Peckham Experiment 7 New Member Families

A family has joined and they have had their first health overhaul. How do they become involved in the social life of the Centre and begin to take part in its activities?

Coming and going for their various appointments for examination, they have passed through the cafeteria, and seen what is afoot at different times during afternoons and evenings. They have probably had tea there, or the parents may have had a cup of coffee or a glass of beer after the father’s overhaul. They know the member who first took them round, and if she is there she recognises them when they come in. She is pleased that they have joined and introduces her husband to them. They have probably also spoken to one or two people in the reception room; asked the way of another member; and of course they know the biologist on duty about the building whom we have already called the ‘curator of the social instruments’. She with the ‘doctors’ met them at their enrolment, and they know that she will give them any information they want about the various activities they see going on around them.

If there are children in the family there is no hesitation. The children want to do something at once and have probably waited impatiently for the moment when they may begin to learn to swim—for they may not go into the bath until their overhaul is complete. Then proudly they bring the curator a ticket from the doctor, and find a time when, often with other learners, they can have their first lesson. When that day comes the mother goes to the learners’ bath to watch her boy and so falls into conversation with another mother as they both watch their offspring struggle in the water. Or, in a family where there is a baby, the mother will have an appointment to come again in a week’s time for the infant’s weekly visit—and a baby is always an introduction to other members.

Children settling in at Peckham

The husband has perhaps met a man he knows at work, and together they go off to have a game of billiards. So through action he too learns his way about and tells his wife how admission is gained to the various activities by the grown-ups. The ‘key’ described in chap. IV not yet having been installed, up till now there have been various ways of making payments for these activities; either by ticket bought at the cafeteria cash desk (e.g. for swimming and entry into the gymnasium); by weekly payments collected by secretaries of various intramural clubs (e.g. badminton, billiards, table tennis, fencing, discussion group, etc.); by collection by authorised members of groups or committees such as the Concert Party, the organisers of the Christmas Party, and so on.

Each approach by the new member involves contact with some individual with whom a mutual transaction inevitably takes place. As, one by one, such contacts are made, acquaintanceship grows from a basis of common action and interest. These first actions are like the tender new root hairs put out by a plant in new soil, presently to sustain new growth in the whole organism. Beginning with threads slender as are these first tentative though lively contacts, the family unconsciously begins at once to weave its own contribution into the gathering pattern of social integration of the Centre.

Is there no one then to act as Centre hostess: no one to make introductions and help new members over their first stile? No—only the sight of activity all around, which in itself constitutes a continuous invitation to the new family. As biologists anticipating and planning for health and virility in the members of the Centre, we are looking for evidence of spontaneous action in new circumstances; we must, therefore, hold our hands and be patient. By ourselves stirring action in the members we should fail to find and to see what we are looking for.

Work and play at Peckham Health Centre

It is true that by pursuit of this method we have lost some families as members. It is also true that on those occasions when we have taken the reverse course and used the method in vogue in most social clubs of deliberately introducing new families and individuals to established members, no better result has followed. The shy are only too apt to be confirmed in their shyness when sitting down to talk to strangers with whom they have no link of any common pursuit or interest. By that method we have found that the dependent family is only confirmed in its dependence at the very moment of having taken the bold step—perhaps its first social venture—of joining the Centre at all! Were the family to be offered a social crutch on crossing the threshold of the Centre we should be robbing it of the very chance it has made for itself of taking the next step in the mutual embrace of a new environment; that is towards its own health.

The Incentive to Action

The reader will recall that the task we set the architect was to provide a building so planned that the sight of action would be the incentive to action. Four years’ experience in the Centre has established the postulate of the potency of vision and propinquity as an effective invitation to action for people of all ages. But it must be remembered that it is not the action of the skilled alone that is to be seen in the Centre, but every degree of proficiency in all that is going on. This point is crucial to an understanding of how vision can work as a stimulus engendering action in the company gathering there. In ordinary life the spectator of any activity is apt to be presented only with the exhibition of the specialist; and this trend has been gathering impetus year by year with alarming progression. Audiences swell in their thousands to watch the expert game, but as the ‘stars’ grow in brilliance, the conviction of an ineptitude that makes trying not worth while, increasingly confirms the inactivity of the crowd. It is not then all forms of action that invite the attempt to action: it is the sight of action that is within the possible scope of the spectator that affords a temptation eventually irresistible to him. Short though the time of our experiment has been, this fact has been amply substantiated, as the growth of activities in the Centre demonstrates.

