This is a travel book, an account of the year Tobias Jones spent living in communes and amongst unusual dreamers. It is his attempt to retreat from the 'real world' - which is making him emptier and angrier by the day - and seek out the alternatives to modern manners and morality. Instead of cynicism, loneliness and depression is it possible to be idealistic, find belonginThis is a travel book, an account of the year Tobias Jones spent living in communes and amongst unusual dreamers. It is his attempt to retreat from the 'real world' - which is making him emptier and angrier by the day - and seek out the alternatives to modern manners and morality. Instead of cynicism, loneliness and depression is it possible to be idealistic, find belonging and companionship? Are there really groups that transcend the opposites of individualism and community, where you can be truly yourself but also part of something else? With his wife and baby daughter in tow, Jones visits unusual orphanages, retirement villages, detox co-operatives and old-fashioned farmyards, and spends time with spiritualists, time travellers, reformed drug addicts and Quakers. He encounters wildly different communities, some more harmonious than others, which lead him to ask the deeply unfashionable question: do groups that place faith at their centre work better than those that don't?...
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Utopian Dreams Reviews
I was extremely critical with Tobias Jones while reviewing his debut "The Dark Heart of Italy". Being myself Italian you may think that I got somehow offended by what Mr Jones wrote there. On the contrary, I thought that Tobias was way too soft in tolerating some aspects of my homecountry which need to be despised, especially by a journalist. Alas, Tobias Jones fell victim of that "Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday Complex" which may lead English-speaking authors to match unpleasant aspects of contemporary Italy with reminescences of a long gone "dolce vita". The final result was a journalistic-like insight on Italy where, say, corruption in politics went along with tasty food, religious superstition walked hand in hand with enjoyable (?) football, social problems flirted with old picturesque tradtions. And so on.This tendency of forgiving Italy for all of its recent sins is understandable in the occasional Anglo-saxon holiday-maker who keeps on saying that "oh, it's such a lovely, delightfully country to live in: the sun, the people, the art, the wine!", but less justifiable in the work of a foreign correspondent. That's why I was very harsh with Tobias and that Italian fairytale of him even more considering how Mr Jones showed (and spoiled) some sharp thoughts and interesting potential in "The Dark Heart of Italy". Now it's time to be fair. My expectations when I bought "Utopian Dreams" for 49 pences in a YMCA shop were all about having an indignant laugh reading some sort of retro hippish rubbish mixed up with the new wave of biological spiritualism which raised up in the 1990s. I could imagine Tobias Jones rolling the sleeves of his shirt and spotting his tank suit with stinky mud while tilling his own vegetable garden under the pouring rain somewhere up in Cumbria and quoting Thoreau in the process. I could easily picture the Oxford educated handsome intellectual writing about the joy of growing his own cucumbers and contemplating the corns on his hands in the candlelight after a hard day's work. Well, I was wrong. And the times I laughed while reading this book were because Jones turned up to be a very good observer, not a true believer although he later converted himself to a sort of bucolic life managing a ten acre woodland shelter in Somerset.What surprised me more is that almost five years after its publication, nobody in Italy gave "Utopian Dreams" a chance. I mean, this book has not yet been translated into Italian. Which is very stupid thinking how most of the communities Jones went to are in Italy.Actually, calling "communities" the places Tobias Jones chose to live in for a while and write abouthere doesn't make them any justice. What links places like the Tibet-inspired Damanhur an ecoville on the first spurs of the Alps with a huge subterranean temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Horus with the Catholic working microcosm of Nomadelfia in Tuscany where money and advertising are banned is the feeling of "being good people" of those who dwell there. That and the adoration to the mythological founder of both communities.Tobias Jones did a very good job in writing about the daily life and genesis of the communities he selected, both in Italy and the UK. He sometimes played the naive one, sometimes not. He raised questions and waited for answers without jumping to obvious conclusions. The only thing that seems pretty unclear to him - and he admits it was - is what we was looking for. Why he chose to visit "Libera Terra" in Sicily (an association farming lands confiscated to the Mafia) and not "San Patrignano" (a little town for the rehabilitation of drug-addicted people) in Romagna or "The Elves" up on the Appennine mountains (some hippy luddites living of agriculture and bargains)? For Libera Terra, after all, is not technically what one may call "a community" but rather a brave project with a solid principle behind.The same mild criticism to this book could be raised while talking about the Utopian dreams which Jones selected in the UK. The Quaker village in the Yorkshire looks more like a retirement garden city for the wealthy than a good example of self-sufficient, self-indulgent community while the solidarity-driven Pilsdon in Dorset makes more sense but - once again - seems like a random word of mouth choice. What about the bunch of Tolstoyan fundamentalists of the Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds? And what about an Irish travellers' camp? Are gypsy communities not enough Utopian to be reported here? Ok, now I'm kind of joking but perhaps the only problem of this otherwise clever book is the arbitrariness of the examples Mr Jones brought to his narrative. "Utopian Dreams" is well researched, funny and often a pleasure to read, but I think there was room enough for more cases. Some may say that this book lacks of a specific goal, but I think Tobias Jones got a point in never trying to convince anyone on what is right and what is wrong but simply reporting what he saw, heard and did.
