Like latter-day Pilgrim Fathers, a band of Britons plans to cross the Atlantic and build Utopia. They've even put in an offer for an island. But can Tony Craig and his followers realise their dream before it all turns sour?

TONY CRAIG is on fire. He hasn't slept for weeks, and now he's darting round the living- room of his Welsh farmhouse, pouring out a nervous stream of exhaustive (and exhausting) ideas about the modern-day Utopia he's going to create; a Utopia that you too can join - if you've got pounds 150,000 ready cash. He's consumed with anxiety - "I'm in an awful position," he snaps, "it's more stressful than anyone could ever imagine"; awash with enthusiasm - "Once we've got it up and running, we'll show the world how something can work"; and desperate to impress the small group of potential investors gathered here this morning.

For this 45-year-old retired antique dealer has had a dream: a dream of creating a new world based on trust and harmony; a dream of a thriving community where crime is non- existent, where children are safe and the elderly well cared for, where sleaze, corruption, abuse, violence and greed have been left behind along with traffic jams, loud music and taxation. And, after a nine-year search, he and his wife, Lyn, think that they may have found the place in which their dream can become reality: a 17 square mile uninhabited island off the coast of Panama for which they have made an offer of $25 million. All they need now is 400-odd families ready to share the cost.

"We'll be out there working together," Tony is enthusing, "aiming for the same goal and building up something between us. We won't lack direction or have idle hands - it'll be so therapeutic." He is sprightly, boyish- looking and full of nervous energy. Dressed in crisp white shirt and wide red tie, he resembles a brash city slicker but talks like a student idealist; a dreamer in businessman's clothing. "You see," he goes on, "in our society, we're all prisoners in our own homes. It's now normal to have bars up at our windows. That won't happen on the island. We'll all know each other, we'll help one another out."

His wife, Lyn, sits on the floor nibbling at the corner of a piece of toast. Dark-haired, attractive but painfully thin, she seems enervated, barely moving her mouth as she talks - which isn't often once her husband is in full flow. "That's the problem with this society," she says quietly, during a rare lull in his monologue. "They always seem to want you to fail."

Failure is much on Tony's mind, for the plan for his own community is turning into a logistical nightmare. He needs more people to help him realise his ambition, but many of those who want to join are either unwilling to take the initiative or doubt his management skills. Caught in limbo, he's unwilling to delegate, but desperate not to be the leader. The strain is beginning to show. "I don't want to be some sort of Ayatollah," he wails. "They always get burnt down in flames. I can't get agreement on anything." He paces the floor, unable to sit or stand still for a second. "How," he cries, "can I be all things to all people?"

THE CRAIGS' problems seemed to have come to an end three months ago when, after a long quest, Tony, Lyn and their five-year-old son Ryan set foot on San Jose, an island just off the Pacific coast of Panama.

As tropical paradises go, San Jose is as cliched as a Bacardi commercial but no less stunning for that: palm trees, turquoise seas, white sands, lagoons and dense green forest, uninhabited and up for sale. As such, it fits the bill for the 1,000 people who responded to a small ad the Craigs placed in the Sunday Times last Christmas, asking for other families to join them in their search for Utopia. Now the $25m asking price has to be found, and, at present, there is a core group of about 150 committed "members". The original idea was that each family would pay pounds 50,000 towards the purchase of the island, and a further pounds 100,000 towards building and infrastructure costs; it currently looks as though most of the money will go on buying the island. None the less, the members hope to create a commercially profitable, non-political, non-religious democracy with its own constitution and even its own currency.

Love, equality and peace are, according to those involved, the building blocks for their new community (tentatively called the Island of Trust). As befits a group intent on generating money, members tend to recoil when the words "hippy" or "alternative lifestyle" are mentioned, though the similarities are obvious. Like the hippies, they are deeply critical of contemporary society; both groups believe its greatest evils to be the excesses of materialism, greed and mass culture; both are predominantly middle-class, but both feel alienated

But there are differences. There will be no "hanging out" on the Island of Trust. The hedonism beloved of hippies is far from top of the agenda (the island will be strictly "drug-free"); Tony and his fellow islanders will be busy building houses, schools, hotels, golf courses, banks and a tourist industry. Tony himself hopes to run a fish farm, while Lyn would like to breed rare animals. There is also talk of shares, interest rates, long-term investments, satellite communications and corporate sponsorship - Tony's favourite word is "infrastructuring". With the members' Middle- England values and commercial pragmatism, the Island of Trust sounds like Milton Keynes in a jungle climate.

THE CRAIGS first considered starting a new life on a tropical island while travelling in the Caribbean nine years ago, and although they eventually settled for Wales, they still dreamed of a life in the tropics. Last year, they began to plan their move but decided that they didn't want to live alone. "I realised that now we had a child, we would need a community," says Tony. "We wanted him to enjoy interaction with other children." And so it was that he placed his ad in the Sunday Times.

