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.
“Why don’t you sign up?” suggested my mum when I forwarded her the email. It was an advert for an adult education class at the Cornerhouse, a now-shuttered independent cinema and art gallery on Manchester’s Oxford Road*. I was 19, in my second year of uni studying English Literature, and miserable.
During this period I used films to feel less alone. This was not a new development. I grew up in a nondescript suburb of the West Midlands, during the DVD boom of the mid 00s – four for £20 at HMV (or Fopp if you wanted anything considered ‘world cinema’). Blockbuster was already on its last legs by the time I was old enough to choose the rentals, and anyway, I was building a library. If I borrowed DVDs, they were usually from my secondary school English teacher (shout out to Mrs. Windmill, who lent me Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2007). If you were organised, and I was, you’d go through the Radio Times and circle the interesting films playing late at night on BBC2 or Film4 in advance. This was also the era of Orange Wednesdays, a deal in which customers of the mobile phone network Orange (now EE) could get two-for-one cinema tickets. My taste was indiscriminate, and shaped by what was available to me - mainly, whatever was playing at Showcase Cinema Dudley that week. Other people’s worlds always seemed more romantic, or at least more exciting, than my own.
“Essential Intro to Film Studies’”was an eight-week evening class. Comparatively speaking, the course was cheap - £50 for concessions, like me. There would be six lectures and two screenings - Singin’ in the Rain and Goodfellas, the latter of which I had never seen. I considered that if my housemates found out I was spending my Tuesday nights learning for fun, they might think I was tragic. I clicked purchase and decided not to tell them.
The cinema smelled faintly of cinnamon buns and was the only place in the city I was guaranteed not to run into anyone I knew. With the exception of one guy who was about my age, I was the youngest person in the room by at least 30 years. In the same way that I was when I attended cheap matinees during the day, I was happily anonymous and surrounded by pensioners. All watching and listening. Taking it all in.
When the course convener asked if anyone would be willing to write up their experiences for the Cornerhouse website, I shyly stuck my hand up. I was self-conscious about my writing after it had been rejected by the bros running the university paper’s film section. I started to gain confidence, started editing a blog about film, submitted an article about the value of regional arthouse cinemas to a magazine. I went on to do a Masters in Film Studies, and today I write reviews for a national newspaper. I am also, on the whole, happier.
When the UK government announced a £1.57 billion support package to arts organisations who had been hit by the pandemic, an “important cash boost” of £650,000 was divided up between 42 independent cinemas. Meanwhile, Secret Cinema were allocated nearly a million pounds. Why is a London-centric company that’s made its name putting on overpriced “event screenings” of Back to the Future, all the while operating at a loss in 2018 and 2019, considered more “culturally significant” than venues that provide a lifeline to local communities?
The slow, systematic dismantling of independent cinemas and libraries is a symptom of the classist idea that ordinary people don’t deserve free or cheap access to culture beyond the monoculture of the mainstream. According to our current government’s investment in the arts, the right to the pleasure, or escape, or a flicker of recognition we experience when connecting with the characters in a film, is not guaranteed.
In his 2013 text The Undercommons, the African-American poet and scholar Fred Moten talks about “the academy of misery”. I’ve always associated learning with essays and exams, advancement and deadlines. When I signed up for Cornerhouse’s course I had nothing to lose, sure, but in practical terms I also had very little to gain. I wouldn’t get a qualification, nor would it make me more employable. And yet I found that when I removed myself from the stuffy confines of academia, I became a better student. I was more engaged, a better listener, a more active and curious viewer. During a dark period of what I now understand was probably a depression, I discovered the kind of learning that made me light up.
During those first few months of feeling low in lockdown, I participated in a weekly teach-in about structural racism in the arts, run by my friend Jemma via Zoom. In August, I signed up for an online course about the history of music and resistance. Informal learning has felt nurturing once again.
Though you could argue that when I took that class nine years ago, it set me on a path, I wasn’t thinking of it as a stepping stone to a future career. It was just something that made me less sad on Tuesday nights. That, I think, is valuable too.
*In 2015, two years after I graduated, Cornerhouse reopened as HOME. Its creative director Jason Wood is one of the biggest-hearted advocates of cinema as bridging communities I know.