“What had she imagined we would write, out there amidst the pigs and the peasants?”
The Peckham Experiment, by Guy Ware, tells the story of identical twin brothers, JJ and Charlie. Born in 1932 to parents who considered themselves communists, the boys were orphaned during the war. Their older sister took them in when they returned from their countryside evacuation, encouraging them to continue with their education. JJ became an architect, working for the local council to provide housing for the working classes. Charlie was a quantity surveyor at a company contracted to build these homes, replacing overcrowded inner city slum dwellings condemned as unfit for human habitation.
When the tale opens, eighty-five year old Charlie is trying to put together a eulogy for JJ whose funeral is the next day. As he reminisces about their long lives the reader learns of their political inclinations, how these weren’t enough to prevent their exemplary aims ending in failure. They wanted to provide decent accommodation for everyone as a right, alongside the post war years’ free education and health care. The modern tower blocks commissioned suffered structural defects and people died as a result.
Despite his apparent socialism, Charlie was something of a snob. When required to work on projects outside of London, he was disparaging of the regions. Even in the city he was wed to the particular area in the south-east where he grew up. JJ opts to live in one of the tower blocks he was responsible for having built, continuing to do so for as long as he was able, perhaps as a way of assuaging his guilt for signing off a design that proved flawed. The brothers were successful professionally but remained aware that some of the lucrative deals they accepted came with questionable backhanders.
What we have here then is a story of two brothers that mirrors the birth and death of the ideals of the welfare state. Conceived to provide for everyone, when everyone was pale skinned and recognisably local, it envisaged a future utopia for the ‘right sort’ of working class family. When the political landscape changed neither Charlie nor JJ could avoid facing the compromises they had accepted, and what these had cost. The vast increase in social housing stock was followed by right to buy, gentrification, and then privatisation. JJ reacted by withdrawing. For a time, he and Charlie lost touch.
“Life goes on. It isn’t heroism, isn’t even stoicism. Or commitment. It’s just brute fact.”
The writing style captures the voice of an elderly man whose body may be failing him but who is not yet ready to join his dead brother. They may have been identical twins but were also individuals. In telling their story the reader is reminded that socialism in Britain has always been multifaceted. The interweaving of countrywide and family politics is masterfully done.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.