Tobias Jones,weary traveller,embarks on a journey to find an alternative life-style for him & his family in an increasingly soul-less contemporary world.He does not find the finished article in his sojourns in Italy & England,but he does initiate an intense scrutiny of just what it is that constitutes a successful community.In some passages,Jones goes far beyond the superficial descriptions of the people he meets & delves into the whole Western philosophical premise of materialist progress & individual sovereignty.I enjoyed,& was stimulated by,his questioning of the criteria for success most of us align our expectations with,& he draws the inevitable conclusion that simple pleasures are far more therapeutic than any number of expensive & meretricious alternatives;that there is more than dignity in a good days work in a vegetable patch than in a hot-desk,or merit in anyone with real experience to pass on,rather than the nasty, gaudy,commercialised 'experience' we mostly BUY into in the 21st century. An antidote to conspicuous consumption,this is modest self-sufficiency which liberates the soul.
The author, Tobias Jones, pursues what on the surface is a cliche: meaning. The meaning of community, the nature of humanity, the purpose and pursuit of happiness and contentment. But you can hardly treat it so casually when the guy takes himself (and more often than not, his wife and kids) off to live in a series of out of the mainstream communities to experience them and distill the lessons they offer. Over the course of a year, he lives in 6 or so very different communities - Christianity is a quiet or loud basis for several, but for others attempts at a new religion or to exist as a social cause are the foundation. During his journey, the book unfolds more like a diary than a formal structure. Jones is a widely read and intellectual thinker, so he is given to many interesting diversions on Durkheim, the thoughts of various historical religious figures, philosophy and, his most frequent tool, the etymology of language as a guide to meaning. In the end, his journey does seem to lead him to a sense of peace and its central importance to our lives as individuals and social beings. He concludes that humans need community, but the success of a community lies as much in the imponderables as in a shared creed that shapes people's motivations and sets the boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable. Surprisingly, I found myself reminded of the style of English travel writer Alan Booth, who was similarly reflective in his wanderings around Japan, and able to draw on a wide array of references and connected his observations to broader cultural themes. Thought provoking.
Thanks Emma for an excellent recommendation - speaking fascinatingly to the issues we were talking about a while back! I have to admit that I was a little sceptical beforehand, as I wondered if it would be little more than a vaguely interesting description of different communities. What was pleasantly surprising was the quality of the writing, and the range of discussion and influences that he was citing - as he went along, he was able to weave in lots of ideas that he'd studied from a range of interesting people (philosophers, theologians etc). Coupled with the descriptions and conversations (which were pretty fascinating and well-written anyway), this made for a very worthwhile read. I found lots of his thoughts interesting: on freedom (is it really the end goal? what is freedom for?), on faith (does it come from within, or actually from outside?), on secularism (when it comes to tolerance, does secularism have to be so authoritarian - less 'passive umpire' and more 'high priest'?), on responsibility (how can this be understood without community?) etc...Definitely worth reading
This wasn't quite what I was expecting, but none the worse for that. I think I expected it all to be rather more new-age, whereas he keeps quoting Schleiermacher. Tobias Jones (with his wife and yound daughter in tow) was exasperated with commercialism and consumerism and was looking for meaning in community, and spent a year staying in various communities, some in Italy and some in England, and observing them. He discovers that with the exception of Italy's Damanhur the communities are largely underpinned in some shape or form by Christianity, even if not overtly so. The most successful experiment for him seems to be Pilsdon in Dorset.The book was written in 2007, before the financial crash and the subsequent even more rampant market economy: one wonders what he would make of what is happening now, given his opening comments about the state of society. Interesting and surprising.
Though I came out in disagreement with some of the author's points (the blurb on the back sas "[Jones] has come to believe that 'there really are ways of living that are more noble and valid... reading him, you start to believe it too."), he gives some good food for thought. I could have used less theoretical and philosophical philosophizing. Though this gives Jones the opportunity to cherry-pick, I can accept that knowing that I would never have read all of those sources first-hand (Emerson, Kierkegaard, etc).
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Toby and helping to entertain his daughter on a flight out of Italy not long after this book was published, and, as a result, popped into Blackwell's to purchase a copy a few days later. I can report that he's a lovely chap, and that this is a thoroughly readable book. He is a travel-journalist by background, and this book reflects that, the slightly pretentious and quotation-laden introduction notwithstanding, but his accounts of the idealistic communities in which he and his family have stayed are skilfully drawn, thoughtful, and even-handed.
An interesting look at the time the author spent living in various communes, but even by the end I wasn't sure what exactly the point of the book had been.The author was hazy on the points he was making at the start and was still so at the end, even through his conclusion while the chapters on the communes were disjointed even though some of them were a delight to read.
Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones (2007)
Not the book I thought it was gonna be, but actually no worse for that! Has several thought provoking ideas about what makes community work, as well as what it actually is. Enjoyed it.