When I was considering coming to Botton, I drew up a list of pros and cons. This was an exercise that, in retrospect, was completely futile. Anyone here knows that it is impossible to appreciate what Botton is like until you have really lived here. Nonetheless, a list did I write. It was a very difficult decision to come to Botton. I had been busy climbing a career ladder in a big city. Yet Botton drew me towards it, almost magnetically, despite my best efforts to persuade myself not to come.
On my list of pros was, ‘a hoot’ and ‘never a dull moment.’ I had visited Botton twice for two weeks and my overriding feeling was that, however challenging it might be, the fun that I had had with the Botton residents during those visits was a good indication of what it would be like day to day. I was completely right about that. I can say that, even in times of great sadness or difficulty, I have laughed with the people here every day.
So many of the residents, and especially the people I live with, have an amazingly positive disposition. They love to sing, they love to tell jokes, they love to laugh and they love life, especially Botton life, a great deal. It is almost impossible to have any pretentions around the residents here – they can see through that and will tell you and make a clever joke of it too. You have to be yourself, prepared to be embarrassed and laugh and smile through all of it.
On Thursday this week, I accompanied three residents to do an interview with BBC Look North to ask them how they felt about the current situation. The reporter was very experienced and I was impressed by the quality of his questioning, which was careful and unbiased. There was quite a buzz in the room where we waited before the filming began. As usual, people were telling jokes, recounting funny stories and taking the mickey out of some of the co-workers there, for instance, by asking one about when he would be marrying his girlfriend.
But there was a moment in the room when the mood changed. John * arrived who is currently living with a family with three young children. He is about the same age as me and has Down’s Syndrome. He came into the room, sat in a chair and sighed deeply. And then John began to cry. It wasn’t the sort of crying that I am used to; the kind of crying my children do when they are hurt or angry or feel a sense of injustice about something. It was as if all the breath had escaped his body and he had nothing left to do but cry from somewhere deep inside.
My first instinct in that situation is to try to comfort someone, to make it all better, and that is what I would usually do. But on this occasion, I could see that crying was just something he needed to do. So instead, I held his hand and so did one of the residents from my household. Eventually, I asked him, ‘do you want to talk about it?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t want things to change… I want them to stay. I don’t like it. I don’t like it.’ My friend from my house said, ‘be strong, be strong’. Eventually, John seemed to recover and told me I looked like Julia Roberts, and I laughed because I knew he must have been being ironic.
As I write this, I am thinking about the comments that might possibly appear under this post:
‘See how the co-workers are causing so much distress to these vulnerable people’
‘It’s so cruel to put people with learning disabilities in that position’
‘Why don’t they just become employed and then all this conflict can stop’
These are things that CVT and the people who agree with them say, either overtly or as a subtext in their official letters and publications all the time. And if I didn’t laugh at that, I would most certainly cry with rage at the distortion of the situation. Because CVT do not have to push through the changes that will see John separated from his ‘Botton Family’ – all they need to do is cooperate in altering the situation on the ground in Botton so that the co-workers can be viewed by HMRC as complying with a specific tax agreement: a tax agreement that is completely valid and still stands in many other Camphill communities in the UK. Instead CVT has steam-rollered through changes, disregarded the vast experience of the workforce here and ignored the overwhelming voices of the stakeholders of the community.
So is it really me who is causing John to cry?
The other subliminal message underneath those kind of responses is that it is not OK for a person with learning disabilities to have real feelings. That they must constantly be kept in their golden cage of the ‘client’ or ‘service user’. Well, hello?! John has feelings and his feeling is that he can’t bear to lose the people who he holds so dear and who have developed such a strong bond with him. He doesn’t see them as his ‘service provider’. He sees them as his friends and he loves them. Also, did you know that people with learning disabilities can have real views too? (I’m being sarcastic, by the way – of course they can and many rightly view CVT as destroying the community they love).
When we feel strong as a community, we can still find it in ourselves to laugh and poke fun at the tragedy of the situation. Sometimes it is this ‘unexpected withdrawal of sympathy’ ** for ourselves that allows us to do this, sometimes it is just a kind of gallows humour. I never thought one of the cons of coming to Botton would be that I would have to put my entire life at stake in order to fight to keep the community alive – and I can laugh in a derisive way at the strange irony of that.
I just hope that laughter can continue to be a feature of our community and that we allow our residents to experience the whole gamut of emotion that gives life so much meaning. Even if that means them expressing emotions that are so deeply uncomfortable to CVT.
* Not his real name
** John Cleese