St Ives is a small fishing port at the very south west tip of England. It’s typical of many very popular and expensive tourist destinations down here in that the winding streets and sheltered harbour were built in poverty and isolation and now attract wealth and visitors. The twisting, narrow, cobbled streets are too small for cars, but perfect for trendy clothes shops, jewellers, galleries and cream teas.
The harbour itself is enclosed by the usual walls, heavy, sullen, solid, to keep out the battering of the open sea. And, as is usual, there is a lifeboat station here, huddled by the water’s edge, housing a large boat in the familiar blue and orange of the RNLI.
On the wall of lifeboat station is a plaque, a tragically familiar plaque, detailing the men who lost their lives early last century on one final desperate trip to save lives. It’s not unusual to see these. Fishing communities always live close to disaster, and sometimes the odds play against you. These people, the names now carved in stone, were brothers, husbands and sons within the community.
Community is more than cobbles and slate roofed houses. It’s more than a fishing harbour and a pub. It’s more than sisters, mothers and wives waiting for news on stormy winter’s day. Community is about common purpose, about shared values and identity, about togetherness.
Driving or walking through this area, we move between different communities, each one sharing some similar traits of architecture, geology and accent, but each slightly different in character and style and, as we move further east, each changes until, eventually, you find yourself in totally different types of community, sharing a common language, but little else.
We talk about ‘community’ a lot in terms of learning, in terms of virtual environments, in the online space, but don’t often stop to think what community actually is. It’s certainly not something premeditated, something inevitable. Communities can form quickly but can have the permanence of stone: networks that are not necessarily bound to location or time, but rather which can fly free from the bounds of place to exist over distances and in different spaces.
The newer types of community that we talk about a lot at the moment may be lighter, less permanent, may be more engineered and built for convenience, but they share some common roots with all communities.
So, whilst ‘community’ is a term that we throw around lightly online, it’s founded at the very heart of how we build our society, in the bounds of family, friends and strangers in a stormy harbour. Community means a lot to us, wherever it sits.