THE PECKHAM EXPERIMENT
The Peckham Experiment tells the story of twins Charlie and JJ, whose post-war idealism and lust for life is twisted – but never quite broken – by the political setbacks and institutional corruption of the decades that follow.
In the novel, Guy Ware charts a course from the 1930s onwards through the fragmentary memories of the 85-year-old Charlie, whose identical twin brother JJ has recently died. Sons of a working-class Communist family, growing up in the radical Peckham Experiment and orphaned by the Blitz, the twins emerge from the war keen to build the New Jerusalem. In 1968, JJ’s ideals are rocked by the fatal collapse of a tower block his council and Charlie’s development company have built.
When the entire estate is demolished in 1986 JJ retires, apparently defeated. Now he is dead and Charlie, preparing for the funeral, relives their history, their family and their politics. It’s a story of how we got to where we are today told in a voice – opinionated, witty, garrulous, indignant, guilty, deluded and, as the night wears on, increasingly drunken – that sucks us in to both the idealism and the corruption it depicts, leaving us wondering just where we stand.
Guy Ware is a critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer. His debut novel The Fat of Fed Beasts was published in 2015, followed by Reconciliation in 2017 and The Faculty of Indifference in 2019. His short stories have appeared in numerous print and online journals, been collected in You Have 24 Hours to Love Us and anthologised in the Best British Short Stories 2013. He won the London Short Story Prize 2018 and has been listed for many other awards, including the Bridport, Edge Hill, Frank O’Connor, Galley Beggars, Fish and Bristol short story prizes.
Guy spent thirty years working inside local government and in the civil service. He was Finance Director of two London boroughs, and (temporarily) Chief Executive of one – Lambeth. He has also run hostels for homeless ex-offenders in Brixton and Norwood and been a self-employed consultant and coach. He lives in New Cross, South London.
‘The original 1930s Peckham Experiment promoted the wellbeing of working-class families from a fabulous modernist building, just around the corner from where I live. My narrator – a gay octogenarian Communist property developer with a taste for fine brandy, an Easy Rider mobility scooter and a dead twin brother – played there as a child and now lives in the converted private block. Eighty years of love, sex, idealism and betrayal, of compromise, political corruption and decrepitude, has left him physically back where he started, but stranded in a very different country. Still, he won’t take it lying down.’
7th–8th of JUNE 2017
“Diana fusses around behind me, plumping cushions on the sofa for no good reason, because these days I don’t make too much of a dent. She’s come to talk me out of it, I know she has, but I’m playing dumb. I don’t want her thinking I’ve any fewer marbles than I have, so I said earlier, when she arrived, Diana, darling, I said, when she let herself into the flat with the key she’s insisted I give her, just in case – she doesn’t say in case of what, but we both know – It’s always a pleasure, I said – lied – and she said: For me, too, Uncle Charlie, look, I’ve brought you some kitchen roll, and I thought: kitchen roll? What was the woman up to?”
“When this place was really the home of the Peckham Experiment, you had to be a family, or they wouldn’t let you in. Membership was by family. The place was here to prove that health was not just the absence of disease, but the opportunity to grow. And growth could only occur, un-stunted, in the context of the family: man plus woman plus children. The Biologists who ran the place believed the family was the complete human organism: only through the birth and growth of this collective organism could individuals realize their potential maturity. It was a radical utopia. One where it was simply not possible to be homosexual and healthy. And where everyone was white. It was an experiment, all right.”
“You – we – only asked for decent homes, where old people could relax and families could raise their children in daylight, in warmth and space, where those children could be regularly bathed and sleep in their own bedrooms. For something better than we had known. Isn’t that what we are all supposed to do? To demand a better world for those who come after us. I was just like you: a builder, a creator, a contributor. Your job was to clear slums and put people in new houses. Mine was to calculate and control the costs, whatever they built.”
“We never made much use of being identical, did we JJ? Not when we were young. Once or twice, at school, and on the farm during the war, I’d managed to get out of trouble by sowing doubt. It must have been my brother. Not me. More often, we’d get a beating just the same. For being the same, for not being different, for causing confusion and unease among our peers. There’s a reason horror films are full of twins. Our early lives were not a riot of hilarious mistaken-identity japes.”
