Peckham Experiment 16 A Community Grows

IN the Centre we have not been looking at men at work, infants at a clinic, children segregated at a play-centre or at school, adolescents beginning to earn their living or gathered into Boys’ or Girls’ Clubs—nor indeed at any isolated group or class of individual as commonly envisaged for the purposes of present day administration. We have looked for evidence of function in that long pulsating stream of livingness in which human families fulfil their cycle of development; where husband and wife are seen as one, united in parenthood, and where the child, not regarded merely as an isolated individual, is seen as a new ‘limb’ or differentiating organ, arising and acting within the unity of the family—concrete and tangible evidence and sensitive indicator of the development and functioning of the whole family organism.

It should not then surprise us that no list of the various separate ways in which the Centre meets the needs of the family will reveal its full significance for that family. It is of course true that the chances for knowledge and for action there made available are not otherwise wholly denied to the man-in-the-street. Any young family who takes the trouble and the time, can seek out a Welfare Centre, a good doctor, a Public Library, a swimming bath, etc., and can thus find for themselves, if they know what they want, a good deal of what is to be found in the Centre.

This phrase—’if they know what they want’—gives us a clue as to how it is that what they find in the Centre comes to serve as food for their growth. Knowledge of how to go about things is gained above all from living in an environment in which the example of competent action is all pervasive. The handicap of the scholarship boy is not his poverty—that can be met and provided for; it is the cultural poverty of his home in the biological sense we give to ‘home’. A young family living in the social isolation of modern urban society that we have described, may be alive to its situation, but has little ability to formulate its needs or to go out in search of them—as the condition of these families when they join the Centre so clearly demonstrates. Still less can such a family conceive of its future needs, nor plan for them. How can a young couple know that anything even so commonplace as the use of a badminton court or a swimming bath, or membership of a dramatic group, will prove invaluable to its social integration in the near future—in a month’s time, or in a year’s time—and that either of these things might turn out to be an important factor, for instance, in bringing about the smooth weaning of its first-born, saving them and their future child from the psychological thraldom of ‘skirtboundness’ with its consequences for them all?

In health, the future grows out of the present, not as a plan, but spontaneously as the family grows in mutual action with an environment that also is alive and growing. In order that the potentialities of a family may develop, it is essential that— like the ovum bathed in rich nutritive fluids already in some measure familiarised for it—it should be in a position to select those things that it needs as it needs them ; not that it should have to go out, and imagining its necessities out of void, seek from among wholly unfamiliar material those ingredients that are essential to it; nor that, remaining in ignorance of the possibilities, it should have to rely either on the patronage of the ‘haves’ or on the non-specific doles of a bureaucracy however benevolent, to provide its needs ready-made. Nor indeed that, once devitalised and its home shrunken, it should have to be spoon-fed with those items in which the therapist—medical, social or psychological—can recognise it to be lacking, and must perforce at this juncture administer as drugs.

All the chances offered by the Centre, chiefly in the form of raw material as we have seen, are there to be woven by the family itself into the contextual fabric of its gathering experience. The setting of the Centre’s equipment—instruments, knowledge, people—is such that all action arising from its use can readily and naturally form both the stimulus to and the substantial focus of a growing social life for the family. And by ‘social’ we do not mean that casual use of the adjective to describe the amorphous aggregate which a man joins as spectator at a football match or cabaret, or when visiting a Road House. We do not use the word to denote a man isolated amidst the concourse of his fellows, but rather to describe that unique faculty in man, whereby in mixing with his fellows he not only extends his awareness of the world around him, but, in mutual action and in continuity of friendliness, as an integrated organ of an organismal society, fulfils and sustains himself and his own family, while at the same time enriching his environment—in which his fellows share.

This state of relatedness of the family in society—as of the individual in the family—implies some structure for its growth— its own ‘zone of mutuality’. The Centre fulfils its purpose because by reason of its nature, and of its relationship to the family, it constitutes what might be likened to just such an ‘interfacial membrane’ in society; an active potent surface across which material can freely pass for utilisation on both sides. On one side of the membrane is the ethnological unity of the family made up of its individuals, parents and children ; and on the other side of the membrane the ethnological unity of the Centre society as a whole, made up of the totality of its family membership.

