Sunday, 21 February 2010

My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

I was in two minds about reading this book. It was recommended by someone I trust, but I don't read a lot of memoir and I definitely don't read 'oh wasn't my childhood awful' type books. ( I wish I could think of a more succinct way of describing them than that, but that just seems to cover it.) Basically this book is a memoir of the author's childhood growing up in a religious commune, who all wear clothes only in the colours of the sun. That's where the orange bit comes from. Fortunately, there was very little moping about his life in this book, and a lot of interesting information, and just a very interesting insight into how this sort of commune life appears to a child. That isn't to say that is not easy to spot how detrimental to a child living life in this commune can be, it just doesn't take the 'woe is me attitude' towards it. In fact, the author frequently returns to the commune when he could have stayed with his father, and is quite sad about it when he does eventually make the decision to leave.

The commune itself is based loosely on Buddhism, founded by a man called Bhagwan, and it started out in India, which is where Tim Guest's mother first discovers the philosophy. After visiting, then moving out there with her son for a while, she returns to England to found a commune in the UK, which is where the majority of this book takes place. There are lots of details about how the commune worked, how they raised money, how they lived, all viewed from Tim's perspective, although a lot of the information he imparts he has either researched later, or gained from his mother in conversation once they left the commune. One of the central aspects of the commune is that nuclear families are detrimental to children, so family ties are not considered important, and children live and sleep separately from their parents. This is part of the book that is obviously written from personal experience, as the author spends a lot of time talking alternately about looking for his mother, or about the bonds of friendship and support developed with the other children in the commune.

However, although this was interesting, what I enjoyed most was the story of the steady decline of the commune. Told mainly through the author's research after his life there has ended, but with frequent interspersed memories about what he remembers and how this affected him, what obviously started out as a simple philosophical experiment almost, soon degenerated into a controlling manipulative cultish type movement. That's a really bad word to use as it has so many negative connotations, but when it degenerates into poisoning, false positive AIDS tests, and even attempted murder there really isn't much else to describe it as. Control and manipulation was used on any member that was seen to be getting to powerful, or possibly too independent, and the author's mother was the victim of this, and although never asked to leave (the ultimate disgrace), she was stripped of all her responsibility and separated from her son.

I liked virtually everything about this book. I enjoyed that it was focused mainly on how the life felt for a child, lost and virtually abandoned. But it escaped the moping aspect by pulling in information that the author wouldn't have understood, or even realised was happening as a child, so the balance is perfect. And it's written with almost a sense of nostalgia, as it is obvious that the author enjoyed some aspects of communal living, as they were kept away from the most dubious aspects of the movement, at least at first. I think that the balance of childhood memory, combined with adult perspective and the addition of wry humour made for an entertaining and informative read. And I think my favourite comment is

"To remind themselves why they were there, many sannyasins sought out the 'enlightened' page of the Buddhafield newsletter. this was a growing list of the 'enlightened' sannyasins-those who had made it. Some took these lists seriously; others observed that the sannyasins on the 'enlightened' list tended to be the richest ones"

I'm glad I read this. I would like to find out more about the movement itself, so I think searching out some books on this might be next on my list, and there is helpfully a list in the back of the book.


JoAnn said...

This sounds fascinating! I don't like reading those 'wasn't my childhood awful' books, either, but this sounds like something I'd be interested in. Just added it to my wishlist. Thanks!

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