By Keith Flett
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Villages of Vision

This article is over 14 years, 5 months old
Gillian Darley, Five Leaves Publications, £14.99
Issue 320

Socialists are always dreamers so the new edition of Gillian Varley’s Villages of Vision, which the author describes as a “delicious stew of crankiness, utopian thinking, architectural purity, philanthropic impulse and enlightened expediency”, is welcome.

The original 1975 text remains intact but the Gazetteer, which lists utopian settlements across Britain, has been expanded to include 400 such places. As Guardian journalist David McKie notes in a preface, it is an excellent volume to have with you on any journey around Britain, allowing you, with a slight detour, to view follies and experiments in alternative living.

A lot of these experiments were built by employers, such as Bournville by the Cadburys, but the left also has its share. The Chartist Land Plan of the late 1840s, for example, saw workers looking for an alternative to the hell of early industrial capitalism ballot for places in model agricultural small holdings.

These Chartist land settlements still survive-although the scheme itself collapsed in the early 1850s. So, for example, at Snigs End near Gloucester you can see original Chartist houses, now rather desirable bungalows, and the Chartist school room which last time I looked was the Prince of Wales pub.

Socialists might find some of the judgements in the book unreliable and perhaps tending a little towards condescension in respect of some of the more whacky villages. For example, Clough Williams-Ellis’s Portmeirion in Wales is described as a “masterpiece of potent escapism” although it was after all the setting for The Prisoner, a 1960s television programme.

In these circumstances it is as well to keep in mind E P Thompson’s judgement in The Making of the English Working Class, that causes that appear hopeless and lost may in other times and places win. Quirky the subject matter of the book may be but we condescend to it at our peril.

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