Searching for ABC

…We see ourselves as a fifth column within capitalism and hope that just as the ‘workers friendly societies’ could be said to be the forerunners of the welfare state, so the ‘workers cooperative living group’ could be the forerunners of a new social creation.

From: A brief summary of our history, aims and current position.
People In Common Feb 1975

People In Common was nothing if not ambitious from it’s start in the mid-seventies.In it’s very first leaflet there was the suggestion of maybe finding a derelict village somewhere and the above reference to Robert Owen and the early Co-op movement acted as a source of inspiration for a number of years. The 1970’s were a period of both the realisation of the impact and limits of the western model of industrial civilisation and a real optimism that it might be possible to create an ‘Alternative Society’. This was not just some hippy pipe dream of “Peace and Love”. But gave birth to a myriad of practical projects that were advertised in magazines and publications at the time. Books like the Whole Earth Catalog in the US and in the UK Alternative England & Wales and Radical Technology . Radical Technology was illustrated by a series of Visions of what an alternative society might look like drawn by Cliff Harper. These were later reproduced as a set of posters.

LIVING;COMMUNES AND INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES In the ‘Visions’ in this book we have tried to express an ideal of co-operative work and co-operative living. Of course not everybody finds it congenial to live with groups of other people, but it can have a lot of advantages, economically, practically and personally. It seems to me that for many reasons we will have to learn to share a lot more, particularly those goods which hang around doing nothing most of the time, and this is made a lot easier when people live in groups, if they can stand the hassles….

peter harper – Radical technology
Cliff Harper Illustration from: RADICAL TECHNOLOGY 1976

Details of various alternative projects were also featured in magazines like Undercurrents , Peace News and other smaller publications. PIC advertised for members in a few of these and had a brief hand in the production of one called In The Making. Derek turned the handle of the duplicator at RadTec in Sheffield to produce the very first edition and almost a decade later I helped to do the cut and paste layout for the last edition down in Milton Keynes at the Open University’s Co-op unit.

In the Making didn’t just cover communal set ups, but a whole range of projects from worker co-ops, eco-communities, community science projects, through to profiles of would-be alternative engineers and entrepreneurs. Combined with self-funding mechanisms like the Community Levy on Alternative Projects, or CLAP Tax, run by BIT, which asked successful projects to tithe up to 4% of their gross income to the fund in order to finance further projects, it was hoped that there was now a springboard for the alternative society to shake off its aura of hippy-dippy idealism and build as one group put it a “reproducible alternative to industrial and agricultural wage slavery.”

communes Britannica
Cliff Harper Illustration from: RADICAL TECHNOLOGY 1976

In 1977 People In Common produced a duplicated booklet called The BIG BLURB. It was an attempt to let prospective new members know more about us than we could say in an advert in a magazine or in a leaflet. In it Daniel wrote a vision of a future People In Common.

From the PIC BIG BLURB 1977
Cliff Harper Illustration from: RADICAL TECHNOLOGY 1976

We were inspired and heartened by these visions of possible (Fantasy?) futures. But at times any progress towards such a future seemed incredibly slow. If not a case of one step forward, two or three steps back at times. Some people left over the years partly because of the slow pace of any change – compounded at times by the tendency of consensus decision making meaning that you can end up proceeding at the pace of the slowest most risk averse person in the group.Looking through my archive now I can see that I wrote a number of ‘vision’ pieces at different times from the mid 1980’s onwards. Some of them look like notes for myself. Others saw the light of day in Communes Network and Diggers & Dreamers.

Rereading them now alongside the Cliff Harper illustrations I can’t help but wonder how much I was simply trying to translate them in my mind and imagine them onto our situation in Burnley at the time. Possibly the nearest we got to achieving something of the wider vision without really realising it was when Burnleywood Housing Co-op came into being, we had moved to The Mill and were starting to diversify our work with the Hardwood Centre and people getting outside jobs. Add in the work I was doing trying to promote the Segal self-build method in the area and from a distance there was the germ of a vision that might just have grown into something bigger.

The 1994/95 edition of the Diggers & Dreamers carried a joint entry for – Communities in East Lancs. Which included People In Common based at Altham, the Housing Co-op in Burnleywood and a proposal for a new co-operative community with the working title of Kaleidoscope.

KALEIDOSCOPE Community Building Network

We are developing a new community with the aim of extending the benefits and advantages of a co-operative lifestyle to larger / more diverse number of people than is possible in a small close communal group. We envisage that the community will be anywhere between 15 – 75 and would be an open ended network of co-operative and communal groups, families and individuals sharing whatever aspects of their lives are important at any one time…

KALEIDOSCOPE leaflet 1993 – Diggers & Dreamers directory 1994/95
Draft cover for prospectus for a Segal Self-build co-op in East Lancs.

Mike Daligan, from the Segal Self-Build Trust, came a couple of times to Burnley and gave a talk to help drum up interest in doing a self-build scheme in the area. I spent some time working with a contact in the council planning dept trying to identify possible sites that would be suitable – we were offered a clearance site at the bottom of Burnleywood just off Plumb Street for a knockdown price (Maybe even for free I don’t remember) because it was in a mining subsidence area. But none of us involved in the little self-build group fancied living on top of a serious geological fault.

We made a serious attempt to reinvigorate our collective vision after we had moved in to the Mill and a few new members had joined us. In the summer of 1994 we did a series of vision building exercises. Each of us envisioning what we would like PIC to be in 2004. The old notes we made back then feel oh so familiar even today:

…it is a chicken and egg situation – we need the ideas to attract the people / we need the people to help formulate the ideas…… It is time to come out of our communal clothes closet and be proud of the communal legacy of the 1970’s. Rather than lurking embarrassed in our ‘Rural/Middle class/Hetro/Self-sufficient/Organic/Co-operative’ ghettos

Chris Coates Communes network 108 – the winds of change
Computer generated Kaleidoscopic image of Altham Cornmill

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