The response, from Tony's point of view, was not entirely encouraging. "After sorting through the dreamers and the get-quick rich merchants, we ended up with less than 400 likely candidates," says Tony. In this case, "likely" means the ability to raise pounds 150,000 cash in a matter of months; and, as a healthy bank balance appears to be the only qualification for entry to the Island of Trust, members appear to be, without exception, white, middle-class professionals and self-made businessmen - referred to by Tony as "Captains of Industry".

This hardly constitutes a cross-section of modern society - which is why, perhaps, Tony sees no need to run checks on prospective members. "It's self-vetting," he says. "People here are going to be totally committed and open with each other. Criminals wouldn't be attracted to us. They'd go somewhere more anonymous like Spain." Indeed, according to Tony, possible trouble-makers will exist only outside the group, and the island will need only a very limited police force. "If there was, say, a marauding gang of fishermen from another island who started rifling through our cottages, then we'd have people to deal with that," he says. "Maybe we'd have some kind of armament stores in case they were armed."

SAN JOSE is the largest of the Pearl Islands and was originally inhabited by Incas. By the 19th century, it had been acquired by English landowners; in 1875, the island was sold at an auction for pounds 5,000; during the Second World War, the US government took over San Jose as a base for troops training in jungle warfare - and left behind 100km of palm-lined avenues and an all-weather air-strip; after the war, Earl S Tupper, the creator of the Tupperware empire, stepped in as a long distance owner and then sold it to the current vendors.

Tony and Lyn discovered San Jose through a German property broker. The three businessmen who currently own San Jose have been keen to sell for the last 10 years; their original plans to build model villages and holiday resorts on the island had failed to generate sufficient money or interest. So when, in August, the Craigs went to look the island over, they say that they found the Panamanian government highly hospitable - and hopeful of an influx of European investment. The Craigs, in fact, were "treated like royalty": met at the airport by the Panamanian president's cousin, invited to stay at Panama's most expensive hotel and lent a private helicopter. They have discussed joint ventures to encourage ecotourism: new hotels, for instance, and guided tours between the island and the mainland.

Tony's vision seems to have dazzled two of the owners: both Otto, a retired businessman, and Josef, who runs a hardware business, are now eager to join the project. In Tony's newsletter, sent to aspirant islanders back home, his dealings with the pair take on a near-Biblical nimbus: "Otto smiled at me, saying, 'Your ideas for this place are so close to my own. I want to join you and we will grow rich and wise together. This is what I have spent my life searching for.' Then his brother, Josef, placed his arm on my shoulder and said, 'I too wish to be part of your dream. I have so many plans which will help it come true.' " Encouraging Tony to part with $25m is, presumably, one of them.

The newsletter is evidently designed to stir the souls of Tony's Utopian followers. "I was," he writes, "overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen. It looked like a garden. Turquoise and emerald waters lapped a shore of white powdery sand. It didn't stop there, this crescent cove was fringed by perfect palms. Black boulders were set upon the beach. It was as though a Japanese gardener had positioned them to balance nature's perfection." The prose may be sugary, but the island does seem to be blessed with an ideal environment: more than 30 sandy beaches, an average annual temperature of 80 F, fresh water and plenty of natural building materials - sand, gravel, rock and timber. And no record of hurricanes or earthquakes.

Readers seem to have been suitably impressed; Tony has been in touch with hundreds of families. But although tantalised by his descriptions of waterfalls, white beaches, coconuts and papaya, their concerns are more mundane. Take 38-year-old Deb Tremblin, who is studying in computers, and her husband Nick, a mechanical engineer who is busily drawing up detailed plans of how to equip the island with water supplies and alternative power. Currently living in rented accommodation in Wiltshire, they are keen to move to San Jose as quickly as possible and have enough private savings to take part. "The real appeal for me," she says, "is a safe environment for children and a low crime rate. I think we'd spend more time together as a family and we could create a society based more on relationships." Deb recalls that "only last week" she discovered her two young children engrossed in an afternoon television programme discussing sex and orgasms: "It was the attitude I disliked - just so flippant. And I can't see it getting any better." In San Jose, she hopes, her children will enjoy the more guileless pleasures of hiking and exploring. These are recurrent themes voiced by others involved in the project: a desire to preserve innocence, and a conviction that society has let them down.

Another parent, for instance, worries for his three daughters' safety: "I wish it was like the times I had as a kid. We can't even let them play in the road. There's a guy around the corner that's just been locked up for child molesting," he says. "I'd like to be living with people on the same wavelength who have similar ideals to me." So too would Vivienne Kitchin, a 45-year-old teacher from Hampshire. Now engaged, she hopes to be the first woman to marry on San Jose and wants to run her own beach restaurant. "I see ourselves like the Pilgrim Fathers - going out and setting up our own constitution," she says. "I'm looking forward to mixing with people who have a common sense of purpose."

And so say all the others; but the process of translating hope into reality is causing fragmentation and doubt. Members want to be reassured: will their money be safely invested? What if they wish to leave the island after a year - will their share be repaid? Can they move on to San Jose before the total sum is raised? What about taxation? How accountable would they be to the Panamanian government? What about a foreign policy? Would members carry out all the manual work? Tony suggests that natives from a nearby island may be glad of employment - of course, they'd be paid well. But with what? Dollars? Or island currency? And what sort of salary can teachers and doctors expect?

