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Peckham's beautiful club

When I was a child, my father received a copy of the Manchester Guardian in the mail every week. It was printed on very white, airmail-thin paper, perhaps 8 inches wide by 11 inches, and folded in half. I liked reading the gardening column. Guardian politics did not make much of a dent in me.

It is nice to see that faced with fifty-plus years of evidence, Guardian politics have gained nuance -

But Peckham is also a parable of a wider kind. The post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers' associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.

The Peckham experiment was this -

In a sparkling building of glass and light, two radical doctors in the 1930s established the Pioneer Health Centre. It was not a surgery, treating the sick, but rather a place dedicated to spreading - and studying - health. The founders, the husband and wife team of George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, reckoned health was a lot like disease, that it was contagious. The trick was to create an environment in which people would infect each other with wellbeing.

The result was a beautiful club, boasting an enormous swimming pool, a gym, boxing rings, a dance hall, a library, a creche with "room for perambulators" and a cafeteria serving "compost grown" - organic in today's language - food, produced at the centre's own farm a few miles away in Bromley. Local families could join for 6d a week, thereby ensuring they felt like members rather than recipients of charity. And they joined in their hundreds.

And thrived.

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