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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The end of alone

From the kibbutz to halfway houses, progressive idealists have long championed living communally. Tobias Jones, who lives with a dozen others in Somerset, explains why it’s the best way to live today.

It is hard to find a word held so low in the public esteem as “communalism”. For most people it carries a toxic whiff of both “communism” and “commune”, implying dropouts, flakes, fanatics and cultish leaders. If you’re in any doubt about how frightening the word is to the average citizen, try telling your next-door neighbour you’re going to live communally: they will veer away from you (believe me, I’ve done it), imagining drugs, sexual deviancy and squalor.

Evangelists for communalism – a way of life in which people agree to share, or have in common far more than is normal in the “real world” – have an uphill struggle to rehabilitate the concept. It is rare to get beyond snide comments about freeloaders or free-lovers. I have written two books about communalism and both times it was fantastically difficult to persuade friends, let alone my agent and publishers, that communalism has something fascinating to say about and to our society.

The scorn for communalism is particularly perplexing because we live in an age in which “community” is incessantly proffered as the cure for many of society’s ills. Every time a post office, pub or village hall shuts; each time there’s a horrific crime, we are told – or hear ourselves saying – that what we are lacking is community. In an age of mass migration and national identity crises, we’re susceptible to the idea that if we could just find some old-fashioned social glue, everything would be OK.

So we have this bizarre, double-edged attitude, in which vague, vapid “community” is imagined to be wonderful and healing but concrete “communalism” is considered at best doolally, at worst dangerous. For us communalists, it seems absurd: it’s a bit like seeing a patient yelling for the medicine but petulantly refusing it when they realise it’s administered through a large needle.

That there is a need for some sort of medicine for our affliction is surely beyond doubt. The symptoms of hyperindividualism are so well known as to be almost truisms: 31 per cent of households in the most recent UK census, for example, contained just a single person. We are, as a society, profoundly atomised, separated into units so tiny that almost nothing – not religion, nationalism, political passion, or provenance – holds us together.

The result is an epidemic of addiction, depression and loneliness. Age UK reckons that two-fifths of older people say that the television is their main companion. We suffer from a lack of both belonging and purpose, and understandably reach for all sorts of remedies: not only more drugs, in the form of antidepressants, but self-help books and life coaches and counsellors (all good things, don’t get me wrong, but symptomatic of our discontent). Most of all, we reach for community-lite, in the form of social media and online networks, hoping that staring at a screen by ourselves will finally give us something in common. If those solutions are, thus far, often dissatisfying, surely it is worth another look – an honest, intelligent look – at communalism and at what it has to offer.

The history of communalism is intimately connected with Christianity, which is probably another reason, in our secular age, that it is now so scorned. One of the earliest mentions occurs in the New Testament, in Acts, when Jesus’s disciples decide to place “everything in common”. Koinonia is the Greek term that describes the practice, usually translated into English as “fellowship”, “sharing” or “participation”. The Rule of St Benedict, the revered guide to teach monks how to live together, was written 15 centuries ago but remains relevant today.

Often, though, Christian communities were outside monasteries: the Brethren of the Common Life (a Catholic pietist community founded in 14th-century Holland), the Hussites (who set up an egalitarian peasant commune in Bohemia in the 15th century) and the Waldensians (the followers of Peter Waldo’s 12th-century preaching of apostolic poverty who gathered in the Italian-French Alps) were all revolutionary and were amply persecuted in their day. Those movements were followed by the Anabaptists – the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and Bruderhof – who lived with a simplicity that is, depending on your taste, either breathtaking or scary. Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding, the celebrated but small place of prayer in 17th-century Huntingdonshire, was the inspiration for poems by both Ted Hughes (a distant descendant) and T S Eliot. The Doukhobors, too, were Christian pacifists from Russia (though thousands emigrated to live in Canada).

It is impossible to make generalisations about so many diverse communities, but most of them believed in pacifism, poverty, egalitarianism and common, rather than private, ownership. They also demonstrated a disdain for, and detachment from, the world of prestige and profit. That is why there was always an overlap between those gospel-inspired gatherings and those that to modern eyes seem ideologically far removed: the proto-anarchism of, say, Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers and the Tolstoyan Whiteway Colony community.

The Diggers, also called the True Levellers, were those rule-bending agrarians of the 17th century who disdained private property and cultivated common lands in Surrey, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, giving rise to the so-called San Franciscan Diggers three centuries later, in the 1960s. Whiteway was similarly revolutionary. Established in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds in 1898, it is Britain’s most durable commune and still going strong, albeit in a very different form. The story goes that the Quakers, Christian Socialists, pacifists and anarchists who set it up were so dismissive of private ownership that they burned the title deeds to the land on the end of a pitchfork.