A family booking in at Peckham Health Centre

a dramatic group urged by an already established interest

The reader will now appreciate that it is no accident in the design of the building that to reach the reception vestibule and consulting rooms for the initial enrolment, it is necessary to walk through the cafeteria with full view of the swimming bath and other activities. In so doing the enquiring family all unconsciously taste the full flavour of the buoyant life they are moving towards. Once joined, they are surrounded by many activities of which they may never have felt the attraction before—a very different situation from that of the man who joins a billiards club in billiards or in acting. [In this situation, with a membership composed of families led to join for a wide range of reasons, it has been disclosed to us how few among our members had any leisure interests sufficiently strongly established as to have led them to join any specialised club or organisation—whether based on sport, politics, or anything else. For a discussion of this point, see Biologists in Search of Material, p. 37 et seq.]

In the Centre the design of the building makes it very difficult for any but the most inert to sit day after day at the cafeteria tables overlooking the swimming bath and not eventually succumb to the insidious urge themselves to join in the activities We have aimed at making entry into every activity as easy as possible, not only for those already skilled, but for the shy beginner feeling the first dawning of interest, and who is so easily discouraged by the expert and the professional. That this should be so is the ‘curator’s’ special concern. He or she must see that entry into the bath, for instance, and friendly instruction in swimming for the older members and others who need that assistance, is easily available and as unintimidating as possible.

The place of Intramural Clubs

The initiation of clubs or groups for the pursuit of any adult activity is in the hands of the members themselves. The curator is responsible for the allocation of floor space as between the different activities and is ex-officio member of all committees, Her constant concern is that nothing should impede the emergence of fresh interest and that all activities should as far as possible be continuously available to the unskilled as to the skilled; to the shy as to the bold.

We have found that any intra-mural club such as a billiards club, valuable as it is as a focus of interest and activity within the Centre, has an inevitable tendency towards exclusiveness, not necessarily because of its members’ wish but in virtue of their good play. The shy and indifferent player cannot bring himself to play with these experts, and the club—a closed coterie of members becoming increasingly proficient—tends to draw less and less on new members of the Centre. This can be overcome by keeping the majority of the tables open for casual use by all (on payment of the appropriate sum per game), reserving certain tables only for the use of the billiard club (whose members pay a weekly subscription collected by one of themselves). The club itself benefits by this arrangement for now it can be continuously fed from those among the casual players who show interest and capacity. The fact, too, of there being tables reserved for the skilled is an attraction to those already skilled to join the Centre. This works for activities of all types as each in turn becomes established. As evidence of the social value of groups of the skilled formed into a more permanent ‘club’, we can cite the custom that has arisen among the various, clubs of holding ‘Club Socials’ within the Centre. These generally take the form of supper parties of some 100 to 200 people often followed by a dance, cabaret, etc. On these occasions the members make themselves responsible for the preparation, catering and clearing up after the party, in accordance with the self-service principle of the Centre.

Diving at Peckham

Those of our readers who have followed this experiment from its first beginnings and are familiar with The Case for Action will recollect that in that short forecast we made certain postulates, with regard to group organisation, procedure and routine in the larger Centre. We have now abandoned all deliberate methods of organisation in favour of a more individual, free and spontaneous development. This change of method resulted from experience gained in the first few months during which time we discovered that children have a great volitional wisdom if allowed to exercise it in a social setting among their elders. In circumstances where they are not starved of action, it is only necessary to place before them the chance or possibility for doing things in an orderly manner for them to grasp it; they do not need, indeed they resent being either herded, coaxed or guided into action. And in the circumstances of the Centre neither are the adolescents—usually considered a ‘problem’—nor the adults any less capable of directing their own action. Thus, the attempted promotion of any form of stereotyped organisation based on ‘leadership’ was early discarded and in the subsequent chapters of this book the reader will find a notable absence of deference to the modern clamour for leadership. Our members have already taught us that leaders require no training; they emerge naturally given the right circumstances. In the Centre the visitor is generally very surprised to learn that what he sees before him is spontaneous action and not the result of programme, persuasion or regulation. It is the conjunction of order with spontaneity that faces him which so repeatedly draws from him a question about leadership.

