You might think that the commune’s passing will be mourned only by a minority of crusty hippies- but my generation is not the first to have faced a lack of affordable housing. My parents went through all this before me – which is why I was born into a housing co-op.
The Islington house furnished from skips that was my first address is remembered by my mother as the backdrop to the happiest times of her life. The core membership was five adults (and then in 1987 me) but people were always flitting through: art students from Berlin – Portuguese musicians – my mother’s sister who was appalled at the conditions in a place described by my grandfather as ‘early Blitz’ – my godmother Spike – miners during the strike. The house was owned by a housing association called Patchwork – who would peel off years’ worth of wallpaper (six layers – hanging off the walls) and patch up the damp plaster beneath. ‘Film directors pay thousands for a set like this’ – my mum’s friend Gary said when she moved in. Though the conditions weren’t great – they paid £11 a week rent.
The house was eventually butchered and divided into flats – but such set-ups allowed many young people to pursue their dreams. Low rents (or if you were squatting, no rents) enabled people to work in the arts – to create music (I was sampled on a Madchester dance record aged three) write literature and paint. Though communal living has its downsides – Linda Grant writes about the pretentious political dogma and macrobiotic obsessions of a hippy commune in her novel We Had It So Good – while what went on in RD Laing’s living experiments was altogether more disturbing – I’m convinced that witnessing how resources – material and intellectual – could be pooled at such a young age has shaped me as an adult.
My memories are faded but what remains is a picture of a happy lively household whose ethos was not so far removed from times when children were raised by communities – not individuals. It is perhaps for this reason that it was a defining moment in my childhood that features heavily in the fiction I am sluggishly working on.
Though deeply unfashionable now communes represented a different way of being – sharing the cooking – the cleaning – and the childcare was not only practical but also beneficial to the wellbeing of the members – who ccrucially were there by choice. Now many people are crammed in reluctant flatshare – but their communal living seems far more atomised.