24 ways to become more ‘cultured’

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What does it mean to be “cultured”? There was a time where it might have simply been a positive marker of someone’s tastes; it characterised those who are well read, refined, knowledgeable about the arts. More recently, however, it has taken on a new meaning. To me at least, being “cultural” has become synonymous with both “expensive” (the £200 theatre tickets justified by the presence of a big star; the pilgrimage to a gig which costs as much as a holiday) and “hard work” (the book club we wished we’d never signed up to; the critically-acclaimed films which are three hours, and feel like seven). 

Of course, it shouldn’t need to be this way. Particularly in a cost of living crisis, and especially when the world feels so heavy and we need the joy, comfort, and wisdom that sometimes only the arts can bring us. That in mind, here are 24 simple ways to live a more cultural life this year (no big effort or huge budget required).

1. Get a membership to a local gallery

Every year, there are so many big, “must-see” exhibitions that it can become overwhelming – to the extent that you probably don’t end up seeing any at all. So don’t! Instead, focus on just one small, local gallery. Get a membership and drop by whenever they change the exhibits. You’ll see lots of art you would never have expected (and many of the big-name painters are overrated, in any case).

2. Go and see local theatre

Likewise, don’t get distracted by all the celebrities on West End stages which make you feel as though it’s normal to fork out hundreds for a ticket. Make the most of touring productions and community-run theatre. Some of the best evenings I’ve had have been watching plays upstairs in a creaky old pub.

3. Reduce streamer overwhelm

You really don’t need to subscribe to every streaming platform. Pick one, and let it curate for you.

4. Borrow books from the library 

It’s free, stops your home from getting cluttered with piles of books (that you feel guilty for not reading), and helps support libraries, too many of which are at risk of dying out. They might not have the latest novel that’s blowing up on BookTok, but hype culture is the worst thing to happen to reading anyway. Discovering new reads by thumbing your way through the shelves of a library is good for the soul. 

5. Never double screen

Watching TV while scrolling through social media, answering WhatsApps or finishing off that bit of work on your laptop is no good way to watch TV at all. I’m the first to admit this, because I do it all the time. However, I’ve found that simply putting your phone in a different room while watching a show, and actually properly watching it, increases your enjoyment of it tenfold. Who would have thought it?

6. Listen to podcasts which will motivate you to live a better life 

Some great ones are Dr Rangan Chaterjee’s Feel Better, Live More, which is filled with practical health advice, Jay Shetty’s On Purpose, which is a series of interviews packed with wisdom and inspiration, and Dr Laurie Santos’s The Happiness Lab, which, episode by episode, teaches us how to live a happier life.

Join a local library – it’s good for the soul (Photo: Getty)

7. Watch films at an independent cinema

Find your nearest independent cinema and watch films there, instead of at a huge corporate chain. Tickets can sometimes be more expensive, but they often have discount days and membership reduced prices.

8. Spend less time in reading ruts

Next time you’re stuck in a reading slump, reach for a short book (great ones are Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, both of which are under 200 pages) and/or one which will zip you along at pace (Yellowface by RF Kuang; Lisa Jewel’s The Family Upstairs; Janice Hallett’s The Twyford Code; My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite). If all else fails, re-read an old favourite.

9. Watch more foreign language dramas

It’s not as much effort as you think. You get used to reading subtitles very quickly, it’s an easy way to learn about other country’s cultures, and it also encourages you to actually engage with the show you’re watching (see point #5). Crucially, there’s also a whole world of good TV you’re missing if you let yourself be put off by it being in a different language. Namely: Trapped (Icelandic, Netflix). Money Heist (Spanish, Netflix). Inspector Montalbano (Italian, BBC iPlayer). Spiral (French, ITVX). Also, Channel 4’s Walter Presents platform is a great source of brilliant international shows. 

10. Learn about the art and design in your area

It could be going on a sculpture trail, actually reading the plaques next to the monuments and statues you walk past every day, or learning about the listed buildings in your area and the history behind them. In most bigger towns, there will be some kind of walking tour you can join, but there’s also a wonderful thing called Google…

11. Keep note of recommendations

You can research the latest books, films, and shows all you like, but the best recommendations will always come from the people you love. However, how many times has someone mentioned something they’ve enjoyed, only for you to forget what it was? And how many times have you wanted to watch a film on Netflix, only to scroll through the options having no idea what to put on? Start a note on your phone now – or keep a notebook – where you jot down recommendations as and when you get them. Bring up the list whenever you’re looking for something new.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23: Georgia Davies, Abigail Morris, Aurora Nishevci, Emily Roberts and Lizzie Mayland from the band The Last Dinner Party attend the Rolling Stone UK Awards 2023 at The Roundhouse on November 23, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
The Last Dinner Party’s highly anticipated debut album will arrive in 2024 (Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

12. Listen to entire albums all the way through, in order

By only listening to an artist’s hit singles, we’re missing out on so much of their music. And by not listening to an album in the order, we’re missing a carefully curated story that they want to tell. 

