The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware: Building the New Jerusalem, or not

Cover image for The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware 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

18 thoughts on “The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware: Building the New Jerusalem, or not”

  1. I love reading stories about twins. I’m 2/3 through Bournville and am enjoying Coe’s treatment of politics and social trends from the 1950s onwards. This sounds perhaps a bit similar in approach.

    1. Glad to hear you’re enjoying Bournville! Yes, there’s a strong social commentary element to Ware’s novel and, like Coe, he makes it entertaining rather than didactic.

  2. Unlike you, I KNOW I am fascinated by housing and its woes. Whenever I visit any country or town, I can’t walk past estate agents’ windows without a good thorough inspection. And social housing policies, rents and landlords are so fascinating too – sad, in the UK especially, but fascinating. So this is most certainly a book I will seek out!

    1. It sounds right up your street, so to speak! Selling off social housing without investing in a replacement exacerbated what was already a well established problem although it’s much more complex than that.

  3. It speaks of the writer’s talent that even a novel about housing can be entertaining. That said, I do like the sound of the differences in the twins.

  4. I really liked this too, but have been too busy to review. There’s an interesting subgenre involving identical twins (see Daphne du Maurier’s The Flight of the Falcon) one good, one gone bad. The housing aspect especially well done.

    1. I was so impressed by it: entertaining and enlightening but never didactic. Thanks for the du Maurier tip. My favourite literary twins are Angela Carter’s Dora and Nora Chance.

  5. I wasn’t familiar with this book. It sounds like quite the read, though perhaps one I would have to be in a certain mood for. It doesn’t sound like easy reading in places.

  6. This does sound really good. As I was reading your review I immediately began to think of Grenfell. Then you explain the book is set around that time, and I assume was inspired on some level by that.

    1. It’s never stated but I think it must be given the book’s themes and the way they’re handled. Charlie’s looking back to the postwar period but his brother’s funeral is on the eve of Grenfell.

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