My new novel Birdeye publishes soon, and those who know me best are no doubt thinking it’s about time.
This isn’t because of the years it has taken to research, draft and edit it. Rather, it’s because I have wanted to write about a fictional commune for most of my adult life.
I had the good fortune, at university, to take a module called ‘American Utopias’ taught by Christopher Clark, which opened my eyes to the foment of religious, social and ideological experimentation in New York and New England at the beginning of the nineteenth century and after. I was hooked, and found myself empathising in a very unacademic way with the idealistic impulses within the many short-lived communities such as Brook Farm, Oneida and New Harmony.
In my early twenties I lived in a community myself for a couple of years – at Little Ewell, in Kent. Work, leisure, meals and living space were shared, and there were structures in place, and leaders. It was a deeply humane environment; it enriched me, but it wasn’t easy, trying to live well, together, in respectful and sustainable ways.
Then, three decades later, along came Donald Trump. In England, plenty of reasonable, well-informed people talked as if the US was now beyond all understanding. At the same time, I started making trips to the Catskills where I had spent some time as a child, and it seemed to me as an outsider that this small area of wild forest and mountain and river – tiny, in the grand scale of American landscape – exhibited a kind of pragmatism born perhaps from its particular mix of traditional and radical, privilege and hardship, conservative and liberal thinking. Beneath this runs its history of summer hotels, its mining and tanning, a search for the picturesque, and flight, often desperate, both to it and from it.
Soon I started to imagine a big old house above the river, hidden by trees. I thought about a community forged in the social tumult of the early seventies by people who followed their convictions and welcomed every stranger.
What changes for them as they grow older? Does their radicalism fade? And what does it cost, in a small, quiet place, to live with oneself?