Introduction to a projected memoir:
KID IN A COMMUNE
The unconsidered life is not worth living – Socrates
…wants eleven dollar bills and you only got ten – Bob Dylan
From when I was four until when I was twelve my family lived in a big old farmhouse with a lot of other people in the middle of nowhere. We called the house Shrubb Farm, or Larling; the kids in the village called it a hippy commune.
For the first few years of my life, my brother, sister and I lived with our mother in a caravan in a field on my uncle’s land in Burwell. I can’t remember Mum ever telling us back then why she wanted to move to the commune, but later she would always say that she’d got fed up bringing three kids up all on her own. She must also have been very lonely.
It is likely that we went to Larling on a couple of trial visits before moving there because everybody who wanted to join the commune in those days had to. Nothing from those sojourns remains with me today, and the photographs of that time show people living there who I have no recollection of living with. A lot of people came to the commune, stayed for a bit and then left. Larling was like that. People came seeking a refuge, only to discover that there is no escape from oneself, and that wherever one goes in the world there will always be a certain amount of self-doubt, competitiveness and jealousy to contend with. There are no utopias. You only need more than one member of the human race at the end of a rainbow for its colours to dissolve as swiftly as LSD on the tongue.
During the years that we lived at Larling I never really understood the reasons behind what the grown-ups did. I was far too young to consider their actions and I possessed the naivety that is common in all country-bred children. The adults did their thing and we children pottered about in our own little world amusing ourselves. We knew when to get out of the way of flying words or amorous couples, and to discreetly disappear whenever a strange atmosphere developed in a room – what the adults called ‘a bad vibe’. And we learned to do, more or less, what we were told. The grown-ups provided our food, our clothes, soothing words and warm soft laps to climb into whenever we had been in a battle encountered during forays into the outside world. These often hairy, bedraggled and essentially benign creatures, further, provided an endless source of entertainment and information. Completely unaware of what they were doing, they loaded our soft, malleable minds with their ideas and their ideals. Those young men and women (for the majority who came to Larling were in their early twenties and thirties) were all, to some extent, our teachers. They created the world that we ran about in, they managed it and they guided us through it. Sometimes they were interested in us and sometimes they told us we were a nuisance. They drank beer siphoned off from big plastic barrels of homebrew, and brown bottles of Adnams Pale Ale and Holstein Pils brought back home from the pub. They smoked joints – in our eyes just longer versions of roll-ups really – and listened to records by Mike Oldfield and Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix and a thousand others. They sang quite a lot, and in the evenings there was always someone playing a guitar somewhere in the house. They read books with titles like Dune and Gormenghast and Lilith, and there was often a game of chess on the go by the wood-burner in the north cottage. The women tended to spend more time with us kids than the men, and pretty young women and dashing young men came and went. Mum seemed to spend most evenings sitting in the chair beside the Aga or near the fire in the south cottage knitting us sweaters and socks. The furthest reaches of the house were always cold and we would often scratch at chilblains on our feet.
The house, the result of the conversion of two farm cottages into one, stood isolated on high ground. Behind it there was a half-acre garden and beyond that a huge expanse of hedgeless field that was sodden black earth in winter and an ugly mass of red veined green sugar beet leaves in summer. In front of the house a potholed, rutted farm track led in one direction to the main road that connects Norwich to London, and in the other past another farmhouse and a bungalow and on to a road that led to the nearest village. If you were to sit on the brickwork step at the front of the house by the south cottage and look directly ahead, you would see a patch of rough green lawn through which a brown path had been worn by myriad footfalls. You would see and hear, to your left, the ash tree standing as tall as the house, and beyond this the barn and stables. To your right, you would see a rusting green climbing frame, and an abandoned tin bath sinking into the overgrown grass. Beyond these things the patch of lawn sloped rapidly downwards so that, were you to get up from your seat on the step and walk along the path to the end of the lawn, you would stand above a wide area that had once been the projected site of a large barn. Amid the long-overgrown concrete block foundations you would see an assortment of junk, the hulks of cannibalised vehicles, a few cars and my mother’s wagon. The track ran horizontally across your line of sight, separating the land belonging to the house from that of the local farmer, Mr Larwood.