We see the Centre emerge, then, as a new factor in the environment of each family. The family comes in, joins, and begins to exercise its faculties on what it finds there. So a fragment of the Centre becomes included in the family flow. The home has engulfed, familiarised and digested its morsel. Prom that moment the Centre is something ‘alive’ within the body of that family; the family is something alive within the body of the Centre. At this point, for the family that has appropriated it, the Centre disappears as an institution and becomes part of its own live and familiar environment—part of its home.

Meanwhile, the Centre’s own development begins to be guided by that member-family, as in pregnancy we saw the foetus guide the development of its mother. So the two together, member-family and Centre, form a zone of mutuality— as it were a social placenta,— in the living body of society. A small bit of society itself is now in process of organismal development.

And here perhaps we have an inkling of what that word ‘community’ which has such charm for us, may imply. Certainly those who first sought to give the word a modern meaning did not imply the commonality of non-specific association for which it is so frequently used at the present time. ‘Community’ is not formed merely by the aggregation of persons assembled for the convenience of sustaining some ulterior purpose, as in a housing estate connected with a single industry ; not by the aggregation of individuals kept in contiguity by the compulsion of necessity, as in ‘special areas’ wrecked by unemployment ; nor held together, as in some Social Settlements, by the doubtful adhesive of persuasion; nor indeed meeting the needs of war time as in ‘Communal Feeding’, ‘Communal Nurseries’. Its characteristic is that it is the result of a natural functional organisation in society, which brings its own intrinsic impetus to ordered growth and development. In our understanding, ‘community’ is built up of homes linked with society through a functional zone of mutuality. As it grows, in mutuality of synthesis it determines-its own anatomy and physiology, according to biological law. A community is thus a specific ‘organ’ of the body of Society and is formed of living and growing cells—the homes of which it is composed.

The Peckham Experiment has evolved a Health Centre, so far as we are aware the only one in the world. It is not that assemblage of Clinics conveniently congregated for the carrying out of medical desiderata, such as early diagnosis, minor therapy, prevention of disease, etc., which it is becoming fashionable to call a “Health” Centre. It is a locus in society from which the cultivation of the family—living cell or unit of society—can proceed, and from which the family sustained in its own growth and development, can spontaneously evolve as part of a larger whole—a live organismal society.

Let us then, with this in mind, as silent observers spend a day in the Centre, and watch the families as each dips for nectar in the flower of his choice.

It is 2 o’clock on a warm day in early summer; the Staff and students have arrived and the Centre has just opened. Three men have taken swimming tickets and two have gone upstairs, for a game of billiards. We know them well; two are bus drivers, two night drivers of lorries and one is having his week’s holiday. One or two school children with an extra half-holiday are already in the swimming bath and a boy of 15 goes rip to have a game of billiards with his father on the men’s table.

During the afternoon, up till 4 o’clock, a steady stream of young women with their babies come in, filling the long corridor with prams. They disperse, first to the Nursery, to the Physiological Department or to the Babies’ consulting room. By 3.15 the whole building is alive with activity. All the babies have gone to the Nursery; the women’s “Keep Fit” has started; three mothers are dressmaking and using the sewing machine. In the consulting rooms, the laboratory, the babies’ consulting room, there have already been ten or twelve mothers keeping their appointments with the biologist or the bio-chemist, with their twelve or sixteen babies and toddlers. In the theatre where the badminton for beginners is going on, some of the players of varying skill who play on other afternoons in the week, have come to show the new members how to play. Here again there are one or two husbands with their wives; the men are having their annual holiday, and they mean to have mastered the rudiments of the game before the week is out. Later there is to be tea on the stage—a special party—bringing to the fore a new feature in the form of domestic skill in cooking and preparing tea and doing the honours as hostesses for the learners’ club.

A group of mothers with some visitors are sitting in the main hall within view of the gymnasium into which a group of three and four year olds have just come. The student in charge looks up and smiles at them as she and the children set about getting the apparatus ready—putting out the forms and the horse so that the children can climb and slide and balance. A mother passing the gym on the way to the Nursery with her youngest, stops to watch and to discuss with the student how long it will be before Bill can join his sister, and then she takes him to see the even younger children in the learners’ pool where they are sitting on the steps of the gradually filling bath, jumping about, splashing. She leaves the child in the Nursery, and then goes up to the Cafeteria kitchen, for it is her turn to help in preparing tea for the Nursery children.

