Decades before Thatcher declared there was “no alternative” to the dominance of free markets and privatisation, Britain was home to several progressive, utopian experiments in how to build a society that centred human flourishing and collective need. But the story of these experiments, and of the ideals that underpinned them, doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. There were momentary triumphs, of course, but the overall arc is clear. Time after time, high-minded principles of public luxury were diluted and ultimately washed away by the twin tides of individualism and profit.
The Peckham Experiment, the deeply impressive fourth novel by Guy Ware, tells this story of compromise and decline via the fractured recollections of building surveyor Charlie, 85 years old and trying to write a eulogy for his recently deceased twin brother, JJ. He and his brother are born into a working-class, communist family, their father convinced he will live to see capitalism collapse under its own contradictions. The brothers spend their early childhood as members of the Peckham Experiment, a social programme that ran from 1926 to 1950 and provided access to leisure and culture facilities for around a thousand families in south London with the aim of encouraging them to take ownership over their health and recreation. The brothers’ world is violently disrupted when they are orphaned by the blitz. But they emerge from this personal tragedy with a steely commitment to building a better world from the rubble. Convinced that “housing is at the heart of everything”, Charlie and JJ dedicate themselves to providing dignified, safe, sanitary and socially owned homes for the masses.
What follows is the story of this initial idealism gradually ebbing away, to a dejected acceptance in the case of JJ, and to something more like active accommodation and cynicism in the case of the narrator, Charlie. Charlie presents the reader with a series of disjointed reminiscences spanning the best part of a century, his memory made even more unreliable by the fact that he roams over key incidents in states of half-sleep and full drunkenness. Despite this, the voice is never anything less than engaging; witty and humane in the most part, but occasionally giving way to a tendency towards the crotchety and cruel. Charlie is under no illusions that he is the hero of his own life.
It’s this equivocation, Ware’s deft handling of moral grey areas and subtle hypocrisies, that gives the novel its strength. The reader is left with the sense of fundamentally decent people being cleaved apart by broader structural and societal forces, trying to make and remake themselves in the face of things far beyond their control. The extent to which any of the characters succeed in their acts of self-fashioning is debatable. In the main, they simply get by, striking a series of major and minor ethical bargains along the way. One gets the sense that Charlie internalises the lessons of his own industry; better to build with steel that bends than with iron that breaks.
For all the skill and precision on show, there is also something relentless and claustrophobic about the novel. Despite its leanness, it has a dreamy, unmoored circularity, a pervasive atmosphere of melancholy. This may well be inevitable, given the subject matter, but there’s little light relief. There are also moments when the novel lapses into didacticism, and in doing so loses some of what makes it broadly so successful, namely its careful attention to the things that aren’t purely material: desire, transgression, mortality. Given the skill with which it handles the messy textures that make up a life, it is not surprising that many of the most evocative scenes take place in third spaces, those fast-diminishing areas of life that are neither primarily economic nor domestic. Ware repeatedly evokes the vital role played by pubs, clubs and other spheres of voluntary association.
Although the majority of the novel is told via reminiscence, its nominal present is the day of the 2017 election, which saw the Conservative party lose its majority and Corbyn’s Labour party deliver the biggest increase in vote share since the second world war. And setting the novel at that precise moment in history is what makes it one of the most moving books I have read in some time: not because of the party politics, but because of the horrific events that occurred in the days that followed. Less than a week after the polls closed, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. This is the image that haunts the pages of The Peckham Experiment, the logical and tragic result of shifting from multiple models of social provision to a single model that prioritises profit, no matter the ultimate cost. The novel leaves the reader in no doubt that we are living in the perpetual aftermath of what Charlie terms progressive collapse: “It’s what we call it when a structural failing spreads through a building, like dominoes knocking down their neighbours.”
Hourglass by Keiran Goddard (Little, Brown Book Group, £12.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.