13. Read a classic

They’re not all laborious, even though that is what you might have felt at school. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is as gripping as any modern crime novel (and only 200 odd pages). The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is very readable. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is scandalously good (as all formerly-banned books are). The Great Gatsby is great fun. Animal Farm is much better when there’s no essay to write at the end of it.

14. Tune back into live radio

Buy a physical radio if you don’t have one: they’re inexpensive, and there’s something lovely about listening that way instead of on a website or app.

15. Go to spoken word poetry nights

If you don’t “get” poetry, it’s probably because poems are meant to be heard, not read. The late, great Benjamin Zephaniah knew this better than most. He turned poetry readings into concert-like performances and breathed life into the form; there’s a reason he became known as the “people’s laureate”. Find your nearest poetry night and enjoy it in his honour. 

Benjamin Zephaniah the British writer and dub poet poses for a portrait in the grounds of Peterborough Cathedral on September 13th 2021 in Cambridgeshire (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)
Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

16. Appreciate world culture (from your sofa)

Google Arts & Culture is an amazing platform which lets you explore art and exhibitions in museums across the world, from New York’s MoMA to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. National Theatre at Home gives you the chance to stream brilliant plays from the famous London Theatre. If you’re feeling fancy, operavision.eu is great for (free) European opera. 

17. Buy at the box office

For live performances, buy at the box office. It’s the age-old trick of cutting out the middle-man to make it cheaper, and you can get really good last-minute deals. I once sat in a £270 seat at The Lion King, having only paid £40, because I bought it at the box office an hour before the show. (It was the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done.)

African young man drinking champagne and looking at creative photos on the wall at exhibition
Join your local gallery – all the big name painters are overrated anyway (Photo: Getty)

18. Listen to your books

Audiobooks really are the most simple way to “read” more when you don’t have time.

19. Get more comedy into your life

Lord knows we need it! Netflix have a whole bank of brilliant standup specials (my favourites are Mo Gilligan: Momentum and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette), but there’s also nothing like going to a comedy gig. Keep an eye out for “work in progress” nights, where comics test their material – they come at cheap prices even for big names.

20. Sign up to newsletters

A friend of mine always seemed to be getting cheap tickets for shows and gigs, while I was always only finding out about them when they’d either sold out or were going for silly prices. It turned out her secret was that she’d signed up to the newsletters of her favourite theatres, as well as sellers like Ticketmaster, and was simply making the most of early bird offers. Also, most email servers will allow you to create a rule that directs these emails into a folder, so they don’t clutter your inbox.

21. Read translated fiction

This will help you get out of an (often Western-skewered) echo chamber. Some brilliant reads to try include Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, and Satoshi Yagisawa’s Days at the Morisaki Bookshop.

22. Go to free festivals

2024 Glastonbury tickets cost £360. For many, it will be worth every penny. For many others, it’s simply unaffordable. Instead, go to one of these annual festivals which are completely free: South Tyneside Festival (South Shields), Africa Oye (Liverpool), First Light (Lowestoft), Harbour Fest (Bristol), West End Live (London). 

23. Find new music organically

Algorithms on streaming platforms limit out music tastes by simply feeding us more of the same. Expand your horizons organically by doing your own research. Not just by looking at who your favourite artist collaborated with; go deep cut by seeing who produced their songs, then listening to what else they’ve produced. Rateyourmusic.com is also a nice community filled with suggestions, and albumoftheyear.org is a great resource. Also, look at music venues’ websites to see both their past gigs and upcoming ones.

24. Lean into “guilty pleasures”

There’s a lot of snobbery when it comes to the arts, so do tune it out. The best way to live a more cultural life is to engage with the stuff you really enjoy. Excited for Love Is Blind UK to launch on Netflix? Great! Over the moon about the return of Marian Keyes with My Favourite Mistake? Pre-order it! Don’t let anybody tell you what is and isn’t “cultured”.

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