Laurieston Hall

May 2012.


I had another dream about Laurieston. Which toilet to use? Where’s my coat? Then I thought I’d like to take some soil away. So I filled a wheelbarrow, but put so much in that I couldn’t move it. Couldn’t lift the handles, let alone push it. Slowly it sank deeper into the mud.

About twenty years ago we went to dinner with some people I scarcely knew, and one of them remembered visiting Laurieston in the 70’s and being offended by signs asking her to pee in a squalid bucket for the compost heap. That was me, I said. I organised the buckets, I probably wrote the signs. Fifteen years had passed and she still didn’t find the experience amusing. The evening didn’t go well and I never saw her again.

Eating with strangers, the sudden, forced intimacy of it, can be difficult, and we did a lot of that at Laurieston.

Once we saw a procession of police cars coming up the drive at funeral pace. They were polite and respectful even though it was a drugs bust, or they hoped it would be a drugs bust, and they obeyed the sign asking motorists to drive very slowly because children were playing. They probably thought the adults were children playing as well. In fact some of the adults thought that most of the other adults were children playing. The police told us all to gather in the kitchen. Someone said ‘which kitchen?’ and listed all the kitchens. The young policeman – he must have been very young if he seemed young when we were young – looked caught out and embarrassed. I felt for him. In my room a tougher one was looking at my diary. ‘I am a slave to drugs and television’ he read out. ‘That is a work of fiction’, I said, and felt pleased with myself. A strange thing to write really because all we had was some low grade home grown grass (probably I was being really thorough and referring to coffee and tobacco as well) and all I watched on the telly was Match of the Day. We sat close under blankets. Once we went to see Ayr United against Celtic and Kenny Dalglish took a throw in so close to us that if Joel had been taller he’d have got elbowed in the face.1 Once we went to see Carlisle United against somebody, the one season that they were in the First Division.

Maybe it was low-grade, its growing season shortened by late frosts and early frosts, its flowering inhibited by the light shade of birch trees, but I liked it.

I knew that Richard had some grass plants in the woods and one day I went to look for them. I imagined a good place for them to grow, and quickly found them. Later I thought, that was a kind of garden design.

In the garden, the first thing I learned about was compost making. Someone found a young dead deer in the woods. It was buried in a compost heap and a few months later only clean bones remained. But orange peel came out still orange. And there were only two places where nothing grew. Moulds and mosses and ferns and weeds and fungi grew on walls and windows and on the gutters of dirty vehicles and on loaves of stale bread, everything was green, even the light, but nothing could grow on the pile of saw dust and wood chippings beside the track to the village or on the pile of chicken shit behind the stables. That’s the carbon-nitrogen ratio.2

Then I moved on to pest control. I went out one wet night with a torch and picked 760 slugs off two rows of broad beans. (I did the same thing last night, in Stoke Newington, although of course I didn’t find as many. Can’t that slime be used for something?) I put them in a bucket and fed them to the pigs next morning. Two mouthfuls. I learnt the importance of accurate record keeping, of measuring and taking minutes, of listing, counting and accounting. But after counting the 760 snails I fell away.

One of the most desperately lonely times for me was the first Christmas, when the commune gave way to the old families in a short-lived counter revolution. They slept together hoping for Father Christmas; he was unconvincing.

Another one was in St Lucia. 28 and the first time I’d been in an aeroplane. My parents paid for me to go and visit them; my father was working out there. We were driving across the island, mum and dad in the front, me in the back, and no one was saying very much, as usual, and I was looking out at the alien, dazzling tropics3 when all of a sudden my father said to me, ‘Well, Jon, (or John, I’m not sure what he called me,) ‘what are the aims of Laurieston Hall?’ What are the aims of Laurieston Hall. You can use both sides of the paper if you like. You can write as much as you like. You can take as long as you like. I still can’t explain how awful that question made me feel. Awful about my relationship with my father, awful about my relationship with Laurieston Hall, awful about myself. I can’t even remember what I said. I think I played for time, suggested that we have a proper chat about Laurieston later, so that I could enjoy the scenery. Later I must have said something about deprived children from the city visiting, organic vegetables, working hard to keep warm.

I spent some time in 1977 uprooting prickly little spruces in the woods behind the house, full of guilt and righteousness, unaware that no one cared anyway: the grants had all been paid.