“Hindsight is common but imperfect, foresight vanishingly rare”
“That’s why Mum and Dad are dead, and Angela is dead, and now you’re dead, JJ, and I’m not. Not because you are a worse – or better – man. Not because you were right, and maybe I was wrong. That withdrawal was better than complicity. And not because the good die young – we’re eighty-five, for pity’s sake – but just: because.”
“My brother was a good man, surely? But his faults were my faults, his sins my sins: we were identical.”
“A mirror image is not identical: it is the exact opposite. I know that now. I could not have been you”
“A mirror image is not identical: it is the exact opposite. I know that now. I could not have been you”
I have to admit that I don’t generally read non-fiction, not because I don’t like to be kept informed, but simply because, as ever, time is the greatest enemy of this reader and I prefer the escapism of my fiction books! However, after finishing this fictionalised tribute to the real Peckham Experiment, the many questions left unanswered genuinely makes me want to try and get my hands on a copy of the original reference book “The Peckham Experiment: a study of the living structure of society”, which was written way back in the 1940s. In the author section above, Guy Ware gives a short version of the Experiment’s ethos and aims, which sparked my interest.
There is also one other particular event, the Ronan Point collapse in 1968, which although once again given a little fictional artistic licence by the author, had me intrigued enough to check out as many old press articles as I could find online, especially in the wake of the quite recent ‘Grenfell’ disaster, where so many tenants lost their lives.
So, let’s get down to the details of the storyline…
Much of this story is set in one flat, within the site of the original Peckham experiment complex, which has been refurbished and repurposed as housing. Charlie, our main protagonist, is 85 years old and disabled, needing to use either a stick, or his mobility scooter when he leaves home. This makes the property he chose, designed around the original wrought iron spiral staircase, a danger to his physical health to say the least. However, he continues to live there as much out of spite as anything else, whether to thwart the efforts of his septuagenarian niece Diana who insists on having a key to the place ‘just in case’, or simply as the serving of some misguided penance for his many past misdemeanours and a life lived mostly under the radar. He does leave home on a regular basis, and as a further act of defiance, doesn’t always take the paths of least resistance to reach his destination, which is usually either the park or his local convenience store, thus further testing the boundaries of his endurance.
Right from the off, the seeds are carefully sown by Diana, to insinuate that Charlie is suffering from early-stage dementia, and indeed the signs could be taken that way if you chose to. However, during the twenty-four-hour period over which this story takes place, Charlie remembers some amazing facts and vividly drawn details from his entire life, a feat which I would probably struggle to achieve, and I am considerably younger than him. He is however a curmudgeonly, rather testy individual, which probably doesn’t endear him to many people and that together with his proclivity for more than a drop of the hard stuff, I think sees him living a fairly isolated and lonely life, which might account for some of his momentary memory lapses and acts of defiance.
Charlie had a twin brother JJ, who has sadly recently passed away and Charlie has been charged with writing and delivering the eulogy at his funeral, which, as he has left it until the last moment, is now the following day, hence the all-nighter he is faced with. You might have thought that this would be a relatively easy assignment, however, when Charlie begins his journey of reminiscence, it soon becomes clear that the chequered lives the brothers had led, wouldn’t necessarily make for easy listening to the outside world and he is having trouble selecting some memories which would place JJ in a favourable light, although not too much more favourable than his own. They may have been identical in appearance, however in personality they couldn’t have been further apart, although in all fairness, many of JJ’s errors of judgement and mistakes, had been made in the shadow of, and often as the scapegoat for, his errant brother, who had always sailed pretty close to the wind in his business dealings and probably not always on the right side of the law in his private life either. In fact, many of Charlie’s business ventures were downright illegal and actually caused loss of life on more than one occasion, whilst his homosexuality, although not openly flaunted, was never kept that closely under the radar either, given that it had been against the law for some of his early adulthood.