And so it comes to 3.30. The busiest housewife is finished, changed, and has come round to the Centre for an hour or two. The knitters in the Cafeteria put down their work, pick up the bundles of towel and swim suit and join those more energetic members who have done their “Keep Fit” first. Soon there advances along the side of the bath a surprisingly large number of young, middle aged and oldish women. But few of these were swimmers when they joined. The learners sit on the edge at the shallow end; many, bolder by virtue of only a few months or weeks of having learnt to swim, jump from the side or even dive off the low spring board. The few husbands who are free are there to join in the fun. Busy tuition goes on. By 3.45 the activity that at 3 o’clock was dispersed throughout the building has become concentrated in the gleaming pool and in the toddlers’ pool downstairs.

From 4 o’clock onwards the swimmers are coming into the Cafeteria, glowing and invigorated after their effort. There is a brighter eye, a greater sociability with staff and neighbours. A warm response greets the school children that flock in after 4 o’clock, and the quiet buzz of grown-up conversation changes to a higher note as the children find their parents and their excited chatter bursts forth. The mother they had left at 1.30 a busy housewife at the kitchen sink, is now changed and looking very attractive among her group of friends.

The children do not stay long—perhaps only to dump their school bags. We have already described how they quickly disperse throughout the building. So the Cafeteria settles back into its quiet predominantly female talk. A little after 5 o’clock a few more fathers have come in straight from work to have a cup of tea with their wives.

By 6 o’clock the mothers with the babies and younger children have gone. It is getting near bed time, and the husband’s meal must be ready when he returns. We feel the pulse of family life regulating the Centre, for, with the departure of the 9-12 year olds around 7 o’clock, the building becomes very quiet and rather empty. The staff use this time for their own supper, and there are usually also in the Cafeteria a few family groups who are having a supper party.

Now into this relative quiet there comes somebody new— somebody who has not been seen before to-day. It is the young adolescent, later from school or work than his younger brother or sister. These older boys and girls come into our field of observation as they ask for their tickets for billiards, dancing or swimming, most of them quite unaware of how revealing their actions are of their sexual and social development. Much of the description of adolescent behaviour in chapter 11 is based on the observations made by the staff during this time after the younger children have left. For these boys and girls to be allowed to stay so late is a newly won privilege of “growing up”—a recognition by their parents of the children’s budding adolescence. The boys, but especially the girls, seem to enjoy walking round the emptiness of the building at this time, as though, conscious of their immaturity, they were using it as a trial trip —feeling themselves into what will soon be their own adult society.

This is the lull before the crescendo of the day’s activity, which starts soon after 7.30 and reaches its apex about 9.30. The young men and women come first; the older man who, having had his tea and washed, is rarely ready till after 8 o’clock, comes later with his wife; a stream pours in, until by 9 o’clock there are between 500 and 1,000 people and the building hums with the activities of men and women of all ages from 14 to 91.[See  Appendix  X;   tables  showing times  of entry  of  members  into   the Centre.]

Billiards, table tennis and darts are all in full swing and the groups around talk and wait their turn. The swimming bath is full, all the individual hot baths are in use, men are boxing in the gym. There is a whist drive upstairs, and the “Tuppenny Hop” in the adjoining room. In the theatre there is a dramatic rehearsal on the stage, while the badminton “A” group have a match in the auditorium. There are 30 people in the various sections of the “medical” block, where consultation and examinations are continuous. Small crowds at the big glass windows on the main floor watch the badminton and the boxing. There is a band rehearsal in a small top room. The “wireless boys” oblivious to all who pass through, control the broadcasting for the building. A small discussion group, whose subject is “Conscription” meets in another top room, into which all who go to the Physiological Department can see as they pass. In the crowded Cafeteria the Concert Party are selling their tickets for their show next week, and in the small office off the Cafeteria there is a committee of 7 men and 4 women planning the next Sunday programme—for Sunday is a big day when members are entirely responsible for the control and finance of the Centre’s activities. In the Cafeteria members stream past the desk, paying their weekly subscriptions. Some wives at the counter are buying vegetables or milk from the Centre’s farm; many are helping themselves to coffee or beer, sandwiches or salads at the self-service counter.

The Band

Often large parties of visitors come; foreigners who want to see English urban life, scientists interested in some aspect of the work, social workers keen to ‘get things going’. All move through the building as part of the company, arousing no comment, causing no cessation of the activity, finding in the members a readiness to talk, to listen or to discuss, if and when occasion arises. Or, there may be a visit from a party of from 25 to 30 medical students from one of the Teaching Hospitals taking their Hygiene course. A lecture first at 5.30; a visit to the laboratory; a swim; supper in the Cafeteria and a glass of beer; and perhaps a talk with some of the members.