Many other types of communalism exist: the kibbutzim in Israel, ashrams in India, and so on. But the communalism that people most often think of when they hear the term is hippie communes, those places full of eccentric escapists who found society not too lax, as the various “brethren” movements did, but too staid. The accusation against the archetypal hippie and New Age communities is always that they have been more inspired by individual quests for pleasure, both carnal and narcotic, than by social action; that they have been more moved by solipsism than compassion. When you probe the spiritual and sexual experimentation of modern European communities such as Damanhur in northern Italy, Christiania in Denmark, and ZEGG in Germany you see that there’s something in the accusation; yet such places have largely continued the tradition of pacifism and reconciliation, and added a twist of environmental radicalism.

But something else happened in 20th-century communalism that went almost unnoticed by the mainstream media. Various priests and psychiatrists became convinced that a whole range of physical and mental conditions – from post-traumatic stress disorder to homelessness and addiction – could be accommodated, cherished and ameliorated within a group setting. “Tubby” Clayton, an Anglican army chaplain, set up the first Toc H house in Poperinge, Belgium, to create an egalitarian space for shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War; the Abbé Pierre in Paris started the Emmaus communities for rough sleepers (there are now 350 of these refuges, running under the great slogan that Emmaus gives “people a bed and a reason to get out of it”); Jean Vanier established the first L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, northern France, for people with learning difficulties, and today there are 147 of them. Don Zeno created a community for hundreds of orphaned children in Tuscany on land donated by an heiress of the Pirelli tyre empire.

All those residential communities were set up by practising Christians but there are many that weren’t. The Jewish psychiatrist Loren Mosher created the Soteria houses to treat psychiatric distress by accompanying rather than medicating patients. Karl König, another Jew, set up Camphill, based on anthroposophy (a philosophy of spiritual intuition founded by Rudolf Steiner), for people with learning disabilities; there are now over 100 Camphill communities. The list goes on and on: Lothlorien (founded in Dumfries and Galloway by Christians, taken over by Buddhists), the Philadelphia Asso­ciation (established by R D Laing), Pilsdon (which has offered a dry and drug-free sanctuary in Dorset for almost 60 years).

The fascinating point about these communities is that they were formed not out of choice but out of need. They weren’t places people went to look for escapism, or for a better quality of life, or for social role-playing and personal reinvention: people went there to survive. That difference inverts all the stereotypes about communalism. It is usually assumed that communities are closed or conceited places, bringing together only the like-minded, yet these refuges are wide open to the outside world and – if you visit them – they demonstrate far more diversity than our ghettoised “real world”. Because depression, for instance, and addiction are indiscriminate, if you sit round the table at any of these sanctuaries you will be amazed by the variety of class, age, race, ideology and so on. They are places not of segregation but of integration.

So what? Why are these tiny, fringe groups of any relevance to mainstream society today? The answer is simple: such communities and sanctuaries have valuable lessons to impart to the wider society and, for the first time in a generation, society is listening and taking notes. The word “common” – for so long an insult – is now being rehabilitated. There has been much talk about “urban commoning”, about reclaiming patches of cities to be shared, not gated. “Designing the Urban Commons” was the name of a recent exhibition at the London School of Economics. At Agrocité in Colombes, Paris, about 400 citizens share 5,000 square metres of land. In Barcelona Ada Colau was elected mayor in May under the banner “Barcelona in Common”. Freecycle (a website that allows people to give away unwanted possessions with no exchange of money) and London’s cycle hire scheme are some of the more mainstream versions of this renewed interest in sharing, rather than owning.

Within the well-being movement, too, there’s a consensus that human contentment is served not by privatisation, by fencing off our own property and possessions, but by sharing. We will find belonging, that holy grail of modern life, only if we hold a bit less maniacally on to belongings. It sounds a bit highfalutin but often it is simple: rather like the huge garden that was created in Davis, California, when neighbours began tearing down the fences that separated their backyards from one another in 1986. Within a few years, 17 homes were sharing their gardens, replacing small lawns with one huge space full of chickens, ponds, saunas and swings. The fence-removal movement has since started in the UK, too, with many suburban streets suddenly enjoying acres of garden and even shared housing space, as in the Neighbours of Northampton (the subject of a new book, Under One Roof).