After JJ retires from his position with the council, never really ever having come to terms with his part in the tragedy which killed so many residents on the Rochester estate, Charlie continues with his lucrative, extra-curricular activities and the two become estranged for the best part of a decade. It is Charlie who is eventually moved to make first contact, with the two forming an uneasy truce, meeting occasionally for a drink, although this is always on neutral territory and never in each other’s homes. Even this small act of reconciliation can’t go smoothly for them though and on one such outing they are involved in a bomb blast at the very pub they were heading for, just minutes before they entered.
Add to the mix that JJ’s funeral has been arranged for a general election day at which Charlie fully intends to vote in his own inimitable style, so by the time the new day dawns it is a rather bedraggled, sleep deprived and slightly pickled Charlie, who discards everything he has written, throws caution to the wind, grabs his copy of some of the very raunchy writings of his favourite author, The Earl of Rochester, and leaves for the crematorium, defiantly intent on giving the mourners a eulogy to remember!
This inspired and compelling book is multi-layered, highly textured, haunting and definitely intriguing. There are no defined chapters as such, with just a scant few paragraph breaks from time to time, giving me space to gather my thoughts and assimilate the many subtle and some not-so-subtle, nuances of the storyline. I would generally be a little nonplussed by this formatting of a work of fiction, however at a little over 200 pages and given that this was essentially a constant narrative by a single protagonist, it worked really well, giving a rather satisfying diarised essay style structure to the finished piece, which was easy to assimilate.
It is obvious that the dire consequences of some of their joint actions, affected JJ much more than Charlie, as following the demolition of the entire site of the Rochester estate, which had been plagued with problems since its original inception some twenty years previously, JJ immediately retired, leaving Charlie to carry on with his shonky wheeling-dealing, corrupt deals, and sub-standard developments. Charlie seems quite happy to share and display his lack of moral fibre and dishonesty, as if it was a badge of honour, with the fault always lying at someone else’s door, rather than his own. There were one or two moments in his soul searching to find something good to say about JJ, when I felt he might just be showing a small pang of conscience about his part in the deaths of so many people, and I tried to reconcile this with the fact that he might well have been led astray by Peter, a Danish architect and a much older man, who saw the young Charlie, still coming to terms with his sexuality, as an easy, soft target for some of his nefarious schemes.
Author Guy Ware did an amazing job of deliberately crafting the narrative to be a little rough around the edges, befitting the rambling style and demeanour, age and mental capacity of the narrator. This certainly made the experience more immersive, evocative, poignant and disturbingly frank and honest than many traditionally ‘polished’ biographies, which is what in effect Charlie revealed over the course of his marathon trip down memory lane. However, without needing to scratch too deeply below the surface bluff and bluster, Charlie’s revelations are still often raw and passionate, guilt ridden and shocking. For me though, Charlie was never going to make enough reparations to exonerate himself and his periods of regret and remorse sounded like nothing more than self-pity, rather than a tangible apology, either to the families of the many people’s lives he had changed forever, or to his own brother, whose abject grief and guilt at his part in events never left him and in part destroyed his own marriage.
Whilst the physical footprint of this story is very narrow, some beautifully textured and brutally honest descriptive narrative, expanded the scope and range of my armchair travels, to the point where I might have been sat in the room with Charlie, or walking beside him, maybe as a substitute for JJ, in his many reminiscences. His words often evoked an almost too realistic sense of time and place, often laced with a dour perceptive wit and a sharp tongue, which cocked a snook at convention and the social mores of both 2017, and indeed, much of the preceding eighty-five years.
As children of the original Peckham Experiment, what did JJ and Charlie’s time really have to show for it, other than the glaringly obvious fact that you can take two siblings (in this case identical twins), offer them the same future opportunities and their lives will still take completely divergent routes and tread separate pathways. Did this make the experiment a success or failure for the two men, or indeed for any of the other families who took part in it? – I’ll leave you to make your own determination about that!
Sometimes reading something different from my usual selection of genres is like a breath of fresh air and I firmly believe that what makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This was definitely one of those “one of a kind” experiences, which had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next. I can only recommend that you read The Peckham Experiment for yourself and see where your journey leads you!
Thank you for an amazing trip, Guy!
A complimentary PDF copy of this book for review, was made available by Helen Richardson PR and SALT publishers.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion, and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However, some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars
Thank you so much for taking time to read my review, I appreciate your support