I met a visitor once in the garden, weeding carrots. She was so happy. It was as if those carrot seedlings and that chickweed had come together to create for her a perfect moment in the sunshine, to satisfy her personal need. I can’t remember what she said, but the difference between us has remained with me – my feeling that the carrots had been sewn to provide food and the chickweed needed to be rooted out, a straight forward business; her feeling that she was at the centre of it all and that when she grew a little bored she would move on and the carrots and chickweed would be left to sort it out themselves. Do you do things because they need to be done or because you’re into doing them? There isn’t necessarily a contradiction of course, but there often is. I imagined that I worked hard – except when I was depressed or in love, of course – but I know now that that’s not how others saw me. I did enjoy the last few weeks when I’d decided to leave, and the others who left around the same time had already gone and taken their miseries and morals and contradictions with them4, and I let go and stopped worrying about chickweed and we went on some nice trips to the beach and that autumn there was a good harvest of magic mushrooms and the children were really sweet. It was like being a visitor. When was it that all the nice young men came? They’re not in Mike’s book – John Valente, Dirk, and of course Blue and Pete. The place began to loosen up, or I did. the story of Mixcaf ends when he left, whereas of course it should have ended when I left. And there’s nothing about Red Therapy. Or Sheila wickedly feeding her daughters eggs because they wouldn’t couldn’t eat our food.

You see these guys who clearly haven’t had a proper hair cut for about forty years. By now it’s a grey, skinny pony tail and you think, you sad old bastard. 5

August 2019. I just came across the above. I had started to write something about Laurieston, and in went the dead deer, the orange peel, my father and ‘what are the Aims?’ Then I read that I had already put them in seven years ago. But now I realise that there were no Aims. That came as a relief. There was only constant talk about aims.

I’ve been reading Mike’s book. He says I was vague and indecisive, and that I often didn’t do what I said I’d do. So he got some things right.

Was it like christianity? Most of the time you confess, you pray, you acknowledge your shortcomings, you vow to do better, you’re on your knees. And then come the special occasions, the holydays, when you eat and drink and celebrate, dance even.

Anyway, I’ve copied the new document and I’ll put it here, with the repeats, the old songs:

Soon after I moved to Laurieston Hall I took on responsibility for the old childhood family dog. That’s how young I was. The dog I’d walked and chased through the woods and over the downs and along the river as a boy was still alive. My parents had gone to Belize, my father had taken early retirement and gone there to teach, and the dog went to my sister in Aberdeen, but when she could no longer look after him I said I would ask my new communards if he could come to Laurieston. I asked everybody in turn and although some were reluctant no one put their foot down. I said, if there are any problems, the dog will go. And there were problems. I only found out years later that back in Amesbury in his grumpy old age Thurber had bitten a neighbour. And at Laurieston he snapped first at Sonya and then at Patrick. Why Sonya and Patrick? I think they had been irritated at his habit of lying like a big sandbag in the doorway of the billiard room kitchen, and they had tried to pull him out of the way. True to my word I took him to the vet’s in Castle Douglas and had him put down. Nicky had Leaf of course, but Leaf was very well behaved and never left Nicky’s side. And a bit later Alice Bondi came along and although she wasn’t actually living in the Hall she spent a lot of time there and she had two dogs, Kai and her daughter Jesse. No one signed a piece of paper to say that they could stay, but Alice B. was forceful, and of course they weren’t actually living there, or were they? – which takes us to the interesting subject of the long term visitor. Generally they saw us all in a good light, which was nice, or they wouldn’t be there. Unless they were desperate. They soothed and nourished and supported us. And of course we resented them: their freedom, their privileges. And of course they added greatly to the possibilities for sex and romance. At times it felt as if we fed hungrily on each other.

Anyway, the point is, I don’t want to get into another canine conflict forty five years later, so although I think it a shame that I can’t bring my beautiful young dog (acrobatic, affectionate, obedient for a nine month old dog although I must admit with a habit I’m working on of digging holes in lawns), Laurieston Hall being, as I recall, a paradise for the right kind of dog, I accept without a grudge the consensus based decision that visitors can’t bring dogs.

I’ve dipped and skimmed through Mike’s book. The Accountant’s balance sheet does not show that although expenditure was generally greater than income, the tiny amounts of capital that were therefore consumed by around 25 people add up to, allowing for inflation, less than one student’s annual course fees these days. And look at what we learned! And how that learning benefited many of us for the rest of our lives.

