On the power of gathering
It is three years this week since the first lockdown. Three years since so much changed. Of all the behaviour changes which came so abruptly, the halt on large scale gatherings was quietly important. On the face of it, it didn’t seem such a big deal alongside seeing friends and relatives, going to school or visiting new places on holiday. But it slowly revealed itself as a fundamental human instinct.
Thankfully that time has passed, hopefully for good, and gathering is back. Last weekend GEM Arts filled Baltic Square with the most joyful Holi Festival of Colours gathering of art, music, food, family and celebration. Our phones pop with summer field festival headliner announcements. The upcoming May bank holidays, including the first Coronation in most of our lifetimes, will bring street parties and community festivals as the country casts off a long winter. Put like that, this all seems quite benign again.
In November 2021, following 15 months of venue closure, a massed choir and orchestra event took place at Sage Gateshead. It was one of the first events since we had re-opened and it brought together 300 performers and an audience of 1,800. Singing and playing Verdi’s famous Requiem, we called the project The People’s Requiem. People with all levels of musical experience from across the region worked alongside Royal Northern Sinfonia, the region’s orchestra. They started rehearsals separately at home via recorded rehearsal clips, then came together with social distancing and then finally performed alongside each other in the concert hall. After so long of not being able to participate in music for the performers and so long of not being able to hear live music for the audience, the atmosphere was electric. And, as a Requiem, it was a tribute to those who had died and what we had lost during Covid. Suddenly gathering was extremely important.
As we continue our recovery from the pandemic, gathering may never have been more important. And not just because we’ve had a time without it. Our digital lives are famously bubbled and social media habits have become so focused on stating a fixed view. We risk becoming defined and divided. The diversity of background and opinion in a group of people who have come together around a single purpose – to perform a piece of music, to play sports or to create a community event – is a hugely important and powerful thing. In that time doing something together, understanding and bonds can grow – community can build. Again, this may seem benign, but without these chances we risk becoming ever more isolated and divided as a society. This is just at a time when we face huge challenges and have a steep road ahead to rebuild the country.
In this post pandemic world we are building, we will need to find new structures to bring people together in person – religion, publicly funding community or youth centres, even work places are all changed enormously. The answers may lie elsewhere. Culture and sport are there, the charity sector is a core part of our social fabric. Empowering these sectors to do what they do best – bring people together in person and around something which is about joy, learning, and fulfilment – can have a huge impact. They help create understanding, community, society. And from there we can build.