Let us follow rather more closely the history of the initiation in the Centre of these activities, seemingly so casual. Almost without exception any group action, such for instance as the drama or dancing, has in the first place been initiated by some rather unbalanced, uncritical enthusiast, who appealing to the management to meet his desires, was thrust back upon himself to collect, if he could, other persons infected with a similar enthusiasm. In many cases the initial enthusiast was so precipitate that he failed to gather adherents; or he might, by dint of perhaps some weeks’ or months’ propaganda and search, succeed. This little group, then, operating in the open forum, either failed or succeeded in creating a more or less general, though perhaps hesitant, interest on the part of other members who came into contact with it in their casual round of the building. And so, slowly but surely, some demand for this activity was built up from among those who were caught by and shared in the primary enthusiasm. Too often at this point of success, the curator was approached by the original enthusiast with a request to create a permanent official committee. The curator, however, having watched the growth of this activity, had noted that the great body of adherents manifested no serious desire or any fixed organisation—and indeed showed remarkably little gratitude to the enthusiastic initiator of the group. The out­standing fact was that most members of the group had merely been learning the first simple steps in a process, whereas the enthusiast had all the while been attempting to polish his relative perfection. Sooner or later then, this distinction between the ordinary members and the initiator led to disappointment in the enthusiast, who generally went off with perhaps two or three relatively proficient exponents to the neglect of the ordinary members. With this arrangement both sections seemed to be well satisfied. The unskilled did not now fall away because of the enthusiast’s neglect of them but proceeded to throw up from among themselves a new leader more in conformity with their own lesser capacity and skill, while the original enthusiast, unimpeded, was in a position to further what ability he had with his new found companions. Much experience of this sort has taught us that all committees should be ad hoc; for self-appointed leaders come and go. Hence to stereotype an organisation on the basis of any primary enthusiasm is usually to sterilise the spontaneity and effort of the ordinary person, and often to thrust him back into inactivity. The permanence of a committee in fact creates a vested interest and a specialism, and curiously enough leads to the creation of what might be called a ‘class consciousness’—in this case a ‘club consciousness’—and that tends to collusiveness. So the rule in the Centre has come to be that no committee shall be the ruler and director of experience nor be allowed to create a vested interest.

The adoption of these principles of ad hoc initiation and control of activities, much as it has annoyed many of the more conventional and habituated members with fixed ideas of how things should be done, keeps everything fluid, malleable and inclusive. And strangely enough, the result is order and not chaos. The important point is that it raises the general level of the community, instead of merely fostering the achievement of a high standard by a few specialists, while it does not prohibit the gifted from creating the circumstances that will give them proficiency. Far from the specialists being discouraged, we found that they were led to join in protagonism with their peers rather than to exercise their vanity on those less skilled. Moreover, the very presence of the building with the facilities it holds out and the freedom of action it promises, tends to draw those to join as members who already have some skill.

It will be noted that this rule of ad hoc initiation and control of activities is an extension of the principle of individual freedom which we have already seen to be inherent in self-service. It is a common experience in any committee for the complaint to be voiced by its members that their service to their fellows interferes with their own individual action and is unrequited. The inevitable corollary, that the club members’ action is limited and that they are ordered about by those in authority, is all too well known. For a more scientific consideration of these problems we would refer the reader to a discussion of ‘order in anarchy’ in Biologists in Search of Material.

The Centre as an organization is ‘alive’

The building, as we have said, was primarily designed to be furnished not for its members, but by them and their actions within it. There can be no doubt that, together with the richness and diversity of Nature—who for her part repeats nothing and changes from day to day, from season to season, from place to place, in weather, soil and oecological sequence—man’s own ingenuity and inventiveness is a contribution of the highest importance to the diversity of his environment. The products of his necessity and exuberance, his goods and chattels, his play-things and his tools, his science and inventions, his poetry and music – all complete this diversity and in turn through mutuality action become the food for his own further development. The Centre then, with its ever changing, varied and extending chances for each family that joins, is a building designed in every aspect to afford a stage upon which the action pattern of family function can proceed to develop spontaneously at all times. In essence, with its rough framework of perhaps even crude chances for every member-family, it is not unlike the wax sheet with which the hive-keeper presents the bees. According to their strength and according to the food available to the hive, so the insects pull out the wax into ‘cells’, specific in architecture to their breed, there to deposit their honey. But it is the bees that make the honey in their own time ; not the hive-keeper with his wax frame. And so with the Centre—it merely gives the frame ; the family secretes the specific honey, each family-organism contributing to society its own peculiar flavour and quality. In laying down its own action-pattern it creates a novelty of its own which adds to the richness of the society of which it is a part, and from which in turn it draws further sustenance—’pabulum’ for its future specific development.

Perhaps, for those readers who have never visited the Centre nor felt its natural spontaneous atmosphere, a picture of how it can become a field of opportunity for a young family, in which situations such as we describe occur easily and naturally, would be useful at this point.

