In some twenty years at PIC I think I nearly left three or four times before we finally moved on. The first time was fairly early on when I considered moving to Laurieston Hall. Other times were when things got difficult between me and other members or I felt completely at odds with the way the group was going. What kept me there? Partly that I thought that the group was there to meet individuals needs and should change to accommodate them – even as those needs changed. Also that I refused to leave and go to a situation that was worse than the one I found myself in. I saw too many people leave and end up in much worse situations materially and I felt that this was a failure on the group’s part. But in the end it would boil down to a fairly hard-nosed assessment on my part that there was no way in the ‘outside world’ I would have the access to the resources, tools, land, money that I had collectively in the group and I didn’t want to give that all up – I wanted to make it work.
So why did I/we leave in 1998? I have been asked this question numerous times and the answer has changed slightly, or more like developed over time. Some 2 or 3 years before leaving I realised that People In Common was never going to be the ideal community that I had in my head – for all sorts of reasons; there wasn’t enough physical space for one and the fact that I felt most other members didn’t really share my vision, or the ones that did had left. Despite repeated times when we looked to become a bigger group – it never happened – why? Perhaps because people who joined were attracted by what we were, not what we might be. I don’t know – all I can recall is thinking that our visions were just too big for our resources and all the things we had dreamed of were never going to happen if left to such a small bunch of people. I’m not sure I gave up on the dream – just decided that it wasn’t going to happen there and then with those people. In the end a part of me felt that it was really unfair on other members to keep pushing for something that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I should have left then, but other things got in the way – ours son’s education, work commitments.
In the end we left when we did mostly because we reached a position where we could. Too long living in cheap co-operative affordable rented housing means that you ended up stuck in a poverty trap of your own making – something of a stark realisation when it came. The longer you stayed the harder it was to get out as you had no collateral to feed into the conventional housing market and you had got used to living a low income lifestyle. Looking back I can see that I had slowly grown away from the community. Having started to work on jobs and projects outside the community that involved me working away for two or three days a week I think my focus changed and the ties to other people there became looser.
Leaving came much quicker than I had expected or had really wanted. – part of it was plucking up the courage to take the risk of change – but mainly enough pieces fell into place; our son was that bit older and about to leave college, my work meant that we could actually afford to rent somewhere and we found somewhere we fancied living. It had crossed our minds to look for another community to move to – one that was nearer to the vision of what we wanted. We decided in the end that we would try living in the ‘outside world’ if only to see if communal living was what we really wanted – by having something to compare it too.We looked around for a suitable smallish city to move to. Thinking it would take a long time to find somewhere – but very soon it narrowed down to Lancaster and on about our second trip house hunting we ticked all the boxes on our list and suddenly we were about to be on the move.
I had always promised myself that I would try to leave well – on reasonably good terms with people and without too many regrets. I hope I managed too. Before we left we had one last look through the PIC communal archives and made an attempt to put the communal history in some sort of order; names on photos, papers in some sort of order, that sort of thing. The actual days of moving out were strangely sad and exiting all at the same time.
After so long living communally the outside world was both somewhat strange and a little scary. The realisation that I had become alternatively institutionalised – it was ten years since I had actually paid a gas or electric bill – shopping for three of us was a bit of a novelty and cooking for such small numbers – well seemed like a waste of time.
We also weren’t quite sure how to relate to our neighbours – we decided that the normal-done-thing must be to organise a house warming and invite the street. Turned out we were the first newcomers to do such a thing since anyone could remember. The neighbours who came decided we had done it because we were ‘communal’ – and there was us thinking we were being normal! Finn at 17 never did manage to adjust to the new situation – a lifetime of living with others, the alien experience of living ‘just with your mum & dad’ and the wrench away from his friends all led him to go back to People In Common and spend a further 18 months there.
I told old commune friends for a while after we moved that I was living in an un-intentional community – otherwise known as a street. Did I miss communal life – Yes & No. I didn’t miss meetings about the minutiae of everyday life, I didn’t miss cleaning rotas or waiting for someone to get back with the shared car so I could go out…. I did miss the easy socialisation, the conversations over dinner, the chats in the corridor. I did miss the camaraderie of working closely with others on a project…. Guess I’m saying I missed the people not the ‘institution’.
We were really not sure about whether it would work out for us – moving to a new place – would we be able to make new friends having left behind a 20 year old network back in East Lancs. And while we had wondered about looking to join another community we were not sure whether that was what we wanted either – we liked the Danish idea of Cohousing, but there wasn’t anything really like that in the North of England – and anyway we wanted to see whether we really liked ‘nuclear living’ once the novelty had worn off.