Sharing ushers in well-being because commonality brings connection, which is fundamental in the context of recovery. All the academic, statistical and anecdotal evidence shows that people are far more likely to turn their lives around, and to heal emotionally and physically, if they find themselves in a loving environment that provides meaningful relationships. Mark Gilman, who is the managing director of the consultancy Discovering Health and former head of addiction recovery at Public Health England, says: “The redemptive script is never a prescription tablet, it’s always a person. The engine room for creating a new self is other people.” You can give all the treatment you want to those in recovery, but if at the end of the day they are deprived of caring companionship, sitting alone in a bedsit or a dodgy hostel, they are isolated and in trouble.


The time-established egalitarianism of communalism is also slowly being accepted by those working with some of society’s excluded and most downtrodden. ABCD – “asset-based community development” – has recently gained traction in academic and think-tank circles. Developed in Illinois in the 1990s, ABCD focuses attention not on a community’s needs and deficits, but on its skills and capabilities. The first guiding principle of ABCD is that each person in a community has something to offer. The assets per se are the people on the ground, not at high table or in government.

ABCD has its critics but it is symptomatic of a new trend towards a less patrician form of welfare. Take psychiatric care in the UK. For years, it has been the accepted practice to hospitalise patients undergoing acute psychotic episodes and heavily medicate them with neuroleptics. Increasingly, however, mental health professionals are looking at alternative forms of support pioneered in parts of northern Europe. Open Dialogue is a model from Finland in which maintaining social ties and openness to each other within a home environment is considered just as important as any pharmaceutical or medical treatment. The Family Care Foundation in Gothenburg, Sweden, places more importance on relationships and life knowledge than on medical expertise. “Care farms” originated in the Netherlands but are now mushrooming across the UK (the latest estimate is that there are roughly 230 of them here). They are agrarian sanctuaries that offer hospitality to a wide range of people with social, physical and psychiatric needs.

After decades of hierarchical and extremely costly medical care, these community solutions are almost anti-professional, echoing George Bernard Shaw’s line that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”. Anyone who has worked in a recovery community knows that very often the finest drugs counsellors aren’t the psychiatrists and therapists, but those in recovery themselves. Gilman tell me that his unofficial motto is: “Demedicalise the problem, deprofessionalise the solution.” The reason for that is simply that egalitarianism works: Lapland, where Open Dialogue was founded, now has the best-documented results in the western world for treatment of psychosis, with 75 per cent of people returning to work or study within two years.

These aren’t flaky, erratic communities, full of the usual suspects; they are places endorsed by probation agencies, police forces and so on. Willowdene Farm in Shropshire, for instance, works very closely with West Mercia Probation Trust. A social enterprise in the north-west, Jobs, Friends & Houses, was founded by a serving police officer with the support of Lancashire Constabulary.

The other lesson for the broader society that emerges from communalism is clarity about borders. One would have thought that highly developed nation states would have nailed how to police entry and exit, but the larger state conglomerations become, the more porous their borders. So many of the political debates in recent months – from what to do with desperate migrants in the Mediterranean through the possible repeal of the Human Rights Act and on to EU treaty renegotiation – occur because citizens feel that their governments have lost control of the most basic, important element of community: the comings and goings. Effective and fair gatekeeping is the foundation stone of any society. The Nobel Prize-winning American political economist Elinor Ostrom made that point in her “design principles” for any functioning group. Her very first principle describes “clearly defined boundaries”: “effective exclusion of external, unentitled parties”. By far the most unpleasant job I have to do on our alcohol- and drug-free refuge is to ask people to leave if they are – through using, boozing or violence – threatening the wellbeing of our community. Without that ultimate sanction of expulsion, however, the sanctuary wouldn’t exist. It would be completely without meaning.

We set up our community, Windsor Hill Wood, six years ago in a ten-acre woodland in Somerset. The sole purpose was to offer sanctuary to those in a period of crisis in their lives: those struggling with addiction, depression, bereavement, homelessness, eating disorders, PTSD, and so on. In that time we’ve had well over a hundred people living in our family home, and the benefits –
both to ourselves and to our guests – have far outweighed the drawbacks. It’s just a natural, healthy, wholesome way to live.


The debates will doubtless continue but what’s certain is that the need for more communalism will only increase in years to come. Levels of addiction and mental illness are at unprecedented levels: Drinkaware quotes the NHS estimate that 9 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women exhibit signs of alcoholism. The Mental Health Foundation believes that a quarter of the population will suffer some kind of mental health problem in the course of any one year. With an ageing population, there are far more elderly people than can be accommodated in ordinary homes. Providers of elderly care are increasingly turning to care (or retirement) villages where many age groups and needs blend to create a multifaceted hamlet. House prices, too, are so absurdly astronomical as to make home ownership a pipe dream for a large chunk of the population: with the average UK house price above £204,000 and the average monthly rent in London now £1,500 per month, many people are being forced to share houses.

