Tobias Jones - Utopian Dreams
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 home-country which need to be despised, especially by a journalist.
I mean, am I wrong or the title of the book is The Dark Heart of Italy and not The Jolly Dark Heart of Italy or something?
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 reminiscences 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 traditions. 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 pence in a YMCA shop were all about having an indignant laugh reading some sort of retro hippie 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. Oddly enough, but 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 about here doesn't make them any justice.
What links places like the Tibet-inspired eco-hi-tech Damanhur on the first spurs of the Alps with its huge subterranean temple including "the biggest Tiffany glass cupola in the world" with the Catholic hard-laboring 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 for the almost mythological leadership of the founders 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 he 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 hippie 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 travelers' camp? Are gypsy communities not enough Utopian to be reported here?
Alright, 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.