StoriesPart of Research Notes

How the Peckham Experiment inspired my fiction

The archives of a radical health centre inspired James Wilkes to write short stories, including ‘The Homestead’, a new fiction created especially for Wellcome Collection.

Words by James Wilkes

  • Story

The Pioneer Health Centre, also known as the Peckham Experiment, was a health and social centre established in the 1930s in Peckham, south London, by doctors Innes Hope Pearse and George Scott Williamson. Their aim was to study human health, rather than disease, and the centre’s members were to be the first subjects of a new science of living, which they called ‘ethology’. 

The centre closed its doors for good in 1950, but its archives contain a mass of unruly material, ranging from photographs and amateur films to meeting minutes, pamphlets, and drafts of lectures and books. Incongruous ideas are held together in these boxes and folders: anarchist principles rub shoulders with reactionary gender politics, while a commitment to the biological sits alongside esoteric spiritual beliefs.   

A different kind of writing

I find archives like this irresistible – perhaps because, as the ruins of a future that never was, they make it possible to reimagine the present. Although I usually write poetry and performance scores, I felt that this material was calling for a different kind of writing, one that could hold turbulent ideas in loose constellations in the same way as the archive. That’s why I turned to writing short stories, many of which have ended up being speculative fictions: ways of using the Peckham archive to imagine new relationships between individuals, communities and environments, new ways of living together. 

One of the first pieces I wrote wove together a number of details that struck me forcefully in my first months in the archive: mentions of the strange life cycle of axolotls; photos of families having medical check-ups; the weird and arcane metaphors – men as ‘storage battery systems’, for example, and women as ‘petrol systems’ – through which the doctors imagined gendered roles within the family dynamic.  

Simultaneously, the archive suggested a form to hold these elements together. I came across several typescripts in which additions and changes had been made by cutting and fixing together different sheets with pins, staples and brass fasteners. This discovery pushed me towards collage, at the heart of which is the selection, cutting and recombining of found material, producing a whole whose energy derives from the juxtaposition of its many parts.

“I came across several typescripts in which additions and changes had been made by cutting and fixing together different sheets with pins, staples and brass fasteners.”

Coming into focus

Other forms took more time to evolve, and only came into focus when I’d been able to cross an experience in the archive with an experience in the world beyond it. I went to Glasgow to meet some of the trustees of the Pioneer Health Foundation, the body that carries forward the Peckham Experiment’s legacy.  

As I chatted to them, I gave my toddler my notebook to scribble in. Looking at his doodles later, I realised that one of the circular lines he had drawn continually made enclosures and then split them, in ever-finer degrees. I used this drawing to invent a way of writing about the photos of children playing, skating and biking at the centre; a way of excavating and then re-excavating the details of these images until they collapsed into their own grain.

“I find archives like this irresistible – perhaps because, as the ruins of a future that never was, they make it possible to reimagine the present.”

Characters in search of a play

Another significant experience that came late in the day was a visit to the Pioneer Health Centre itself. The building was designed in 1935 by the engineer Owen Williams in concrete and glass, with a huge swimming pool in the middle. In the 1990s it was converted into flats, but one of the trustees put me in touch with a resident, who offered to show me around.  

I was intrigued by the odds and ends I found lying in passageways or on the flat roof: yellow builders’ buckets, a trowel on a length of galvanised wire, a swimming float, a space heater on wheels. These suddenly swerved into contact with some archival photos I’d been mulling over, showing members of the drama group relaxing in the centre’s cafeteria. Now I had a cast of characters, and I had a list of props: a short play seemed inevitable.

“Now I had a cast of characters, and I had a list of props: a short play seemed inevitable.”

A micro science fiction 

The story that follows this essay takes the form of imaginary captions, written to accompany archival photographs of the Pioneer Health Centre’s nursery and wartime farm. The possibility of writing a story by arranging and captioning a series of black-and-white photos reminded me of ‘La Jetée’, the celebrated ‘photo-roman’ by filmmaker Chris Marker, which creates its time-travelling science fiction from still images and a voiceover, moving between past and future without the aid of any special effects.  

With this in mind, I set out to write a micro sci-fi narrative of my own, in which a woman caught up in a war narrates her life story across the space of nine images. It’s called ‘The Homestead’.

If you enjoyed this article, and you’re in London, you might also like ‘Living with Buildings’, at Wellcome Collection from 4 October 2018 until 3 March 2019.

About the author

Photograph of James Wilkes

James Wilkes

@wilkesjames

James is a writer interested in the intersections of literature, 20th-century history and the cognitive sciences. He is currently writing a collection of short stories that circle around the archives of the Peckham Experiment, for which he was awarded a Wellcome Research Bursary.