Friday, July 6, 2007

It's A Small World

Recently I was invited to write something for a German publication called Die Planung - check out the website set notionally in the future, 2036 to be precise. I wrote a number of bits and pieces which all hinged around various utopian communities, one of which was an art commune set up near where I was brought up. I recently visited it and took some photos too which I've included here with the short piece about the communitie's remains.....


I’m lying in the long grass, eating Bombay Mix. I am eleven years old. I have never eaten Bombay Mix before. Around me are people, milling around; dancing, chatting, juggling, painting, cooking food. There are a lot of children. Mostly slightly scruffy, longhaired bare foot children. Various brightly painted shacks, Romany caravans, totem poles and odd bits of sculpture made from pieces of mechanical equipment lie around. There is a tent and inside it someone is showing a black and white movie. I don’t recognise it, maybe Brief Encounter or The Thirty Nine Steps. Something like that.

It is 1981. Longhaired hippy types are everywhere, old motorbikes lie around discarded, people stretch out in the sun and there is the smell of a bonfire. We are in a small clearing surrounded by tall trees. Through them I can see a cottage, painted in rainbow colours, the doors and windows wide open and music coming out. Beyond this is the road that leads up to the village where my parents live. The village is quiet and conservative with a church, a village hall, a primary school. It has some posh old houses and some new estates with shiny new cars parked outside and on the outlying roads are pink and yellow farm houses with thatched barns and mud covered Land Rovers and fruit trees and a river that winds towards the Blackwater estuary. It has a Lord Lieutenant and a Vicar and there are quiet old men in corduroy suits who collect the contributions in church and busy old women who organise things in the village hall and bored teenagers who hang out on the recreation ground smoking cigarettes and wait for the free bus to Asda. It hasn’t ever before seemed a likely place to start an alternative community. But now it has one: the Great Leighs’ Art Society, who have made their unconventional home in a quiet hollow of common land, a half acre hidden behind some trees, hardly noticeable from the road.

I spend the afternoon like this, wandering around the stalls selling homemade food that I have never seen before, listening to music, poking around the cabins and huts dotted amongst the trees. At some point towards the end of the day, as the sun starts to set, a crowd gathers around a large multicoloured boat-like object that sits at the entrance to the site. I remember it as something like a cross between a Mississippi steamboat and a giant fish. It has a mouth painted on its front with big teeth, a happy rather than scary expression, and large funnels coming out of the top. It has wheels and slowly this strange land bound sculpture starts to move. Lots of people are standing on it dancing and waving as the fish/boat/vehicle pulls out onto the little country road and starts its slow progress up to the village.

This is the highlight of the day, the finale, a moving piece of art puffing its optimistic way around a small Essex village, a utopian gesture of friendship to a sceptical audience. I don’t see the journey of the fish/boat/vehicle, I only imagine it, gaily chugging along, causing an impatient tailback of Ford Granadas and Vauxhall Cavaliers and bemused, slightly hostile onlookers. This is how I remember it: The Great Leighs’ Art Society Summer Solstice Party, 1981.

A year later the Society would be gone. Twenty-six years later the huts can still just about be seen; peeling coloured planks of wood in the undergrowth, stray pieces of rotten clothing draped over a branch, merging with the moss. They must have lasted about three or four years. Their little world, a village within a village, had a brief existence. Now the bits of brick foundations and bare bits of infrastructure are romantic ruins of a former civilisation. At that point in time, the countryside must have seemed the place to try and start something else, something different. It must have seemed like a benign, un-hostile place free of the harshness of the city. All utopias are representations, pictures of a better world. They need to remove themselves from the corroding atmosphere around them, and exist in their own distinct space, but still it seeps through.

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