Gallery: Single parent Dinah Jefferies spent the 1970s dancing under the stars at a commune in Sotherton

Dinah Jefferies and some of the commune children in Southwold Dinah Jefferies and some of the commune children in Southwold

Saturday, July 5, 2014
4:17 PM

Dancing under the stars, children playing outside from dawn to dusk and endless music... just a few of Dinah Jefferies’ memories of communal living in the 1970s.

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At the farm at Sotherton, Jamie on the rightAt the farm at Sotherton, Jamie on the right

She told Sheena Grant more.

When Dinah Jefferies found herself suddenly single with a baby to take care of, the solution seemed obvious: she would go and live in a commune.

It may not be the first thought of many lone mothers these days but hey, this was the early 1970s, a time of hippy counterculture, flower power and high ideals.

Dinah’s son Jamie was born while she was studying for an English literature degree in Northern Ireland. She graduated but before Jamie was a year old she and his father had split. Dinah was on her own. She says:

The commune at Church Farm, SothertonThe commune at Church Farm, Sotherton

“I had a eureka moment and hit on the idea of communal living. I heard about a commune in Norfolk and went to see it. They were really lovely and invited me to stay. When you are a single parent with a small child it is an amazing thing because suddenly, you are not on your own.”

Through them Dinah got to know members of a band called the Global Village Trucking Company and ended up living in a commune centred around the group at Church Farm, Sotherton, near Halesworth.

But this wasn’t your average commune. The house was owned by James and Jeremy Lascelles, brothers who just happened to be great grandsons of George V and first cousins, once removed, of the Queen. James played keyboards in the band and Jeremy, then its manager, went on to become CEO of Chrysalis Music. Their step father was then Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and the band’s drummer, Sir Simon Stewart-Richardson, was a baronet.

“I can’t recall exactly how I ended up living there,” says Dinah, who is now in her 60s and has just had her first novel published. “It was funny in those days – very relaxed and laid back. Things just seemed to happen naturally. It is hard to identify moments when this or that was decided.”

What is certain, however, is that she and Jamie stayed at the commune for the next five years, she ended up marrying Jon Owen, lead singer and song writer with Global Village Trucking Company, and her daughter, Laurel, was born there.

Dinah’s life is much more conventional nowadays. She is remarried, is a grandmother and guards her private space jealously. “I’m actually something of a hermit,” she laughs. “I spend most of my time locked away, writing, apart from when I come out to see my grandchildren and family.”

But when she looks back to those commune days she admits to a kind of aching nostalgia for the simplicity and optimism.

That feeling is almost certainly influenced by the fact that Jamie is no longer here. The carefree, tousle-haired boy seen in photographs from the time, died in a freak motorcycle accident aged just 14.

“I’m certain that those early years were among the happiest of Jamie’s life and it was partly due to them that he became the open, sunny child he all too briefly was,” says Dinah. “It took me a very long time to recover from his death, and I will never forget his kindness, generosity of spirit and his big warm smile. I miss him and I always will.

“I have a different life now but what I would give to return to those sunshine days, for just one afternoon, to see my little blond-haired boy playing in the haystack, or riding on the back of a tractor, with the sound of the band rehearsing in the background, and with no idea of what lay ahead.”

She may view those days through a prism of loss but Dinah is the first to admit that communal living was not the utopia it was set up to be.

“I suspect the Sotherton commune originally had more of an idealistic basis but by the time I joined I don’t think that was nearly so strong,” she says. “It was always about the music, which was very uplifting, but in many ways it was a microcosm of real life. There were all the normal judgements, back biting and people not always getting on.

“For Jamie and me, there were advantages and disadvantages to living with 20 adults and eight or so children under five. Jamie loved roaming the farm grounds with his readymade ‘brothers and sisters’, and many ‘aunties and uncles’ looking on. With such a large extended family, I never had that trapped feeling some women experience when stuck home alone with kids.

“Laurel was born at Church Farm. I remember the midwife’s horror when she realised I intended to give birth on purple sheets with an audience looking on.

“The good times were wonderful. We were known for our dancing, from the Rougham Tree fairs to rowdy student union gigs. The bad times were impossible. What had been so wonderful when shared, took on a nightmare quality when over something unpleasant. There were squabbles over parenting styles, too.”

For Dinah, the heavily gender-defined roles were especially difficult.

“I was the only one of the women who had been to university and although I was always pretty much a bit of a rebel, hippy-dom wasn’t really my chosen way to go.

“The men were often on the road. The women were the domestics and child carers. This division of labour was not really up my street. Cooking, growing vegetables and milking goats were not fulfilling me.” There were other problems too. The financial inequities between commune members came to matter and many tired of scratching around. “We ended up taking normal jobs, paying off mortgages, and buying expensive tumble dryers,” she says.

All these years on Dinah concedes that moving to Church Farm might, subconsciously, have been an attempt to give her own children the same carefree childhood she enjoyed. She was born in Malay (modern day Malaysia), where her father was a civil servant, during what is called the Emergency, a guerilla war between British forces and the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party. But despite the insurgency she remembers an idyllic childhood with freedom to roam and explore.

“We left when I was nearly nine, when Malaya gained independence. I suppose I wanted my own children to have the same kind of free experience I had there.”

Malaya looms large in her first novel too. The Separation is set during the Emergency and follows the story of Lydia Cartwright, a mother searching for her missing children. Dinah only started writing seriously in 2008, when she and her husband were living in Spain and had been badly affected by the financial crash.

“I started writing as a way of dealing with the situation. Partly to try and earn money but I also fell in love with writing. I wrote one book before The Separation but it was only once I dipped into my early years that my writing became alive. My son was obviously key to me finding that voice. I write about loss in its many guises and how people deal with loss.

“The Separation was also influenced by living in Spain when Madeleine McCann went missing. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

“I know I am lucky to have got a publishing deal at all, let alone at this stage of my life. It is the latest of many things I’ve done since I left the commune but I still look back on those days with fondness. Despite the difficulties, there was something special about that time. It was idealistic and didn’t last, but for a brief few years it did feel as if there could be a shiny new world.”

The Separation, by Dinah Jefferies is published by Penguin.

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