One of the first things I learned at Laurieston Hall was the carbon-nitrogen ratio. Someone found a dead deer in the woods and we put it in a compost heap. Several months later the only visible remains were clean bones and a few bits of fur. Whereas orange peel that had gone into the same heap was still bright orange orange peel. To make good compost you need a balance between things high in nitrate, like flesh and fresh grass (all flesh is as the grass, das Gras ist verdorben und die Blumen abgefallen, etc.), and things high in carbon, the more lifeless material, withered, stalky things.

And I learnt to be a labourer, and I’m still a labourer. Just about. Good labourers are still useful and can be hard to find.

I learnt to stay away from hallucinogenic drugs. I learned how to cook. I learned about seasoned wood and green wood, about photography and dark rooms, about looking after small children, about dogs of course, especially border collies, about the curse of spruce plantations, about big landowners and speculators and their tenants, about writing even, about the dangers, brilliantly exposed in Mike’s book, of too many sexual relationships, about jealousy and envy, about hepatitis, about the virtues of a diet low in fat, sugar and meat, about the lives of teenagers from London, Belfast and Glasgow and how, astonishingly, we could get on together. (I remember a photo of some of the Somerstown kids in the big kitchen, there’s a bunch of snowdrops on the table, a skinny kid with a pointy hat – Sue Crockford is not in the picture, but she created or facilitated that amazing social group.)

I didn’t really learn much about collective living, more about myself really: that I will go to great lengths to avoid direct conflict, that I am by nature a mediator, though not a successful one, and a moderate.

Later I noticed that some people would seem quite impressed and very interested when I said I’d lived at Laurieston. (Like quite different people would be if I said I’d been to Cambridge.) If you liked to pose you could be a veteran, a survivor, an old soldier. But always the same questions.

The worst time was in St Lucia. My father paid for me to visit them, a privilege and probably controversial, though I saw it more as a duty. We were driving somewhere, past the famous pitons, two steep conical mountains, my father was driving, my mother was in the front passenger seat, I was in the back, and all of a sudden he said in a big bold voice, ‘Well, Jon, what are the aims of Laurieston Hall?’ Maybe the truth is that we didn’t have any aims. We were refugees escaping persecution by the nuclear family and the consumer society and imperialism and the military-industrial complex and the patriarchy, but we didn’t know what we wanted except in a nebulous sense – ‘love’ was in the air and it still is. I can’t remember what I said to my father, whom I was still afraid of and who represented what I was trying to escape from; I only remember feeling cornered, trapped, hopeless. I probably said something uncontroversial about organic gardening.

On the one hand the trees, the loch, the garden, things to be lived with, worked with and enjoyed for ever by the people who stayed on, and on the other hand the moments, the events, the dances, the inspired and embarrassing scribbling, all that was amazing for someone like me who was still trying to recover from an unhappy adolescence – sometimes I wanted a proper adolescence. Didn’t get it, but there were those moments, those weeks. Now for some reason I think of Keith Cowling’s famous piece of graffiti in a toilet near the big kitchen: I came to Laurieston because the bottom had fallen out of my world – and the world fell out of my bottom.

Now I remember something Joseph Roth wrote, as a Jewish exile in Paris in the 30’s – people never ask the exile where he’s going, they only ask about where he’s come from. With us it was the other way round, maybe because those asking the question know all about the world we’d come from, and like us, nothing about where we were going; and everybody would like to know more about the promised land.

Now I’m taking up again where I left off after finding the 2012 document.

When my parents came back from St Lucia in the autumn of 1975 I went to visit them. I helped my father with the very overgrown garden. It was ok to dump prunings on the marshy verges of the river, and we tied a rope round a big pile and dragged it down the track. Near the river the branches got stuck between the trunks of two young willows, and I pulled hard, the load came suddenly free and my father fell on his bottom. He and I had changed. I had become stronger, working at Laurieston, he had grown older. That evening he died of a heart attack.

One passage in Mike’s book is a description of who’s sleeping where, in which precarious couplings, one night at the top of the house. I’m with Alice B.’s dogs. That was all right though, she gave me Jesse. Elsewhere Mike says, ‘I was sleeping alone, for about the millionth time.’ You poor dear. You knew nothing about sleeping alone. I would sometimes be troubled by what I think must have been heart burn and thought I was going to die of a heart attack in the night. I never spoke to anyone about this. Stupid, stupid times.

