I’d expected Guy Ware’s The Peckham Experiment to be about the eponymous community health initiative set up in the ‘20s which is what originally piqued my interest. That, and the premise of a brother spending the night before his identical twin’s funeral remembering the part they played in each other’s lives. In the event it turned out to be about something else entirely.
The day my brother retired he killed a woman, not for the first time
Evacuated to Herefordshire during the war, Charlie and JJ avoided the unexploded bomb which killed their parents when his mother lit a match to boil the kettle. When they returned, aged fourteen, their older sister was determined they would do well, insisting they knuckled down to an education which led to a meteoric career for JJ in the council’s housing department and a job as a quantity surveyor for Charlie, betraying his parents’ communist values and selling his soul to private enterprise. It’s the perfect set up for Charlie’s employers, one which allows them to carve out a large slice of the post-war reconstruction cake as Charlie wields his influence over his principled twin whose colleagues are only too keen to take their share of the spoils. The result is disastrous. The towers built from the Danish panels Wilmots imported prove unable to flex in the wind resulting in a tragedy which eventually destroys JJ’s marriage and will shape the rest of his and Charlie’s long lives. JJ spends the rest of his career attempting to atone while Charlie continues his work with the slippery Wilmots. In June 2017, on the eve of yet another general election, Charlie looks back on their lives thinking about the eulogy he knows he won’t deliver.
You always were a better man than I ever gave you credit for
Ware’s novel is all about a problem that still bedevils the UK – housing, and the lack of it which may not sound the stuff of entertaining fiction but eighty-five-year-old Charlie’s sardonic, darkly funny voice makes it so. Having identical twins so different from each other is a clever device and Ware uses it well: one a hedonistic, gay man fond of the good things in life, the other principled if a little naïve, and determined to make things better for others. Both are flawed, in their different ways. The corruption endemic in some sections of the building industry and local government at a time when London was in desperate need of its housing stock being replenished, is laid bare. If you’d told me I would have been riveted by a novel about mid-twentieth century housing before I’d read it, I might have been sceptical but then I’m someone who can’t seem to get enough of the minutiae of Danish politics portrayed in ‘Borgen’. Although it’s not mentioned in his novel, Ware chose to set it just days before the Grenfell Tower disaster. Five years later, its grim aftermath is still grinding on. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Salt Publishing: Cromer 9781784632632 196 pages Paperback