The title of Tobias Jones’ book The Dark Heart of Italy perfectly captures one side of his journalistic and literary interest. He has written several works of both fiction and non-fiction on the often corrupt and provincial world of Italian politics and crime, and his most recent contribution to The Guardian’s ‘long read’ detailed the unfolding of a complex murder case in a small town near the Italian Alps.
However, Tobias Jones is also the author of A Place of Refuge, an account detailing the establishment of Windsor Hill Wood: the communal refuge he and his wife set up in Somerset, with an open door policy to those experiencing crisis in their lives. It is here that he has lived for almost seven years now with his wife, three kids and half a dozen troubled visitors at any one time. “It’s been wonderful, rewarding and joyous, but it’s also been gruelling,” he tells me on the phone.
“It’s taught me to be far more empathetic and understanding of people, and yet to be far more sceptical and suspicious of people at the same time. I suppose it also just kind of reinforced something I knew already, that human nature is just endlessly fascinating and unpredictable.”
People who set up communes are often pigeonholed as naïve idealists who want to escape the grit of reality in favour of something better that doesn’t exist. Jones rallies against this stereotype, “I think if you’re living with ex-offenders and soldiers with PTSD and anorexics, then really you’re closer to reality.”
If Windsor Hill Wood is closer to reality, is there something especially illusory about modern life, I ask. “I think it seems to be predicated on escapism really, and that a lot of what constitutes entertainment is really escaping realities.”
“But I think the other aspect of modern life is that we have less and less in common. Everything becomes very atomised and privatised and isolated. There are fewer and fewer common spaces and things that are shared. It’d be unthinkable a hundred years ago that we’d have almost a third of households with only one person living in them. That degree of isolation is extraordinary.”
In a recent article Jones wrote for The Guardian he detailed the increasing destabilisation of longstanding rural communities. His comments to me on the causes seemed to continue a more general critique of the world we inhabit. “The problem is rootlessness. The problem is endless mobility. I’m all in favour of people being able to move and I’m not advocating that we always stay in the same home we were born in.”
“But the idea that anyone can move where they want and anyone can buy property anywhere in the world. So, the fact that the richest can buy their umpteenth house in a Cornish fishing village when actually the people that grew up there can’t even afford to live 10 miles away is just destroying the social fabric of these communities.”
He mentions our idealisation of cosmopolitanism and travel as an aspect of the increasing rootlessness that seems to be eroding the basis of these rural communities, pushing droves out of the villages they grew up in and causing village shops and pubs to close at a rapid rate. I ask whether he doesn’t see certain benefits to travel and cosmopolitanism, despite the effects it might be having on the countryside.
“Of course there are. The trouble is that it’s only the positives that are promoted and it’s just become another huge leisure industry. And actually any notion of being rooted or settled or having links to the place you’ve grown up is seen as yokel or backward or inbred. So, it’s not that there aren’t positives to travel it’s just that travel has become like a one night stand. It’s not a long-term faithful relationship. It’s a go there take a photo in front of some iconic building and move on” he remarks.
Is rural communal living then, the only way out of this shallow and rootless existence? No, Jones says. He’s realistic about it not suiting everyone, and is aware there are many other approaches. “But I think it does just answer so many of the questions. I do think that sharing more things, including a roof, is the way forward.”
For many, it’s hard to conceive of Jones the advocate of a stable rural community existence as the same Jones who writes stories on the murky world of Italian crime and politics. I wonder what binds these two seemingly diverse interests. “I’ll tell you what the common denominator is; it’s is just fascination with human nature.”
“Crime shows you the very darkest depths of humanity, and often the higher idealism of the grieving families and the investigative forces that try and bring truth and justice to a case. The two are comparable in the way that they concern human nature and a story,” he says, towards the end of our chat.
Jones and his wife always only planned to run Windsor Hill Wood for seven years, with this time almost up they’re looking to move on, and are in the process of setting up a non-residential commune on donated land elsewhere. Will anyone take over running the woodland commune they’ve called home for so many years now? “I don’t know. I keep putting the word out there. It’s hard to know… I hope so.”