Without Communal Cultural Experiences, My Life Would Be a Joyless Husk
Illustration by Christa Jarrold

Without Communal Cultural Experiences, My Life Would Be a Joyless Husk

Texting about newly released albums or asking your nan for TV recommendations is fine, but nothing compared to those moments of real, immediate joy.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
November 3, 2020, 9:15am
'Fund Our Fun': A series celebrating the UK’s music and nightlife industries, and a rallying call to protect them.

The creative industries. The arts. Events and nightlife. Call them what you want, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is FUN. Music, film, TV, theatre, radio, galleries, big nights out – these aren’t just job sectors, they’re the reason we work in the first place. They’re how we socialise, how we express ourselves, how we make sense of the world.

COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to arts and culture in the UK, and while the government’s rescue package will come as a lifeline for some, things have been on the rocks for a long time. How many beloved venues have you seen bulldozed to make room for another block of luxury flats? ‘Fund Our Fun’ is a series that goes beyond the industry’s economic contributions to tell the stories of how arts and culture impact our lives in immeasurable ways.


It was when I saw Cher, material before my eyes like a mirage ahead of a dehydrated man, that I screamed, my mouth capable of forming one syllable only: “CHER.”

The year was 2018, the film was Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again, the cinema was the jewel in south-east London’s crown, Peckhamplex. Like the rest of the attendees at this sold out mid-week screening, I was high on Slush Puppy and the extensive back catalogue of ABBA when the movie’s final act started, and Cher showed up in a blonde wig and a beautiful facelift, looking younger than me at age 72. 

The sight tipped me – and the rest of the audience – into a sort of derangement, the energy in the room turning from “11th birthday party sleepover” to “11th birthday party sleepover where your friend’s mum lets you watch Scream and then locks herself in the kitchen with her wine”. I was so ecstatic that I involuntarily applauded at the end of a film for the first time in my life.

I remember this experience because of course it was a great laugh, but also because it was made possible solely by the singularity of Peckhamplex. I have lived in London for five years, and would say that the community cinema in Peckham – known for its bright pink decor and otherwise unheard of £5 blanket ticket price – is one of the great joys of my time here. It’s a space that facilitates happiness and participation, while showcasing an art form that can be exclusionary, financially or otherwise. 


I have so many good memories rooted there: when I saw Hustlers last year and Jennifer Lopez’s pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” was met with yelps of “YESSSS” from the crowd, as if J-Lo were performing there in front of us, live. All the Sundays I’ve felt lonely, or at a loose end, or both, and been able to change my mood entirely with bus fare, a bag of popcorn and the Renée Zellweger Judy Garland biopic (not that good, really, but Renée earned her Oscar), or that one where Melissa McCarthy forged famous people’s letters (the most Sunday afternoon movie ever committed to film), among others doing the same.  

I’ve been thinking about Peckhamplex a lot recently, because I was so sad to hear about its temporary closure as a result of the financial pressures of lockdown. Like many other cinemas, Peckhamplex counts on Hollywood releases to survive, and when the newest instalment in the James Bond franchise, No Time To Die – a guaranteed earner – was pushed back, the beloved multiplex had no choice but to shut its doors. 

The story, of course, is the same all over the UK – and indeed the world – as myriad cinemas, gig spaces, clubs and other arts venues struggle under the fact that communality, one of the very premises of their existence, is being actively discouraged. Economically, the government’s lack of interest in the arts makes perfect, queasy sense (its relief package for venues came late, and was roundly criticised for cushioning corporate interests). As James Greig wrote for the Guardian recently, in another article extolling the many virtues of Peckhamplex, “We are living in the era of platform capitalism, where you can do just about anything without leaving your home, and are in fact encouraged to do so.”


In other words, it doesn’t really matter to those in power if you’re not spending money on concert tickets or going to the cinema, as long as you’re subscribing to streaming services and ordering Deliveroo instead. 

But it matters to me, and to the millions of others who derive so much of the joy in our lives from communal experiences of culture. Certainly, I enjoy looking at my laptop in bed, after a long day of looking at it while sitting at my desk. But it doesn’t bring me actual genuine happiness or fulfilment. For me, that usually comes from having first-hand experiences, with other people. What made that night at Peckhamplex in 2018 so memorable was the atmosphere in the room, created by the audience response to the movie, rather than the movie itself. Same thing when I saw Harry Styles play at the O2 in London: his fans had somehow orchestrated the Herculean feat of distributing coloured filters, to be placed over phone torches, around the arena. When it was time for the audience to put up their lights, the colours of the Pride flag flooded the venue.

I have so many examples, big and small, of occasions in my life when experiencing culture with other people has done me so much good, or even been a marker in the sand for a friendship. There was the time my friend Sean and I saw a DJ play Fergie’s “Glamorous”, laughing hysterically in amazement when they repeated the “I still go to Taco Bell” line over and over for a whole minute, and the time he hoisted me onto his shoulders to roar the words of “Champagne Supernova” at Glastonbury.


Or another time that Glastonbury, when the sheer delight whipped up by the ABBA tribute band Björn Again pulled Emma, Ryan and I out of our hangovers (aware that there’s a lot of ABBA chat here, and I think that tells you a lot about both ABBA and me). The time Beyoncé played “Freedom” at her concert at Wembley Stadium, her dancers kicking into puddles of water on the stage, and I clung to my friend Beth and cried because of the power and the spectacle of it; or when Daisy and I, both five-foot-nothing and cocktail-drunk, muscled our way to the front of the Snail Mail show at The Lexington, craning our necks to see the stage. 

Those are just the examples I can pull out of my brain right now as I write this – most of my favourite memories of communal culture are to do with music, as that’s how I spend my money and free time. But my life is made up of – and given meaning by – thousands of moments like this, where music, TV, a movie, going to a club, or any of the other things I do or consume for fun, has connected me to someone else, or to hundreds of other people, or thousands.

During the pandemic I’ve settled for feverish texting about newly released albums, or asking my nan for TV recommendations (nobody is better informed on the crime drama genre). Culture is still happening, and it still provides us a bridge to one another in a time otherwise defined by fear and isolation. But I worry about what a lack of those moments of god-honest, real, immediate joy is doing to us all. 


As I write this, Tories proudly tweet photos of boiled eggs and bread in order to show that it is in fact “easy” to cheaply feed children without the help of much-needed free school meals. Factual incorrectness of this aside, it’s just another way in which some people demonstrate they’ve accepted that economic viability – not love, or compassion, or fun, or happiness – has become the most significant marker of how we are supposed to live. But I cannot accept that. I have one human existence. I want to spend it enjoying myself and experiencing the things I think to be beautiful. Maybe the “Live, Laugh, Love” mums are on to something. 

The answer, as it is with everything, has to be collectivism. We can only hope that, after the pandemic, we’re even allowed to experience culture together again, in cinemas and music halls and theatres. And of course, if we are, I’m sure a star as big as Beyoncé won’t have much trouble playing Wembley Stadium again. It is not the large scale, corporately-backed event spaces that we need to worry about, but the smaller ones – which also tend to be the most affordable, the most accessible, the most willing to take risks, the most integral to their communities.

It shouldn’t be up to private citizens to do things the government ought to be figuring out, but we know now that culture – particularly of the sort represented by these smaller venues – is of little consequence to them. So if we want these places to survive – to remain sites that facilitate joy – it is now mostly down to us: donating money, writing to our MPs, tuning into livestreams.

Essentially, it’s collectivism for an end goal of being together again, in ways both significant and banal. I’m not sure there’s anything else quite as worth it.