I failed my English O-level the first time round and would probably have been diagnosed as mildly dyslexic had such a thing been around when I was at school – I just thought I couldn’t spell. So quite how I ended up being a writer is something of a mystery to me. I started off sending in short pieces to Communes Network; letters, responses to other peoples writing, the odd cartoon or joke piece – to my surprise this qualified me to be described years later as ‘a regular contributor’. In 1983 I responded to a small advert in the October issue of Communes Network magazine inviting people interested in producing a video and information pack about communes to a meeting at Redfield.
The idea was to produce a video and accompanying Information pack aimed at “schools and other groups who want to hire / borrow it” and that “might also be useful for people in the initial stages of setting up a community.” I was looking for some way to contribute something back to the Communes Network in a way that was more than just ‘living it’. I saw what we were doing as a viable way to live and wanted to encourage more people to give it a try. PIC supported me in attending meetings; paying my travel expenses. I think it was really the idea of a video that had attracted me in the first place having worked for a community video project in London in the ‘70’s.
It proved harder than anticipated to produce the video and after a number of meetings attended by members of several different communities the group decided to go ahead and produce the Communes Network Information Pack – as a “general introduction to the nitty-gritty and issues of communal living.” The Info Pack, which was published in July 1985, consisted of a green folder with 14 communes fact sheets in it covering topics ranging from “Alternatives to the Nuclear Family” to “Earning a Living in a Community” and “Young People and Children in Communities”. Plus a copy of the current CN magazine, a directory and a few samples of publicity sheets from individual communes. I sort of drifted into writing a few short bits for it.
The Info pack sold reasonably well by mail-order throughout the second half of the 1980’s, but bookshops hated it – because it was a folder with loose sheets that fell out in the shop and got dog-eared and tattered from people looking at them – so a small group of us who had stayed together to oversee the sales and distribution of the pack decided that the follow-up should be a proper book.
… you might say that it all began in 1989 over a pint or two at the The Old Thatched Inn at Adstock just north of Redfield community in Buckinghamshire after a long day’s meeting discussing what to call the follow up to the Communes Network Info Pack – I’m not sure who said it should make some reference to Gerrard Winstanley and the 1649 Diggers colony, but we were soon off on a naming riff…The Diggers Directory, 1649 and all that, From Digging to Communing, Where have all the Diggers gone?… eventually leading to – Diggers & Dreamers – which like all good names still seemed to work for us all the following morning after we had slept on it.Where did it all start.? Diggers & Dreamers 25th Anniversary edition 2015
The idea was to be something of a ‘public face’ or ‘shop window’ for communal living in all it’s guises in the UK. A showcase both for communities looking to recruit new members and for the idea of communal living in general. Not to try to speak for the communities, or in anyway act as their representatives, but to chart, document and provide a commentary on what we saw (hoped) was a growing alternative way of living .We managed to get a good range of contributions from people living in communities and directory entries from some 57 groups across the country.
“Despite the myth that ‘communes’ came and went with the 1960s, communal living continues to provide an attractive and viable way of life to many people in Britain today. Part of our objective in producing this book is to dispel the myth and bring the idea of communal living to the attention of more people. If you know little about communalism, then you will find the ‘History and Overview’ article, and the ‘Days in the Lives.’ section an illuminating introduction. It is also a practical guide for groups wishing to set up, or individuals looking for a group to join. You will find the sections, ‘Getting Started’, ‘Advice for Newstarts’, the ‘Communes Directory’ itself and the resource section indispensable. Our third objective is to produce a book which is also a journal. You will find articles of general interest reflecting current issues affecting communal living.”Preface to first edition of Diggers & Dreamers 1990/91
We decided to do a book launch event at the Green Party’s conference in Wolverhampton. We even laid on wine and nibbles for the journalists that we had hoped / imagined would flock to our little communal sideshow. Hardly anyone came – we were not in the main conference hall, but tucked away in an annex and it was the days of David Ike and Jonathan Porritt’s involvement with the Greens. For which we were no competition.
After the info pack group had morphed into the D&D editorial collective I gradually found myself writing the odd longer article usually based on my own experience of living at People In Common. While also learning the ins and outs of editing other people’s writings and writing link pieces, article intros and the odd preface piece. Somewhat to our surprise the book was not only well received by those living in communities, but also sold well and after a couple of years it was decided to bring out new edition – and it would continue throughout the nineties to come out every couple of years in pretty much the same same format of a directory of about a hundred groups who were looking for new members and a journal section with articles on different aspects of communal living.
During this time there was a fairly steady pattern emerged. A bit of an axis of commonality, between Lifespan who did the printing, Redfield where the layout work was done and one or two other places who provided editorial backup. We met at each others places 3 or 4 times a year. Over the first few editions we slowly built up a reputation as the go to place for finding info on communal living in Britain. With one reviewer referring to the book as “The communard’s Bible.”
During all of this never did I imagine I would end up writing a book on my own. What ended up as Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments 1325 – 1945 , started off as the D&D history project. A book in search of an author. A friend had suggested that we could reprint the few articles that had already been written for us on historical communities in the UK, ‘just’ fill in the gaps and hey presto we would have a new book. We tried to persuade a few people we knew to be the author/editor for the project – until eventually someone said to me why don’t you write it? You seem to know as much as anyone else about the subject ? To which I actually had no answer. So in the end I thought OK I’ll give it a go…
Utopia Britannica began life as a history of intentional communities in the British Isles, what were called communes in the 1960s & ‘70s. As I set off on my journey down the communal memory lane with my baggage of preconceptions I thought I was clearly bound for the footnotes of history, but as I traveled through both geography and time, engaged in the research, I found myself in places that I never knew existed, accompanied by a cast of characters that ranged from the truly strange & eccentric, right through the corridors of power to the dizzy heights of fame & fortune.Chris Coates 4.6.2001
What slowly emerged was a Utopian landscape that stretched to the farthest corners of our country and whose influences are embedded so deep into our national culture as to be virtually invisible.I have spent a lot of time reading the footnotes of other history books piecing together a jigsaw map of Utopia Britannica, and now when I travel I move through another country; a country of the imagination dreamt into existence by generations of utopian experimenters who refused to accept that there wasn’t a better place to be than the one that they found themselves in.
Writing a book was a daunting task that would take me nearly five years to complete and ironically I don’t think I could have found the time to finish a book about communal living whilst actually living communally.(In the end two books!) I also couldn’t have done it without the backing of other D&D editors and support from others in the Communes Movement.
Diggers and Dreamers launched a website (www.diggersanddreamers.org.uk/) at the turn of the millennium and has continued to produce books about communal living in the UK up to the present day. We were awarded the 2020 Kozeny Communitarian lifetime achievement award by the US Foundation for Intentional Community for our international contribution to communal living.