The answers offered are nebulous, and members want to know more. Some have already withdrawn their support. One, who would prefer to remain anonymous, backed out after attending his first meeting. "There is no earthly reason why we can't get bank accounts opened," he says. "But no one was was prepared to actually do anything. I'm sure it's all above board," he adds. "I just don't think they've got the organisational skills."

Auditors, cash flow forecasts, legal guarantees and mission statements: all remain conspicuous by their absence. The high expectations that have been raised are in danger of being eroded. As the reality of an uncorrupted Eden grows daily more distant, the Craigs face their biggest challenge: to redirect their critical gaze from British society and admit to problems much closer to home.

A SMALL GROUP of us is gathered in the Craigs' sitting-room for another informal meeting. Despite his lack of sleep and the loneliness of command, Tony is animated and in high spirits, leaping up to retrieve maps of Panama one minute, whirling his son in the air the next and finally crouching near the small television screen to talk us through a video of their visit. "This is where Lyn spotted some freshwater lobsters," he says, over a calypso soundtrack. "And here are those huge black boulders, just like Christmas puddings, on the beach." Lyn smiles into the camera, tanned and happy in a tiny black sundress, while Ryan etches his name in the sand. "It was so strange," she says, "because it felt just like coming home."

Two potential members - Mark Jennings and Hugh Turner (not his real name) - watch the video in silence. Mark, 44, is a retired policeman from Birkdale, Merseyside with three children under 11 years old. He and his wife, Paula, are trying to raise enough money to join the project. Hugh, a 49-year- old computer consultant from north London, has only heard about the project recently, but is taking a serious interest; he has driven over 200 miles for this meeting and would sell a third of his total assets to finance the move. His wife, a science teacher, would like to set up a school on San Jose.

The video finishes, and it's hard to tell if Paul and Hugh are impressed, or simply bemused, by Tony's zeal. He jumps up again to show us yet more photographs, talking, talking, talking: "There's so much potential. We've got the whole world as a role model. We can decide whether to use solar heating or non-fossil fuel - we'll care about our environment and show how things can be done right." For someone who derides "sound-bite" politicians ("They all speak ephemeral half-truths"), Tony displays an uncanny talent for emotive rhetoric. "We'll do away with the need for crime, idleness and poverty. If our children become difficult adolescents, we'll channel their energies and involve them totally with our hands-on democracy."

The sentiments are admirable; but can Tony make it happen? He and Lyn, at least, are selling their house and would like to move to the island as soon as possible. But the vendors want a holding deposit of pounds 700,000 - pounds 2,000 a head if 350 members materialise. With highly committed members hovering around the 100 mark, that's beginning to look unlikely. Worse yet, there's the possibility of being usurped by a group of like-minded Germans who have also put in an offer. In organisational terms, it's obvious who will be first on the beach.

"We've urgently got to find out how many we are and our level of commitment," says Hugh - a suggestion that is ignored. His reservations increase as the day goes on. Attempts to extract facts and figures from Tony are met with disdain. "It's the bank manager mentality," he almost spits out at one point, a phrase that he repeats throughout our stay. "Crass pragmatists with their graphs and pie charts: I'm a doer - people like that will hold me up for years. Richard Branson's my hero - he doesn't make plan after plan; he just gets on with things."

Hugh attempts to reason with him - "There've got to be details and deadlines" - but Tony is having none of this; he is more preoccupied with grandiose plans for a constitution based on Aristotle's polity. "We would revolve office jobs every two years," he declares, "and devolve power as much as possible so that no one could become a 'jobsworth' type."

Why doesn't he start by devolving his own power? "I've got an idea for a central committee," he explains. "But the people with the best minds have a tendency to desire complete control. That's the nature of the beast."

FOUR WEEKS ago, the Craigs agreed to an appearance on an afternoon TV chat show. They hoped to attract new members (for the same reason, they have also been co-operating with a Cutting Edge documentary for Channel 4); but it proved a harrowing experience. In front of the camera Tony is nervous and distant, out of his depth with an audience that's overtly hostile. "You just want to play at God," one black woman shouts. "It's a white, elitist group. Who are you going to get to clean up your houses and do the dirty work?"

It's a good question, but in the glare of the studio lights Tony is subdued and fails to defend his dream against a barrage of cynical questions. It's a far cry from the enthusiasm he is used to - perhaps the audience finds it hard to sympathise with a group of privileged professionals deploring a society in decline yet smugly content to leave the mess behind. What the audience doesn't realise is that, ironically, Tony's group has probably never been closer to reflecting the culture they are so eager to discard - one riddled with suspicion, doubt and dissent.

As Tony squirms, a bullish, red-faced stockbroker from London scents a wounded prey. He's been needling and mocking throughout the broadcast. Now he leans forward to deliver one last, finely-honed insult: "I can't think of anything worse," he sneers. "It'll be just like Brookside in the Caribbean."

! Enquiries to: Tony and Lyn Craig, Llwynteg Farm, Pentregat, Liandysul, Dyfed. SA44 SPP.

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