The house was surrounded by fields – arable land on three sides, pasture in front. The fields beyond the track, cordoned off by a barbed wire fence and a five bar gate, were always left fallow and untouched by machinery. Cows - large feculent Friesians - were occasionally put out to graze here, but mainly we had the pastures and meadows to ourselves. These fields were where the grown-ups would sometimes wander hand in hand, minds hazy with acid or mushrooms and where, on other occasions, we children would explore the small pond and its island and the woods. Where we would climb the weeping willows that skirted the river and where the raucous rookery swayed above us in a breeze.
In the height of summer, when often the only sounds to be heard outside the house were the twitter of skylarks pushing their roundabout way up to heaven and the soporific drone of the nearby racetrack, Larling could be beautiful. The grown-ups would doze the days away or wander around as near naked as their upbringing allowed to enjoy the sun. Us kids would have water fights, the girls screeching as we boys rounded on them, and then each other, with a hosepipe and water pistols; or we would wander along the track and through the fields looking for birds’ nests or owl pellets, or navigate the river in makeshift rafts, or dog out the parents in search of a bit more attention than they seemed to be willing to give us.
In the winter, when the dips and ruts in the track (and the track was mainly dips and ruts) filled with icy brown water and the paths around the house turned to slurry, and we all got chilblains and colds, Larling could be bleak. The littlest kids with their continually running noses of lime green bubbly snot would stomp around in their tiny red or blue wellies and the grown-ups would all hover by the Aga in the kitchen. The nearest shops were four miles distant, and if there were no motor vehicles around, getting to them entailed a long cold bike ride or taking the pony and cart.
In between these two seasonal extremes, which was most of the year really, the house and its extended family of misfits, outcasts, single parents and opter-outers got on with the job of living in a very separate reality to that of the ‘normal’ people of Norfolk. Nobody owned Shrubb Farm, not anymore. A couple of graduates with hippy ideals and enough independent wealth to be able to pursue them had originally owned it. In the early ‘70s, property in Norfolk was cheap and there were a lot of old farmhouses like Shrubb for sale. Those initiators, those young men who founded the project that was to affect us all so profoundly, had clubbed together to buy the house, lived there for a while and then, as was the spirit of the time, they had given up the deeds of ownership and left to look for other rainbows. A company had been formed - ‘Shrubb Family’- and anyone who subsequently lived in the house became a ‘director’ for the duration of their stay. The wide Norfolk skies and far horizons, the magnificent sunsets and kindred spirits were an attraction for those looking to live an alternative, self-sufficient lifestyle. And many came.
The house and the surrounding farmland was our main stomping ground but we had others. The nearest village was four miles away and once we had reached the required age we were driven there every weekday in a shared taxi to attend school. There were shops there and we all had friends and knew many of the people who lived in the village. And we had enemies there too – other children who would taunt us by shouting out, “Hi-ppy, Hi-ppy”, who would throw the occasional stone our way, or grab their confederates and snigger as they discussed in whispers what their parents had told them our parents got up to in the commune; and the parents of school friends who wouldn’t permit us to enter their living rooms, or who might allow us to enter but, afraid that we might, with our dirty hippy ways, blight their parlours, would bark at us, “Don’t Touch the Walls.”
The village had a recreation ground where we would run about in the summer and watch people playing tennis or kicking a football around and where, when we were older, I would watch my brother and his impressively rebellious friends light up cigarettes and drink Advocat and vodka and cider. There was a village hall where we would go to the jumble sales that provided most of our clothes. In the village there were normal houses, where I wished that we could live, with their pocket handkerchief gardens and their garages and their clean cul-de-sacs and sense of order, and their normal, decent, neighbours; where nobody was considered unusual because everybody understood the kind of life led by everyone else.
Beyond these two centres of our lives – the house and the village - there was the nearby small market town where we would go to borrow books from the library, and Norwich, where we would go on major shopping trips to buy shoes or school uniforms or Christmas presents. We would take the occasional trip to London and sometimes we would go on big outings to the sea in a converted bus or a lorry or a van. And we would visit other, generally richer, communes in East Anglia, where there were other children a bit like us to play with.
During the summer Mum would load us up into the wagon and our pony, Bracken would walk-trot his begrudging and moody way along the back roads of Norfolk, his huge backside swaying from side to side as he swished his tail and let fly an endless stream of sonorous, creaking farts in our general direction. We kids would sit up in the wagon, listening to the hypnotic roll of tyre on tarmac and Mum’s sing song cries of “get on” as she encouraged Bracken along, having the time of her life, and seemingly oblivious to the gawps of the pedestrians we clopped past, the stares and glares we kids noted in the rear view mirrors of every passing car.