The problem for us communitarians, however, is that our strength is also our weakness. Avowedly local, determinedly rooted in a specific terrain, proud of offering bespoke rather than generic solutions, invariably full of mavericks, eccentrics and refuseniks – it all makes replication and social franchising very hard. Emmaus, L’Arche and Camphill have been very successful at regeneration, but they are the exception. Because there’s no one model that fits all when you’re working with the “crooked timber” of humanity, many exceptional projects remain one-offs, far from the radar of national consciousness, and it is sometimes very hard to join the dissident dots.

But an even greater challenge is ideological resistance from the political right, for which notions that would have seemed outrageous a century ago are accepted as time-honoured truths: that individuals should aspire to be autonomous, independent and self-sufficient; that obsessive privacy and privatisation are signs of civilisation, not incivility; that the value of everything should be determined by the market, not by our morals. Above all, freedom and choice are seen as tokens of ideological maturity, proof that we are all liberated consumers in a capitalist wonderland, able to wander gleefully from stall to stall and having our every desire met through the speedy swipe of a small card.

There is a new, holistic philosophy that has emerged from within communalism and is tackling all this nonsense. “Dependency culture” is continuously demonised by the Tories, and yet those of us who work in the radical traditions of communalism know that dependency is a gift that brings us together. As Lynne Friedli, a researcher into the relationship between mental health and social justice, told me recently, “If we can’t embrace dependency and vulnerability, our society will always cast people out.” In an era in which integration and the accommodation of outsiders is so necessary, we have to learn to swing the pendulum away from rampant independence and back towards interdependence.

A pendulum is perhaps the wrong metaphor, because the journey away from social ties and bonds and dependencies during the 20th century was more like rolling a boulder down a hill. It was easy to persuade people within restrictive, traditionalist societies that autonomy and freedom were wonderful things. As Ayn Rand, the self-appointed spokesperson for neoliberals, wrote in her 1961 essay “The Soul of an Individualist”: “Civilisation is the progress toward a society of privacy . . . Civilisation is the process of setting man free from men.”

To persuade people otherwise is like pushing the boulder back up the slope. And the difficulty isn’t just that we have developed a very low tolerance towards other people. It is also that, to get back to the sunny uplands of true community, we will have to cash in the two most cherished tokens of modernity: freedom and choice. Of course, it suits capitalism to give us endless choice, to enable us to buy anything we want and to buy again when we change our mind. Postmoderns that we are, we want to keep all our options open and so, despite almost infinite choice, we can’t really make up our minds. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in Postmodernity and Its Discontents: “Modern individuals are sentenced to a lifetime of choosing. And the art of choosing is mostly about avoiding one danger: that of missing an opportunity.” In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz masterfully demonstrates how, unexpectedly, the amplification of choice has only increased our melancholia. If we all make our own choices (and invariably renege on them, too), it is not surprising we feel isolated and that society appears to have almost no glue left.

Yet in all functioning communities, collective choices are made and have to be adhered to. One of the most fascinating communal experiments that emerged from the hippie movement in the US was The Farm, in Tennessee. Inspired by the late Stephen Gaskin, it began in 1971, as you might expect, as a mirror-image of that age’s free-for-all attitude, but slowly began to incorporate “agreements”, which, over the years, made it a very stable and yet very creative space. Communal choices were made to respect the sanctity of marriage and monogamy, to avoid the use of hard drugs, and so on.

But the greatest obstacle to sharing the lessons of communalism is our warped notion of freedom. The essayist Wendell Berry arrived at the heart of the problem in his 2002 book, The Art of the Commonplace:


. . . there are two kinds of freedom: the freedom of the community and the freedom of the individual. The freedom of the community is the more fundamental and the more complex. A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims . . . The freedom of the individual, by contrast, has been construed customarily as a license to pursue any legal self-interest . . .”


It is here that, most clearly, a contemporary observer will glimpse the scary needle that administers the medicine we need: to create any sort of community, we need to pool individual freedoms to gain community freedoms. The latter emerge only through submission and obedience, not through exuberance and incessant self-expression. It is, obviously, a hard sell.

But, like many radical ideas, communalism somehow appeals to both left and right, at the same time as upsetting orthodoxies at both ends of the spectrum. It is a movement that sometimes seems traditionalist, even conservative, at other times radical and revolutionary. It very clearly squares the circle of so many of our social issues, at a far lower cost than current, failed solutions. It is the ideal answer to three of those most pressing crises of our age – refugees, housing and environmental damage – but we lack the courage, or strength, to give it a go.

Tobias Jones is a co-founder of Windsor Hill Wood. His book about his community, “A Place of Refuge”, is published by Quercus

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister