Books

They sought paradise in a Scottish field — and found hunger, boredom and mosquitoes

A review of The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans reminds us that designs for living always end in tears, or worse

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

The Utopia Experiment Dylan Evans

Picador, pp.225, £14.99

Dylan Evans, the author of this book, was one of those oddballs who rather looked forward to the apocalypse, because it promised ‘challenging times ahead’. If, in the not too distant future, famines and droughts more or less wipe us out, that will be our own fault for allowing population levels to reach an unsustainable nine billion — the predicted figure for 2050. How much better the planet will be with a select handful living in their villages of yurts, log cabins, teepees and straw-bale huts, the children gambolling happily ‘amidst the bracken and the trees’. The air will be cleaner. Wildlife ‘will make a comeback’. Neighbours will help each other out. People will be fitter as a result of their manual labour.

Evans couldn’t wait to create his retrograde society, where waif-like girls ‘with long, tawny dreadlocks’ would be doling out ‘bowls of bean stew from a steaming cauldron’. He sold his house, gave up his academic career and moved to a field near Inverness. He looked at an adjacent waterfall and thought it could ‘generate electricity’. He gazed at an acre of scrubland and believed he could ‘keep a few pigs and chickens’. He spotted a deer and, though he had no butchery or tanning training, imagined turning its hide into shoes and gloves.

Fair play to Evans: by the time he came to write this book he realised he was delusional. Though he had no difficulty recruiting like-minded eccentrics to join him in his ‘experimental community’ (a former Royal Marine who had ambitions to be a cobbler; a computer-programmer ‘passionate about vegetables’; a teacher who’d once met an Inuit; a graffiti artist from Belfast; a Cambridge student keen on the recorder), Evans admits that his utopia was doomed to failure. It attracted only idealists and disaffected romantics when what was needed were people with practical skills, like plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Soon the militant vegetarians were squabbling with the meat-eaters, and the small group began to disintegrate. One member even started to invent his own religion, building a shrine with ‘carefully arranged’ bits of driftwood and old coins.

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Those who didn’t behave like Gandalf became like ‘hobbits on speed’, says Evans. He himself was soon fed up with sleeping under rancid fleece blankets and wearing clothes woven from sisal ‘to ward off mosquitoes’. You couldn’t make a brew, as ‘there wouldn’t be tea in Scotland after civilisation collapsed’. There was neither soap nor detergent. ‘We got used to a thin layer of slime covering the pans and bowls.’ There was no toothpaste or lavatory paper — the sanitary arrangements were grotesque. There was also no music.

What Evans calls ‘preparing for the end of the world’ was in actuality deadly boring — getting fires going, keeping dry, trying to prevent small cuts from becoming infected and eating nothing save thick lentil soup. It soon became apparent that ‘the whole experiment had been a huge mistake’. Jittery, with a permanently wide-eyed expression and wanting only to kill himself, Evans was eventually detained under the Mental Health Act in a maximum security psychiatric hospital.

Here the students of the mind explained to him that his project had been bonkers from the beginning. He fretted unduly about global warming and ‘the looming energy crisis’, he was convinced that deforestation would result in soil erosion, and that with no trees he’d be unable to build canoes and go fishing once the supermarkets had vanished… Evans, the doctors concluded, was already craving the abyss and in the throes of panic-attacks and a breakdown. Bored sick in utopia, Evans had been bored to distraction before, when he was an academic, seeing no ‘passion or joy’ in his pampered and safely salaried public-sector existence.

That’s one explanation: that no sane person shouts, ‘Stuff your pension!’ and clears off to a field near Inverness. Another is that designs for living always end in tears, or worse. From the Russian Revolution to Jonestown, programmes for human happiness come a cropper. It’s best to muddle along as we are, not because human beings are morons or suckers, or traitors to the cause, but because life is meant to be messy, muddled, contrary, comic. In any event, when the balloon goes up, I have my plan ready. I shall hide in the stockroom at Morrison’s (Strood branch), spending what’s left of eternity scoffing their individual fruit pies.

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Show comments
  • Rowland Nelken

    Reminds me of me back in the early 1970s. My ‘retreat’ was nothing like so drastic. I rented a cottage for 2 pounds a week and worked planting and felling trees in an adjacent forest. My wife and I were gripped by the delusion, back then called ‘self sufficiency’. It was through horticulture, bee keeping et al. that I learned what a stupid term was ‘self sufficiency’. We were dependent not only on seedsmen, but on generations of gardeners and horticulturists who had developed, over centuries, the wealth of varieties of fruit and veg. we enjoy today; ditto the designers of garden tools – and that was just the majority of our eats. But this lost and ancient perfect world is a persistent delusion. The writer above refers to the Soviet Union, vainly trying to recreate the good old days of free working people unshackled by kings or capitialists. Luther imagined there was a pure uncorrupt CHristianity ‘ad fontes’. Islamists bang on about the great days of the Rashidun; Hitler was possessed by the vision of an ancient and mighty race of pure blooded Germans. THe daddy of all Good ls Days yarns must be, however, the Garden of Eden.

  • http://www.labour25.com/ Bollinger Bolshevik

    I am sure caveman was happy too with his lot; no pollution from cars and factories, pure river water with no chemicals, no fertilsers, only organic food, no Health Service – and everyone dying before they are 30

    • Martin Woo

      Also called the Bolshevik’s plan for the goy

    • Solage 1386

      Everyone dying before 30? It’s still the same in Glasgow, I believe……Too much booze and ciggies and haggises!

      • DougS

        Tell it to my pension provider – they think I’m going to live to be about 120.

    • Howe Synnott

      It appears sliced bread trumps Paleo.

    • Howe Synnott

      What did those lucky souls do – 10,000 years ago – when they wished to have their Utopian experience?

    • NoPasaran

      Cavemen aspired to live better, and be free of the drugery of being hungry, dirty, in ill health, and cold. These clowns want the reverse. In fact they want it for all of us.

      • Jocon307

        Yes, I realized this watching some TV show years ago. It was about some fellow who wanted to build furniture the way it was done in bygone days, or something like that.

        He went out with his crew to fell a tree, and they did after hours of labor. It showed them dragging it out of the woods, all covered in sweat and dirt.

        And then it hit me, they don’t really HAVE to do this. If they HAD to do it, as the men of the past did, they would lie awake at night trying to think up ways to make it easier to do. As the men of the past actually did.

        So, they may convince a handful of people to return to the caves, and they may strive to keep the poor trapped in their “quaint” living conditions, but in the end they will fail.

        Because most people don’t want to be cold, hungry and sick. Because most people, in all times and all places aren’t insane.

        • lcuvillier

          Exactly….These socialists have been trying and failing for centuries. They call themselves progressives, but every time society progresses to make their lives easier, they scream. smh…you can’t please some people. lol

          http://aproundtable.org/tps2.cfm?ID=1089&issuecode=history

    • dwpittelli

      Plenty of them lived past 50, anyway. The advances in life expectancy have been mostly in virtually eliminating deaths in infants and young children.

    • cloa513

      Cavemen lived to 60- only 30 average life span due to infant mortality. Cave people all had useful skills- they knew it was life or death. Their diet was mainly vegetarian.

      • Nick

        Hah. They ate animals whenever they could and liked it (and it wasn’t uncommon). The minute they could domesticate animals, they did, and they were ecstatic.

      • Burn_the_Witch

        Nonsense. The human brain began expanding to its modern size after the introduction of meat proteins into its diet. There’s ample archaeological evidence (of various types: hunting tools, cave art, eating implements, animal remains) around the world that “cavemen” were avid meat eaters.

  • LewSkannen

    Just because this guy failed does not mean that other experiments are also a waste of time.
    I enjoyed a whole year of self sufficiency in Tuscany a couple of years back and found it both productive and fulfilling. With a bit of preparation one does not have to live in squalor and spend all day trying to keep dry and forage for lentils.
    All it takes it a bit of planning and one can live in comfort.
    Obviously at the end of the year I had a massive credit card debt…

    😉

  • Lucretius Laskaris

    I foresee cannibalism when the SHTF. Lots and lots of cannibalism….

    • monty61

      You have your recipe book to hand I assume?

      • Solage 1386

        There’s a good one by Fanny Craddock: Fifty ways to cook a Fanny!

      • B.J.D

        “To Serve Man”

      • Lucretius Laskaris

        Any cookbook will do. Just substitute human meat for any other kind of meat.

  • binks webelf

    Lots of people live in ways we’d consider ‘ye olden style’ all around the world. You are: cold, sometimes hungry, worried, working your rear off, and no freeloading allowed, or you starve. Any major crisis in the West will mean mass-death, because we have literally lost the life-making & food skills of parents and grandparents, since they are a lot of work, and you can always just skip down to Tesco or WalMart, where some long-suffering Chinese person or farm 500 miles away already did the work for you. What happens after the 3 days of store-bought food & goods is gone is not to be thought about.

  • G B

    I am probably a joke to many modern people. I was a post war baby and have retained the habit passed on from my mother of keeping a store cupboard. We often go through lean times in life and I always knew that if money was short I could survive until my next pay slip or beyond. I cannot imagine shopping for a week at a time. Maybe I am not so daft.

    • Solage 1386

      You sound like Old Mother Hubbard.

    • Annie

      Mormons have store for a year. Many folks, in the U.S., who live in northern climates or tornado alley, also prep for if and when services are cut off. It’s good to be prepared.

      • Alec Leamas

        I’ve known whole towns in rural Appalachia (West Virginia, Kentucky) for which the bulk of many folks’ diet comes from cultivated vegetables, foraged foods (i.e. walnuts, ramps), fish and game (everything from deer to squirrels and in between). Smoking, curing, canning, drying and cellaring were common skills as well.

        Most had no television and radio was shoddy (mountains blocked the already weak signals) and cable wasn’t readily available. Of course the proud tradition of distilling the “mountain dew” was alive and well – serving as a drink, solvent, fuel and topical muscle relaxant all in one.

        The ability to “make do” is a body of knowledge developed over generations and handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, etc. over hours and hours of explanation and demonstration – it’s neither intuitive nor instinctual – and requires exquisite planning, knowledge of seasons, and simple toil.

        The idea that one could simply pick a patch of earth and figure out a mere fraction of this is the height of arrogance and ignorance.

  • TheLight

    “Wildlife ‘will make a comeback’.”

    And kill you just like it regularly kills primitive people in third world countries all over the globe. No thanks.

  • Solage 1386

    Hunger, boredom and mosquitoes in Scotland? I experienced this in a Glaswegian restaurant.

    • monty61

      Early 1980s stand-up … a proto Jim Davidson routine by the sound of it. Don’t give up the day job.

      • Solage 1386

        Apologies, True Scotsman……..

  • The PrangWizard of England

    Steer clear of the Green party, they have a loony vision of the world much like that described in the opening paragraph.

  • Tremulous

    The naivete here is palpable isn’t it. What strikes me most is the complete faith in Human nature; as if the world is a safe space. Can you imagine the whole UK living like that? All of those yurts being flattened by one mad guy in a tank.

    There are bottom lines aren’t there. Defending yourself and your family and tribe against that one mad guy is the biggest.

  • EUROJESUS

    I always wondered how Ray Mears could get THAT fat solely by living off tree roots, shoots and leaves.

  • Come2gether

    If everyone afflicted with green hysteria (global warmists, anti-frackers, GMO fear mongers and the anti-vaccination crowd) all got together in one utopian society, it would quickly be a self correcting problem.

  • Wessex Man

    during the first ten minutes, which was all I watched, I thought they said it was filmed in Bulgaria.

  • john_busby

    The 1972 “The Limits to Growth” modelled the 21 Century trends, with population growing to 9 billion by 2050, falling off to 5 billion by the end of the century. By then will there be sufficient resources to support this residual population? As there will be no oil, gas, just a little coal and no uranium the lifestyle then will rely on what renewables we have managed to cobble together.
    It deserves serious consideration – it may not be too hot as fossil fuels will have long gone. Is there a better prognosis?

    • Coconutdog

      I suppose you will tell us what the weather will be doing then too?

      • john_busby

        It may be that there are enough fossil fuels “in-place” if burned to raise the temperature at the end of the century, but the recovery of them may be only partial due to the extraction costs. For example, there may be 15bn barrels of oil in-place in Scottish waters, but less than a billion barrels will be recovered.
        I reckon that the problem at the end of the century will not be warming, but a forced different lifestyle, the sort of which is hard to forecast. How do you envisage it?

        • Governor Squid

          Do you really believe that if scarcity drives up prices, people won’t find a way to pull up the other 14bn barrels? Sad.

    • BlueScreenOfDeath

      “As there will be no oil, gas, just a little coal…”

      Tripe.

    • http://williamsticker.blogspot.com Bill Sticker

      The 1972 “The Limits to Growth” is so far out of date it might as well have been written by Pope Pius 1st. Like so many doomsaying works of the 60’s and 70’s it missed the resource ball completely.

      As for the ‘peak oil’ garbage, ill informed people have been trotting that one out since 1853.

      • john_busby

        TLtG was updated in 1992 by “Beyond the Limits” and in 2004 by “The 30-year Update” and has never been more relevant. North Sea oil peaked in 1999 and its gas in 2000 and in 3 or 4 years time will be empty other than for decommissioning. In Aberdeen “peak oil” is an horrific reality in a situation fast developing for some time out of public awareness.

        The energy companies are losing so much money that their ability to fund exploration is declining and projects are cancelled.
        In the US the frackers persuaded the foreigners to invest in an uneconomic activity aided by a freedom from regulation with consequences for health and water contamination. Its nemesis has led to calls for a diluted bitumen pipeline from Canada, without a matching source of diluent. (Keystone XL).
        Regrettably most are ill informed and soothed by industry and government PR.

  • gerontius redux

    Well try it by all means, but why Inverness? Better on a Greek Island surely, or the South Pacific – be miserable in comfort – go fishing in your spare time, that sort of thing.

  • chantal de boissaison

    what men forget is that now women do not to have to cook beans , nor anything they don’t wish to , so unless they so decide Paradise cannot exist ……………….

  • Sittyton

    Mosquitos near Inverness. So the guy’s not great on facts then…them mossies wus midges.

  • BlueScreenOfDeath

    What a pretentious buffoon.

    “Nasty, brutish and short” is I believe the description of life as Evans wished to live.

  • Yoda

    Savour the idiocy.

  • Stephan Beal

    “It soon became apparent that ‘the whole experiment had been a huge mistake’.”

    i wouldn’t say that. It provides us with a reference to point to and say, “go read that book,” when people start romanticizing life after The Fall.

  • http://darkangelpolitics.com/ Angel

    Another global warmist socialist utopian dreamer bites the dust. Having “wildlife make a comeback” is not all it’s cracked up to be. Nature is nothing like “Bambi”, where the rabbits and birds and deer sing happy songs. In a little place I call “reality”, there are only predators and prey. Surrounded by nature, humans tend to wind up as the latter.

    • Alec Leamas

      Quite a good deal of “wildlife” thrives in semi-urban and suburban environments – moreso than in the “untouched wilderness.” For example, White-tailed deer in North America are now multiples of their estimated population when Columbus landed in the new world. Famed fields and cut forests actually generates much more “browse” for them to eat than would be available under the forest canopy. I’d imagine there are similar examples of opportunistic “wildlife” in the UK.

  • Brett the Brit

    … and that was a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Green Party.

  • Alec Leamas

    If the wish was simply to live off the land in the simplest way possible, why pick one of the more inhospitable environments for human habitation?

    Also, if Evans wondered and if he could get past his cultural resentments there are numerous folks in the rural U.S. who have a body of knowledge that one would require to live simply off the land.

  • AleaJactaEst

    I’m an active field sports enthusiast and as such have access to deadly force, two of them. If and when the balloon goes up I plan on being at the top of the pile of survivors a la I am Legend.

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