“We all have breakfast at different times” — E.T.C Dee reviews this new take on a famed housing co-op by one of its founding members.
by Mike Reid
McConnell & Co, 2019
Laurieston Hall is a still extant housing co-operative out in the beautiful Scottish Lowlands beyond Dumfries. It’s a huge house with 12 acres of land populated by a group of communards who have now grown old. Their story is celebrated in the excellent book WOW: A celebration of Laurieston Hall which was published in 2013. Now that communal project is added to by the publication of the scurrilous memoirs of Mike Reid, an original founding member of Laurieston Hall. In fact WOW contains some excerpts by Reid already but it’s definitely worth reading Mix Café as well.
Read was one of the eight adults with kids who managed to buy the place for £25,500 with a sealed bid in 1972. His book is based on notes for a seemingly never completed PhD and follows a rather idiosyncratic style where he most of the time refers to himself in the third person, but also as “the accountant” and also as “the PO” (participant observer). He says at the beginning: “It’s a personal statement, as close as I could write it to what seems to me to be the truth, but it is more or less guaranteed to annoy some of my co-communards, who will have entirely different and certainly contradictory personal visions.”
Overall, the memoir is messy and jumps around in time from topic to topic, which goes some of the way towards conveying the constant confusion of a living group. Anyone who has lived in, or spent some time with, a commune will recognise much in what Reid is saying. It made me laugh a lot, although some parts are quite painful. Perhaps it is best just to give a few direct quotes to convey the flavour:
“Yet More On Our Present Failure,” Jonathan wrote in Summer 1976. “We have not moved slowly enough to learn, nor fast enough to stop the stables roof from falling in. We have failed to balance communal childcare against the always urgent demand for productive work. We have not built socialism and on the other hand we have not seen the light although we have experimented with Zazen, Macrobiotics, UFOs, hallucinogens, the Tarot, I Ching, astrology, Carlos Castaneda, RD Laing and the Soil Association. We are all still subject to jealousy, envy, fear, malice, possessiveness, and bouts of wild cornflake-eating. We all have breakfast at different times.”
So we’d left behind secure, well-paid, professional lives (and insurance policies, pensions and the like) for a semi-chaos — fluid, disturbing and poor. Experts in big city living, we became bumpkins overnight. Cut off by hundreds of miles from our friends, we became each other’s co-workers, co-communards and often, sole company.
We more or less gave up meat-eating and monogamy. We pooled all except a few private possessions. Our lives became public, written up in the tabloids and in ‘movement’ magazines.
Living together, sharing everything, isn’t easy. And we had no grand social project in mind. No leader, no guru, no Plan to Save the World, no specific political line, no fully-shared projects. As a group, we lacked a common culture. No music of our own. No myth.
The following week, Richard’s brother, a teacher was visiting with various friends and kids, under the Freefall umbrella. On their last night Richard baked little cakes, handing them out – I failed to spot – selectively, so I ate mine, went to bed. Failed to sleep, went back downstairs at 2am, feeling odd, to find a dozen others, all, like me, out of their skulls. Richard had spiked his cakes with acid, hadn’t he? Presumably, from his bro?
True, we boogied and played charades until after dawn, then slept for 24 hours but then said: look, Richard, don’t you ever fucking do that again.
There’s quotable stuff like this on almost every page! I love personal accounts of communal projects since there is always something to be learned. What did I get from this one? Well, more interesting for me than the account of failed free love is the money sharing, since whilst people are still winding themselves up in knots over polyamory as I type this, I don’t see very much discussion at all about pooling capital nowadays. Why don’t projects do this any more? What does that say about the way things are going that it doesn’t even seem like a serious option, even in hard left projects? I’m not talking about having a communal kitty here, but rather pooling all income (in whatever form) into one account to be shared by all.
The book was good on how people who turn up just on short visits can be rather smug and annoying — walking around saying how amazing the place is at the same time as messing up the compost system, or telling everyone how they should do things in meetings, or spending a long time explaining why they wanted to live there but in fact they simply couldn’t. That all seemed very familiar.
Intentional communities in my experience never tend to be that intentional. Other great books on related themes would include On a spaceship with Beelzebub — By a grandson of Gurdjieff by David Kherdian about a cult, The Lime Green Mystery: An oral history of the Centerprise co-operative about the long-running project on Kingsland Road in Dalston and George F’s Total Shambles about squatting in London.
Otherwise, I simply enjoyed reading about the frustrations and joys of collective living. It’s always the same shit: endless meetings where nothing gets decided, frequent interpersonal fallouts, the inability of pretty much anyone to really hear where someone else is coming from.
So is this book a good advert for communal living? Probably not although it does sound like the kids had a lot of fun. And yet co-operatives continue to interest me a lot as a tactic against the prioritisation of selfish individual needs. I was at Laurieston a few years ago and it seemed to have eventually settled down into a successful if rather insular group where everyone very much had their own personal living space, yet they were experiencing a new form of existential crisis. For some (having pooled money way back when), there were no financial means to escape the project as they became elderly. Let’s remember that these revolutionaries from the 1970s are not getting any younger. They now need new blood to keep the fires burning!
~ E.T.C Dee