Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Pilsdon Community

The Pilsdon Community, on the border of Somerset and Devon, is a place for people who've been through a hard time, wayfarers, and volunteers who want to support them, perhaps in need of a bit of land-based-tonic themselves. I visited in January and, relaxing in the library by the fire, found that Tobias Jones in his book Utopian Dreams did a far better job of describing it than I could hope to.

Here are some excerpts

“It feels as if there is an unobtrusive magnet at its centre, moving those who feel its pull.” p164

“You are living among people who would be terrifying to middle England – many men are covered in tattoos and a few have harder-than-thou scars. But often I have to nip off to finish mucking out the cow shed or whatever, and Fra is in the pottery shed or kitchen, so I leave tiny Benny with one of these guys. And they all gather round and laugh at her smile and mini-teeth, and she starts showing off, and by the time I come back an hour later she's asleep in one of their arms.”

The Rev Percy Smith and his Wife Gaynor bought Pilsdon Mannor in 1958, for £5k.

“By 1960, Percy was writing Letters From a Community, a sort of summary to the outside world of what was going on. He described the planting of japonica, forsythia, aubrietia; he described the animals and the harvests and the potato-peeling. 'If Pilsdon teaches anything,' he wrote in December 1960, 'it teaches through failure and disappointment how far we fall short in our love.' It was, he said, 'a school for sinners and not a museum of saints.'” p166

“There was, as far as I could see, a style of leadership which was completely removed from vanity or power. It didn't shrink from taking responsibility in what were, without being melodramatic, potentially life-and-death situations. 'The leader of Pilsdon,' I was told by one former warden, 'will always have to have the authority to ask people to leave against their will. Within an hour if they are drunk, on drugs or violent. The sense of security and safety for many guests at Pilsdon relies on this authority.' It's a kind of leadership underpinned by service to the whole.” p 167

“...the place felt intimate and calm. Unusually, there was a complete lack of conceit, a tangible humility to the place.” p160

Percy inspired by reading about Little Gidding.

“They believe in the root of community – koinonia – which means having things in common.”

“There was an affinity between us,” writes Gaynor Smith, wife of the founder, describing their relations with the wayfarers who passed through: “we too had chosen an unconventional path and, like them, were living a life that had shed many of the sophistications of society and was simpler and more primitive than most of modern life. Almost unconsciously we understood each other and were relaxed and at home in that understanding.” quoted on p 169.

“Those who have been emotionally skinned, who are in exposed agony, have a gift. They break down the prison of prestige. Jean Vanier, who founded the L'Arche communities for people with learning difficulties, once wrote: 'The poor man has a mysterious power: in his weakness he is able to open hardened hearts and reveal the sources of living water within them. It is the tiny hand of the fearless child which can slip through the bars of the prison of egoism. He is the one who can open the lock and set free. And god hides himself in the child.” - quoted p169-70.

Visitor info booklet in bedroom. First line:

“Welcome to the Pilsdon Community! Coming here is part of a journey of discovery about relating to yourself, to others and to the environment.”

It's interesting, I've always seen that as the question at the core of my work, and at the core of political science: How are we to live, as ourselves, with each other, in the world? Each culture, each layer of history, finds its own answers to this perennial question. I think a new layer of culture is necessarily emerging within our current / old culture now; and once again, we are exploring what our answers to these questions might be.

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