The word commune isn't used a huge amount in the UK; I first heard it in an episode of the brilliant US TV series, Veronica Mars where Kristen Bell's character is asked to "rescue" a rich boy who's run away to join a commune. She suspects a cult, designed to lure away impresionable kids to fund some form of dodgy venture, but discovers people who just want to leave peacfully in their own sustainable society, and ends up shamed at her attempts to find wrongdoings behind their "pleasant facade". When I left Aidan's college in Durham I found myself pining for the life I had there. It wasn't the lack of "real world pressures" or the cheap beer, or even the friends (thankfully we meet up a lot). It was the fact that the college environment was a genuine and close community, where even if you didn't know someone you probably knew their face, and the shared sense of belonging made personal connections far easier to form.
Of course in the real world things are different; I had a conversation with someone where this was pointed out to me - the college life was a bubble, insulated and separate from society. Because of this nature it could run at its own pace, albeit with a steady turnover of members, and not have to interact with entities outside itself. Whilst in some cases I'm sure this argument could be made I wasn't satisfied at that - in my opinion college did have big interactions with the outside world, both with other colleges, the unversity and the local community. Those weren't always beneficial but to think we were isolated would be to take a distant view of things. The other argument was that even with the yearly churn, new members were aware that their stay would, generally, be at least three years - that sort of future knowledge helps with commitment true, but I was most commited in the final 6 months, even when I knew I wouldn't be staying longer. So it didn't sit right with me that this life was past - the word commune had gained greater meaning for me.
The difficulty from there was how exactly does one go about recreating that kind of communal spirit? College had people packed in tight, and a structure of social events right through to ensure that people met and mingled and got involved. Looking around my street in Bury I realised I didn't know a single neighbour, and the reasons why it was difficult for this to exist in the real world were more obvious - people come and go these days, living in different areas or even cities, a wide variety of ages, races, religions, hobbies, kids etc. This was the reason why the communal spirit didn't exist - everyone had their own things to deal with, their own friends and didn't need it. Still, something wasn't quite right - this shouldn't be an impossible dream.
Fast forward over a year later and I think I'm on to something. Towards the end of last June I met, by chance, a group of people in a pub in Moss Side who, bit by bit, are helping fashion a discernible focussed community out of the melting pot of people and cultures in that area of Manchester. Through a variety of methods and with a variety of reasons (including sustainability, economical, political and environmental reasons as well as social) existing groups of people are finding out about each other and coming together to grow and expand their community. In the same way that people at college had this shared sense of belonging, the simple fact of living in an area has become for people a reason to socialise and get involved with projects affecting the area. Of course for some the involvement in the projects would have come anyway, with social aspects to follow, but for many I think it's that sense of belonging that spurs action. This should hardly be surprising, but today far too many people see things in local communities as I did in Bury - there's no point trying because it'll be hard/you'll move out/you already have friends. What I've seen is hopefully just the beginning - not only is this kind of community building good for people's social lives and local projects but I see it as a precursor to a much larger change in politics and business. I'll write about them soon, but for now let's hear it for the small society!