In and about this hub of activity all are free to wander. This unrestricted circulatory movement is part of the essential mechanism whereby the activities of the individuals contribute to the integration of the family and of society. The members, the staff, the accompanied visitor, meet and stop and talk. The material for their conversation is there before their eyes, in the innumerable activities going on all around.

Each of course goes round for his own purpose. The young men and girls are usually looking for somebody and at the same time closely watching what is afoot with their elders. But the older people, particularly the men, will stroll round, and mixed with their personal enjoyment is a dawning appreciation of the significance of what they see and its contribution to family life. How often the older husband and wife will remark, as they sit at a table having a quiet talk—”If only we’d had this when we were starting out, what a difference it would have made”.

This appreciation of the significance of the Centre has often been expressed by the older men and women in what they have done. Much of the cooking for parties and all the preparations are made by the wives, and there are remarkable accomplishments by the men, the manufacture of a whole outfit of fair booths for the Coronation celebrations, the construction of the stage lighting outfit—a professional job—the stewardship of the country camp, the conversion of an outhouse into a hostel equipped for holiday use for families. All this work requiring the skill of the bricklayer, the electrician, the carpenter, the house decorator, the wireless engineer, the blacksmith, has been undertaken with a verve and a generosity of time that is the members’ way of expressing their comprehension of the meaning of the Centre and their anxiety to play some part in this society of families. There is a quite unconscious mutuality of effort here, contributing to a full social life.

In families maturing in these circumstances, when the time comes for the adolescent to go further afield, to leave the nest, the parents are not just discarded, left behind, but continue with their own established place in the community. The family may be reduced in size by the young people’s departure to form their own new families, but its excursive possibilities do not wholly disappear nor does the ‘home’ built by parents and children together necessarily contract and shrivel. Contrast this picture with that of the lonely old couple who, left behind in their foreshortened growth, still cling to their children and remain utterly dependant upon them for any social excursion; or who wait at home for that visitation of charity— a friend who calls out of kindness.

As is to be expected in a building reflecting so sensitively the life of its member-families, as well as the ebb and flow of daily use there gradually emerges the weekly rhythm of family life with its less frequent festive and serious occasions. Each day of the week has its own characteristic savour—and one gets to know who one can expect to meet. Then there is the festive party at Christmas, the Sunday morning swim and the serious Sunday evening lecture, the special character of a Bank Holiday —one of the rare occasions when whole families can spend their day together in the Centre and when those who have gone further afield call in on their return in the evening for supper, or a drink and a chat.

Here then is a chapter in the biography of the FAMILY functioning through a live and growing HOME. Prom the nucleus of parenthood a family has grown; its ‘limbs’ having gone far and wide into their diverse environment, engendering a functional organisation of infinite delicacy and sensibility, intricate and far-reaching in its contacts with its neighbours. Family by family, each thus inhabiting its protean home, makes its way among its neighbours, encountering all, acknowledging many, welcoming where it wishes— until its environment itself becomes an organised community of families. As each family grows, so its society grows with it.

Such is no mere association of groups of people each with an objective. We give a description of mutual subjective synthesis of family and environment alike, giving life and form to Society. Just as our own body is made up of cells, so this community is made up of homes, whose ‘interfacial surfaces’ are absorbing material and experience that is in circulation throughout the whole social body, that body being modified the while by the synthesis of each and all of its component homes.

So in the midst of social disintegration here there is beginning to appear a nucleus of Society the structure of which is neither ‘planned’ nor ‘re-constructed’ but living ; that is to say growing, developing, differentiating, as the result of the mutual synthesis of its component cells—its homes.

And so we return to our starting point, Function. Like the physicist with his unit of construction-—the atom—or the physiologist with his unit—the cell—we, beginning with the ‘family’ as our unit, arrive at the delineation of a field through which is expressed the specific functional action-pattern of that unit. The field of function, the ‘home’ is the biologist’s functional ‘cell’. It is from home to home, cell to cell, through the function of parenthood, that biological Energy is transmitted. The individual is but an evolutional dead-end— a cul-de-sac of biological Energy seeking canalisation.

It is on the ‘cellular’ concept of Schwann that exact knowledge of the physiology and pathology of the human body has been based. Perhaps this ‘cellular’ concept which we have taken as our premise—of the family-functioning-through-its home—will prove to be the basis for the growth of a Science of the Living structure of Society.