Book Review from the August 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'A Place of Refuge: an Experiment in Communal Living'. By Tobias Jones, (riverrun £9.99)
This is an account of a ‘woodland sanctuary’near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, set up by Jones and his wife Francesca ‘with the sole purpose of offering refuge to people going through a period of crisis in their lives’(see also www.windsorhillwood.co.uk). It was inhabited by them, their two (later three) children and usually up to five other people. In the first two and a half years, over fifty people stayed there for varying lengths of time. The other residents had various kinds of problem, such as addiction to alcohol or drugs, or a past history of abuse, or were ex-soldiers who had endured terrible experiences in Afghanistan and were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The book is an honest (sometimes painfully honest) report of the trials and tribulations involved, the effect on Jones himself of listening to so much trauma, and what was achieved.
The set-up had a religious inspiration, though not much is in fact made of this. It was supported financially by Jones’own income (from journalism and other writing), equal contributions from the other residents, donations from supporters and the sale of various goods produced on the site. A natural question to ask is whether the experience has any lessons for Socialists, though it should be borne in mind that the other residents, with their problematic backgrounds, were by no means a cross-section of the population.
Partly because of residents’histories, no alcohol or drugs were allowed on-site, nor was any violence permitted. It was mainly the Jones adults who decided what was allowed (it was their home, after all), and in the second year a management committee of outsiders was set up to offer advice. The result was not a harmonious paradise where everyone chipped in as they could and took what they needed, but nor was it a place where people did the minimum they could get away with and just enjoyed themselves. Volunteers from outside came one day a week to look around and help out. Most exchanges with the local community were non-monetary, such as providing a cup of tea and a slice of cake in exchange for an oil drum. Internally there was no concept of a wage.
Some quotes will give an idea of how it all worked out in practice: a few people ‘took everything they could without any idea of where it was coming from’, while others ‘were here for what they could get, not what they could give’. Yet most residents ‘don’t want to be helped; they want to help out’ and ‘Far more of our guests work too hard than not enough’ and in many ways ‘everyone benefited from communal life’. The wood ‘has, in fact, usually been a cheerful and harmonious place’.
Windsor Hill Wood is not a little piece of socialism in Somerset, but Jones’ book provides a refreshing insight into both the difficulties and benefits of one form of communal life.