I first remember discussing communal living with friends in the early summer of 1975. It was one of those lazy A-Level afternoons after the minimal lessons we had to attend were over and we were round at someone’s house (probably with a bottle of wine). Conversation drifted to speculation on each of our future plans. I think there was a realisation that as a group of friends the parting of the ways was going to come once the school term was over. I don’t recall who said – “wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get a big house and share it” – but we all agreed that it would. In reality we had no idea how to go about it, what it would entail, nor as far as I know did any of us know of any communal household at the time. Looking back, what surprises me is not that a group of school leavers should dream of communal living – were we really suggesting setting up a commune or were we thinking shared student house? I don’t know – it was just a collective fantasy. What really surprises me now is that I don’t think any of us thought this was an odd or strange idea. Somehow, in the mid 1970’s, communal living seemed like a real option.
We all went our separate ways after school – I ended up in London looking for something to do after a summer school at the National Youth Theatre; others went to university, work or whatever and I have mostly lost touch with them (although on my travels I have bumped into two other pupils from the same school, different years, who had joined communes). After the Youth Theatre I got a part-time ‘job’ – we were only really paid expenses – working for Stirabout, a theatre company that toured prisons. I had been living in the basement of a house on the banks of the Thames at Kew – it belonged to friends of friends and I stayed there in exchange for doing some cleaning. But the cost of travelling to Kings Cross for rehearsals was rapidly depleting the money I had saved from a job earlier in the summer working in a plastics moulding factory. Jan who also worked for Stirabout was living with an old school friend of hers, Mick, in a ‘licenced squat’ next to Camden overground station. The house was owned by the council and was waiting to be renovated – which it desperately needed, largely because the whole building shook every time a train pulled into the station! In the meantime it was licensed, along with other properties in the same situation, to Student Community Housing (SCH) which let them out on peppercorn rents. This was the semi-official short-life end of the squatting movement which was growing across London at that time in response to unaffordable rents and huge numbers of empty properties. SCH acted as a sort of benign surrogate landlord. I remember that I sneaked in, jumping the ‘waiting list’, because I knew people in the house. My reward was an attic room with so many leaks in the roof that I had to thread my way through a maze of buckets and assorted pots and pans catching drips in order to get to bed. This turned out to be the first step on a 30 year (& counting) life journey through the world of communes and communal living.
In a roll call of communal experience at the 2001 International Communal Studies Conference at Zegg I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, standing in the communal veterans section of those with 20 or more years experience of communal living along with born & bred Kibbutzniks and a few other survivors of the 1970’s. I realised then that I had a communal CV that didn’t really register (in the ordinary biographical sense) but intertwined with the rest of my life in one long continuous thread. So while my job applications say I have been a: street performer; clown; actor; stage manager; building site labourer; carpenter; construction project manager; design forum convenor; and Lancaster City Green Party Councillor – my alternative CV would tell you that after being a squatter I spent 20 years exploring communal living at People in Common, a small alternative community in Burnley. Was active in the Communes Network during the late 1970’s and 80’s and have been an editor of Diggers & Dreamers since it was first published in 1990. At the turn of the millennium D&D published Utopia Britannica, my history of British Utopian Experiments 1325 – 1945. I am now embarking on a second communal journey as a member of Forgebank Cohousing Community in Lancaster. I have lived in some sort of communal set-up for almost as long as I have lived in the ‘outside world’ and – I would say that on balance – the benefits of communal living outweigh the disadvantages. Living on your own has its attraction, but it is not all it’s cracked up to be!
Chris Coates, March 2013