Our capacity for credulity seems to be infinite. Doris Stokes, the medium, could fill the London Palladium with her demonstrations of clairaudience (the ability to hear the dead). Other exercises in pure and applied pointlessness - astral-planing, parapsychology - prove the enduring popularity of what GK Chesterton called "mediums and moonshine". In our search for happiness, however, many of us are taken to a far continent of anxiety.
In Utopian Dreams, Tobias Jones sets out on a series of journeys across Europe to alternative communities and centres of togetherness. He wonders if they will provide him with a necessary breathing space - a benediction - from our fear-ridden state. If occasionally self-righteous, Jones probes our modern dissatisfactions with an exemplary intelligence. His previous book, The Dark Heart of Italy, questioned Italy's roseate postwar contentment; and three of the communities under investigation here are based in Italy.
After the catastrophe of Italian Fascism, a Catholic priest, Zeno Saltini, converted a former concentration camp into a refuge for children orphaned by the war. Fossoli camp, in prosperous Modena province, had been ideally placed for the railroads north to Auschwitz; Primo Levi was deported from there, as was Franz Kafka's German lover Margarethe Bloch. Father Zeno's dream of Christian brotherhood for the dispossessed was a controversial experiment in social living. No cash or possessions were allowed at his commune in Fossoli, yet it provided shelter for 1,200 orphans. Should a place of Jewish suffering have been made to serve a Catholic cause?
Not surprisingly, Zeno's proto-communist experiment was frowned upon by Italy's ruling right-wing Christian Democrat Party, as well as by Italian Jews, and in 1953 "Nomadelfia" was forced to pitch tent elsewhere. Zeno and his disciples moved to Grossetto, midway between Florence and Rome, where Nomadelfia still operates. Three years later, in 1955, a memorial was erected in Fossoli to the deported Jews while the blockhouses were (still are) left to ruin.
Jones is attracted to Zeno's ideal, with its undercurrent of leftist Jesuitism. Impressively, the Grossetto community runs its own television station, which rejects consumer values by banning all adverts. In a country where the former prime minister controls three television channels, says Jones, this looks like a "benign retreat" from sinister media control. Jones is less impressed by the notorious Damanhur community in northern Italy. Outwardly a "rainbow" retreat run by New Ageists engaged in parapsychology and other fads, Damanhur is a well-oiled, privatised operation with international duty-free shops in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Many petrol stations in the Turin area now accept the Damanhurian currency and sell Damanhurian geegaws. The proto-hippies who run the community, staunch anti-Catholics, believe in absolute freedom of choice; their clarion-call to non-conformity may as well be "Turn on, Tune in, Make a Lot of Money".
More congenial to Jones is the Quaker-run communal retirement home of Hartrigg Oaks. Based in Yorkshire, Hartrigg Oaks marries a business-like egalitarianism with a Protestant philanthropy, very British in its genteel way. The scheme was initiated by Joseph Rowntree, the Quaker confectioner, whose ideal of self-reliance is practised (if more radically) at the farmyard retreat of Pilsdon, Dorset, where alcoholics, Hare Krishna casualties and other lost souls are encouraged to find fulfillment by living off the land.
As a disillusioned Christian and, he says, depressive, Jones offers a refreshingly old-fashioned belief in the virtue of human community. The colour-supplement lifestyles as peddled to the middle are surely no answer. Is religion? Communities seem to work better when they are religious, says Jones. For all its inconclusive and sometimes meandering tone, Utopian Dreams is very much a book for our time, full of despair.
Ian Thomson's award-winning biography of Primo Levi is published by VintageReuse content