And then there was Burwell, three hours’ drive and a million miles away from the commune. The ancestral home of my mother and her ancient family since shortly after Harold lost an eye on Senlac Hill, pegged out, and the Normans began running this great island. The place from which my mother ran as a teenager yet returned to again and again, accompanied by her growing brood of individually-fathered bastard children – products of cross pollination with a Berber, a Gypsy, a carpenter, an actor and a bard. A place where the ancestors look down on us from the walls of the great hall and where my uncle, each morning, looks out from the gallery window to the churchyard where one day his bones will eventually lie.
When we were children, the adults at Burwell were so formal, so polite, that I would often fantasize during dinner of slipping down off my chair and ripping off my clothes to skid around in a mad, wriggling, naked dance on the polished floors, shouting heinous obscenities and Anglo-Saxon swear words at the top of my voice. But I never did. I never dared.
A short time after my family arrived at Larling a BBC television crew came to make a film about the commune. I can’t remember anything of the filming now but I can remember being woken up late at night and us all walking down the track in the dark to the farm to watch the programme the crew had made. I can remember the programme being shown to my class at school; my squirming mortification at seeing my friends watch how the hippies lived; how the kids sat absorbed all the way through the programme and how when it was over they didn’t laugh, or sneer at me, or make disparaging remarks. They just said it was interesting, and then filed out of the room and forgot all about it.
A few years ago I contacted the BBC archive and asked for a copy of the programme. None of us had seen it since it had been aired back in ‘74. The young woman on the other end of the telephone asked me why I wanted a copy. “Because I’m in it,” I said, and felt her smile. Several weeks and an extortionate £50 later a package arrived at my door. The researcher had also discovered another programme that had been made about Larling a few years before ours, and had included it on the videotape.
That older programme is in colour and features the original Larlingites in full hippie bloom – all crocheted caps, and hair. They talk to the interviewer about free love and gardening and are very obviously stoned during several of the interviews. The kids all look dirty and have snot bubbles and run about the house anarchic and chuckling, banging planks of wood with stones and swinging from that same old rusty green climbing frame and whining for “Mu-erm! Muuum! Mum!”
Our programme is in black and white, and filmed during the winter – everything is awash with mud. I watch my mother as a young woman of 34 explaining to the interviewer how “owning more and more things does not make you any happier”, and what comfort she has taken from living with so many other people. I watch the interviews where the ‘problem’ of non-participation in gardening is purposely dragged up by one of the men to embarrass other, less active members of the commune. I watch the camera following a day in the life of Kevin – a notorious scrooge. I hear him telling the interviewer about how everyone contributes to the kitty – the house purse – when they can. I see him pulling out a fiver from his jeans pocket and putting it into the kitty and hear my mother, who is watching with me, guffaw and exclaim how he never used to contribute a thing, how he would spend everything he earned on dope. I look back into the world, our world, as it was then, in 1974. A time when there were no home computers or mobile phones, no games consoles or ipods, or comfortable cars. I look back on a simpler time. I watch the programme and watch a world in which my mother was yet to encounter the man who would father her fourth child, or the man who was to sire her fifth.
At the end of the programme we are all standing beside the track, saying our goodbyes to Morna and her young daughter, who had come to stay at the commune but had decided to move back to London. As Morna drives away down the track, her Mini bouncing and splashing through the puddles, we all wave and then turn and walk back up to the house, my brother and I meandering slowly along at the back of the group. I sit, now, in 2003 and watch my brother run up the steps of the north cottage doorway and pass through into the gloom of the house. I see myself, the good little boy I once was, jogging along obediently behind. On the top step my four-year old self hesitates and looks back at the camera crew for a moment, back into the camera. Then I turn, walk into the house and close the door. It always makes me feel sad that bit, as I see little me disappear into history.
What follows, then, is a memoir of those black and white days of long, long ago. Of a childhood lived outside the norm in a decade when we were all slowly losing our innocence. Of a time and place that profoundly formed who I am today, just as childhood informs, moulds and shapes us all. A poet once said to me that we all have a duty to consider our childhood – to look back on those days with dispassionate eyes, to mull over them and lay them to rest. If you do not do this, he said, if you do not learn how your childhood has influenced you, then you will never truly be able to understand who you are. We, none of us, can ever escape our pasts.
A BUNCH OF LONESOME AND VERY QUARRELSOME HEROES