What makes a community? Is it a geographic boundary, a common set of beliefs, shared circumstance, or a blend of all these things?
Libby Page’s debut novel The Lido explores this complex notion of community with superb depth of character and truths about relationships which transcend generations.
I’m sure every town, suburb, and neighbourhood is different but these days it seems rare to think of these things as the very definition of ‘community’. Despite the bad rap social media gets these days, it’s become the way millennials create this same feeling.
From close-knit suburbs to social media
Fifty years ago, each suburb of my hometown was its own self-contained community. You could walk down the high street of this suburb and see the local doctor, baker, butcher, grocer.
My hometown still feels as if it has two, rather than six, degrees of separation but these days it feels more like a city than a town. My parents sent me to a school on the other side of town, rather than the local primary school so I guess from the start I never felt confined to my little street.
I grew up feeling more anonymous than I should have in the school where everyone knew everyone, a realisation which has really only dawned on me since becoming a local journalist where it’s impossible not to make connections.
At work I’m in touch with so many people, but as soon as I get home I’m fiercely private. Quite honestly, I only struck up a friendship with our next door neighbour because she’s the mum of a former work colleague.
The Brixton of The Lido feels a world away from my closed off, private home life. The bustling streets, hidden cafes, bright colours and cacophony of city sounds burst off the page. (Of course it helped that I bought my copy of The Lido while we were staying in Brixton, which gave this story a whole new dimension).
In The Lido, 86-year-old Rosemary has lived in the suburb all her life and is dismayed to find out the outdoor swimming pool she’s used almost daily since her teen years will soon be demolished to make way for a private luxury apartment unit.
Kate, a reporter on the local newspaper, meets Rosemary at the lido while reporting on its imminent closure. The Lido follows their growing friendship and struggle to stop the march of development.
Perhaps my own tendency to lock the doors and pick up my phone to dive into a virtual community I’ve curated over the years is not just a result of my introvert tendencies but also part of my generation. The Lido’s young protagonist Kate is similar in her own isolation; closed to the possibilities of connection based solely on the cohabitation of a suburb.
Kate is a character I’m sure many people my age could relate to: unsure of her future, somewhat directionless and fearful of never fitting in. By contrast Rosemary is a giant personality among her community, having built and lived her life around the pool and this small corner of London.
It was only while reading The Lido that I realised this type of community seems in many ways to be dying out among my generation. Even Rosemary sees the changes, as developments progress and chain stores replace the specialised small businesses which once knew their regular customers by name.
As the friendship between Kate and Rosemary blossoms, both show each other the ways we can foster community in this changing world.
How do we define community in a digitally-driven world?
For Rosemary, the physical structure of the lido is central to her community, and the love story with her late husband George which is explored through flashbacks during the novel. She introduces Kate to people linked by the lido, whose lives intersect because of their geographical location.
While Kate shows Rosemary how community can form in the virtual world, as people separated by distance come together through their shared values.
It’s true our physical spaces are continually changing; our suburbs don’t hold the same stance they did fifty years ago and multinational companies have chipped away at our little high street businesses.
But community isn’t dead. The people I’ve met online and the voices I surround myself with on social media show me every day that virtual communities can be just as valuable as those we make with our colleagues or neighbours.
When you live in a small town, these virtual communities can be even more important. For me, online communities became one of the only ways to connect with people who loved reading as much as I did, people who made me feel I wasn’t alone and who helped me grow.
As I started listening to podcasts, I found a handful of Facebook groups where strangers have become friends based on our shared love of an audio experience. Past generations didn’t have the option to live such insular lives and social media didn’t exist as a salve to physical isolation.
Just as Rosemary taught Kate the power of a supportive and comforting community, The Lido showed me that those kinds of communities, like many relationships, are what you make of them – be it physically or virtually.
Page’s debut is simply plotted with characters which feel as if they could walk alongside you and the ability to speak truths across generations, to remind us how comforting connection can be in our busy lives.
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If you enjoyed The Lido, you might enjoy Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Read my review here.