’d turn a corner, inside or outside, and someone had made something from pallets, or dismembered furniture or whatever. The creativity was everywhere. One door notice thrilled me, saying ‘Do not disturb – I’m freaking out’. I thought about the expected behaviour in my own home, and what I expect of myself, and sighed. What is freaking out?? Freaking out sounded both urgent and maybe painful, but also real and untrammelled.
The gardens and land were mostly put over to growing food, and storing logs for the big stoves. There were rotas stuck up everywhere, and notices of house meetings on all aspects of living together. Children ran about and seemed to be having an amazing amount of freedom, autonomy, and creativity. Many adults were looking out for them after all.
What did I learn from this? I realise now, 40 years on, how influential these few days were. They told me many important things. Like how it is invaluable for young people to have different experiences of how we can live. It jolted and startled me in a good way, in that I felt reassured by Louise and Sophie, but also free to explore and have my own views. It also watered the seeds I already had in me of what was wrong with the way we were living – in London, in society in general. These people were trying not to have any impact on the earth aside from being self-sufficient from food-growing. Some of them were dissolving the nuclear family and take collective care of children. None of them wanted to be part of Thatcher’s Britain.
The impact on me was not that I went home, stopped doing my homework, started being a rebel, freaking out as and when I felt like it. No, it was more subtle. It opened a door that said, think for yourself. Follow your disquiet and anger with the status quo. Work together to change it with others. Make creative self-organised spaces. Respect and foster others’ creativity. Be in nature, love growing things. Argue for a world that isn’t built on capitalist progress that’s trashing the earth and many people’s lives.
From where I am now, I see that I only saw probably 0.1% of what it meant to be part of that commune. Having worked in a horizontally organised arts-activist group for 30 years, I know what it means to make decisions together, without hierarchy. Consensus is joyful work when it’s beautifully done. It’s hell when it isn’t. We are raised in hierarchies, raised to obey, vote, and know our place. We are raised to buy things rather than make things. We are raised to follow paths set down by accidents of birth and geography in a racist, classist, sexist, heteronormative, neurotypical, gender binary, ableist, capitalist colonial society.
All of that was challenged for me by this formative experience. And while I have not yet wanted to live communally as a permanent thing, the spirit of it suffuses me, the critique of norms always inspires me, the experimentation and creativity can be breathtaking. It definitely contributed to my paid work, and also generally my path throughout life, from going to Greenham Common anti-nuclear women’s camps in the 1980s, to many anti-roads protests in the 90s, participating in Climate Camps in the 2000s, and visiting La ZAD recently in Brittany, and anti-racism protests throughout. My occasional periods of communal living refresh my commitment to anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism. They bolster me in championing diverse ways of living and growing, creating and confronting, practising sharing power and resources together. I’m deeply grateful for this early commune experience. It was only a few days – but what a searing memory and lasting impact it has made. Thank you COIN for setting up this project – a kind of commune in itself.
Photo credit: Letterpress print on silk by Dennis Gould, Stroud, England