The Lido Libby Page
Swimming down Electric Avenue
London’s lidos, or outdoor swimming pools, dotted around the periphery of the capital, are much loved, but one or other of them always seems to be under threat. Brockwell Lido is nestled in Brockwell Park on the Dulwich Road in Brixton, South London. It opened in 1937 with a classic art deco building and a 50 metre cold water pool. Libby Page’s novel, The Lido, is a fictionalised account of a sustained campaign, by the local community, to ensure the future of the facility.
Two of those fighting for the pool are lonely women. Kate, at 26, has been in London for only two years, having arrived from Bristol to study for her master’s in journalism. Now she lives in Brixton and works for the local paper.
Rosemary, in contrast, swam in the lido, soon after its nascence in 1937, during the Blitz. Twice the water was borrowed for fire hoses, once bombs landed in the park, but the pool stayed open as an oasis of calm amidst the bombsites.
The Lido is written in the third person, with the narrative alternating between younger and elder woman. Both have important backstories and Page also explores their current, separate, daily lives. As a rookie campaigning journalist Kate interviews people under pressure all over the borough providing a vehicle for Page to explore and analyse modern city life.
Rosemary, on the other hand, knows the streets and bus routes so that her musings and physical wanderings provide a detailed account of the location and its inhabitants. Brixton has, of course, undergone many changes since the lido was built. These include the arrival of many West Indians of the Windrush generation. Now it has more of a café culture, with a cocktail bar under the arches where Rosemary’s husband’s greengrocer shop used to be.
Page does not overtly speak of ethnicity: hers is a colour-blind gaze. Nevertheless there are accounts of the Brixton riots, there are references to Caribbean vegetables and to Asian delicacies. And the pulsating heart of Brixton with its history as a centre of music reverberates and resonates through the narrative.
Page’s style is conversational and the two main characters are fully developed. They are both really nice, good people and the story might have been too saccharine and worthy but Page has other things to say. She does champion community campaigning but at the same time she addresses issues of physical, emotional and mental health.
Swimming is a way of tackling depression. The physicality of it releases endorphins, raising the spirits. It is energising and contributes to fitness. Lane swimming generally takes place in the early mornings so that participants must rise early rather than slug-a-bed. Although ploughing up and down the pool is quite isolating it can be meditative and there is the camaraderie of the changing room. People notice if sessions are missed and contact other members. Swimming clubs are, in themselves, a community.
Both Kate and Rosemary need this support. Kate, because she has made no friends in London and Rosemary because she has recently been bereaved. The two women find solace in each other and reach out to the pool regulars for support. The real world lido is saved, as can be easily discovered online and is now run by Fusion, a large exercise franchise.
The Lido is branded ‘the feel-good read of 2018’. This means that it will induce empathy for the characters and suggest that people are, fundamentally, moral. But, don’t forget, taking up regular swimming, whether inside or outside, whether heated or not, is also a way of getting to feel good.
Page, L. The Lido. Orion 2018.
There are plans to make The Lido into a film.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th March 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.