A vignette of life in the Centre

Here is a young couple, four months married, who have just become members. They are shy, diffident, have no friends in the district—only mother-in-law. They know no one in the Centre. They come to their overhaul and then one Saturday afternoon to their family consultation. After this they go downstairs together and have tea in the cafeteria. They do not hurry for there is much to see; they watch the swimming bath. There are other young, couples enjoying a swim together, perhaps one father has a baby of two or three years on his back. The husband of our young family can swim. He wants to go in. He wishes his wife swam too. He registers a determination to come next Saturday with his swimming suit and have a dip. They cannot linger any longer over tea, for they feel they are becoming conspicuous—sitting doing nothing. They get up, and loath to go, saunter round the bath. At the far end they stop again; looking down through the window into the gymnasium they see 25—30 boys and girls of all ages swinging on ropes, climbing, jumping. “Why Fred ! it’s just like the monkey cage we saw at the Zoo”, she says. In one corner on the mats are two young men—”Coo, they’re good”, says Fred, for they are fine athletic fellows practising somersaults,—”That’s the thing one chap was doing from the diving board in the bath”. These grown-up athletes do not seem disturbed by the children who for the most part are absorbed in their own concerns, though a few watch admiringly from their point of vantage on the ladders or cross-legged on the floor. As the young men go on to even more difficult feats the children sit quiet as mice and their eyes shine. The men pause for a rest and turn to the small audience. “Do you want to do it, Jimmy?” —and so the two give the little group their first lesson in aerial somersaults.

The swimming pool at Peckham Health Centre

Our young family watch for another quarter of an hour, and then their attention is attracted by a strange noise of drums, and a primitive music rises behind them. It is the children’s band in a corner of the Long Room. All ages, 3 to 13, are assembled; each takes some string or percussion instrument or for the littlest there will be a wooden cylinder full of shot to shake to the time of the tune. There is a pedal instrument to tell the company by a colour indicator what chord to play. For the rest the rhythm leads them. They put up a reasonably good show; someone begins to sing and in the end everyone has joined in. “It’s really rather fun”. So our young family passes away down the corridor and finally leaves the building.

Next Saturday, a little later, about 7 o’clock, they come again. The girl is very neat and smart this evening. The man has his swimming suit. He has bought a ticket and is going into the bath. The girl, shy at being left on her own, goes to the quietest side the corridor overlooking the bath and watches eagerly for her man to appear in the bath chamber. He comes up; she shifts in her seat, smiles and waves to him. He too is shy—almost too self conscious to return her greeting; he slips unobtrsively into the bath from the side and swims. Except for a few learners everyone dives in, but there are lots of people there, and he is not confident of his style—better just swim about.

While she looks on, the girl sees two couples—older people than they are—with their children come up into the bath. Mother is very stout; how can she have the courage! But somehow she seems unaware of it and bears herself with remarkable assurance.

Wait, she is actually going to try a dive—”Well!” She does, too…”Perhaps I could learn to swim? No, I should never have the courage to go in that bath with everyone looking”.

Here is her husband back, feeling very bucked and refreshed. “You’ll have to come in, Flo”. But Flo quickly—”Let’s have something to eat”, and so they go to the cafeteria. They help themselves and sit down at a table overlooking the bath. People are beginning to come in rather fast. Qur young couple are lost in the growing crowd—”It’s all right . . . .”

The two families the girl had noticed in the bath have come out. Here they are and in two minutes they have put two tables together in the cafeteria and all sit down to a high tea. They are very friendly ; all know each other well. They are talking about what they will do to-morrow. One of them has a small car. They are going to the country to some place they call “the Camp”. It must be something to do with the Centre. [See note on Camp—Appendix II.] Anyhow they are all going together. And now they have finished and are getting up to go home and put the children to bed.

‘I overheard from a fellow in the changing room that there’s a water polo match on to-night. Let’s sit here and wait for a bit”. At 8.30 they still have courage to sit where they are, our shy young family. Then someone comes and draws nets along the inside of the bath window. Round the bath chamber the crowd is getting denser, every table is taken and people are standing three deep behind. You can’t see the cafeteria counter for people. Here they come, a visiting team—red caps—against the Centre – black caps. Tremendous excitement in which our young family join …. and they find themselves talking to the people next to them.

An hour later they have moved round to the other side of the building. The Centre band is playing—”there’s the young doctor playing the double bass”—and in the midst of the dancing they take courage. They too dance—just together—for a good hour.

There is an informality about the life of the Centre which permits of the spontaneous emergence of any situation at the tempo natural to each family. Those unused to move in any society find themselves gently lapped by the tide of its action.

A very high proportion of the families we have encountered are characterised by the absence of social contacts of any sort save those of the relatives of husband or wife—and these last are generally too close and too insistent to operate as anything but a restricting factor. One of the outstanding features of the populace from which our members are drawn is their inability through this lack of social excursion to take advantage of any new situation that presents itself. This, membership of the Centre changes. To its member-families it becomes an open door leading to fuller, more varied and unknown aspects of life—a door beyond which there lies adventure. Each family on joining is free to pass straight through into new territory, or equally free to stand against the doorpost and merely watch, not daring to think that inevitably adventure will draw it on—in its own time and according to its inherent capacity to go forward.