Once I pinned up some document – the place was regularly assaulted by Lutheran challenges to the corrupt established order, which were generally ignored – on a notice board and Alice read it and said how much she liked it. I muttered something about it being rubbish really, and she said, ‘yes, but it’s beautifully written!’ In the book, Mike, you quote something I write about words losing their meaning, and after it you put, ‘yes, dear,’ as if the idea of words losing their meaning were far-fetched. Try, off the top of my head, ‘the Will of the People,’ ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’, ‘absolutely’, er – ok, the top of my head is clouded, let’s turn to Google:

‘the things she most wanted to tell him would lose their meaning the moment she put them into words,’ Murakami.

‘when words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom,’ Confucius.

‘when words lose their meaning physical force takes over’, WH Auden.

‘War Is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!’ Orwell, in ‘1984’.

So much of the past is hidden. Did you and I, Mike, really go to Cambridge to talk for very little money to some students? I have no memory of that. And I realise now that I never did any office work, or social networking, or organising for groups to come and stay, or talking to the education authorities, or any authorities, except for that policeman in my room, or making deals with local farmers, or even trips to the Cash and Carry. But once Davey Mair came to stay with us in Tufnell Park Road and he said that of all the people from the Hall who came to work on his farm, I worked the hardest, putting bales of hay up in the barn, stacking them in a smaller and smaller and dustier space, no gloves, the twine cutting into your hands, the bales coming at you at speed off the top of the elevator you had to keep going you had no control over the work.  Like I said earlier, I learnt labouring. I still like climbing up into trees – not that high – and pruning them, I can still squat pretty well, always use a bow saw, hate chain saws, dig if I stop when the pain in lower back gets quite strong, but just this year I start to feel I need to cut down on all that. And I’ve got COPD. Do more writing. Actually, I’m doing less. Then I got an email from the health centre, from my GP, saying that they’re wanting to start a garden, looking for volunteers, so tomorrow I’m going to a meeting.

Not a word, not a single word about Bob Dylan or the Band or the Grateful Dead in your book, Mike. And it’s never 20 feet from that broken old rusty bridge down into the burn. More like 6. And I don’t think I made myself clear, when I said that at the end of my relationship with Julia I was speechless, I meant literally. I was, only very briefly thank God, catatonic, unable to speak. 

I did laugh out loud a few times, though, reading the book.

more later, maybe

1 what lies! A moment’s reflection or re-enactment will show that when you take a throw in your elbows stick out in front, not behind. But I’m sure that Joel did almost swoon with excitement.

2 the saw dust too high in carbon, the chicken shit too high in nitrate.

3 for me the tropics are a closed book. That eternal present which leads people to plant by the phases of the moon. All those unknown dark leathery leaves. Kew’s dingy palm house where fresh orange rust breaks quickly through each new white coat of paint.

4 though I soon caught up with them again

5 don’t know what that remark is doing there

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2 Responses to Laurieston Hall

  1. Christina Talbot says:

    That took me back – far more than going back tomorrow will. I think how it was for me was more like how it was for you than you would imagine. I expect you think that lonely would be the last thing I felt. It wasn’t, it was nearly the first, the first being afraid. I’m surprised to remember that but your musty damp cold daylong dusk deserted evocation of the place evoked my then constant feeling of being slightly afraid. Hmmm. I don’t expect I would find anything like that in Mikes book.
    You know your first Christmas, I don’t remember retreating to a family group. I remember Sonya and Billy getting hugely expensive presents from their grandparents – a bike was one – and I remember sewing hippy clothes and sticking my hair on a charity shop Actionman for Joel, like we’d all agreed. Aghast was how I felt on Christmas morning. Don’t think Joel minded once he’d torn off the hair. He loved Accyman. (By far my worst Christmas was my first alone in London with the kids and having hardly any money, scouring Exchange and Mart for a secondhand Scalectrix – it never worked – and not being able to stop crying in Jones Bros carpark).
    So we were probably both closer and further apart than either of us thought or now remembers….

    Sent from my iPad

  2. janeandallan says:

    Thank you, both of you, for this. I never went near Laurieston, except in imagination. The memories you share are unique but universal. The loneliness, the conviction of being right, and always being at the centre of ones own small world. Your shared experience has led to your deep friendship. I’m so pleased to have met you. Strange to think of you both there today.

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