HowTheLightGetsIn festival: First weekend highlights

The best of the philosophy and music festival's first four days

May 29, 2014
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Prospect spent the Bank Holiday weekend at HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival, which runs until 1st June.

Here's a taster of what we got up to:


The Globe, the festival's permanent venue, ran parties every night over the weekend

The first major philosophy session "Heresy, Truth and the Future" focused on the festival's central themes, providing some much-needed intellectual respite from the unrelenting rain. The panel comprised an all-star line-up. Outspoken columnists David Aaronovitch and Laurie Penny, squared up against former GCHQ director David Omand, and sociologist Frank Furedi.

Penny’s arguments were the best received, and she was loudly applauded for her description of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as “modern day heretics”, drawing a comparison with William Tyndale who first translated the Bible into English and was burned at the stake for his pains. David Omand put forward the more moderate view that not all heretics are geniuses, and counselled caution against those who court the spotlight through outrageous behaviour.

David Aaronovitch broadened the definition of a “modern heretic” to include Ukip, and asked the question; "should heresy be applauded if it threatens social cohesion?" Frank Furedi then calmed our fears by pointing out that the crux of the issue was our individual capacity to tolerate heresy. A point which resonated with the wellie wearing audience. After a lively question and answer session, the speakers were presented with sunflowers, a welcome counter to the external gloom.

Alexis Taylor, of the band Hot Chip, played a solo set on Friday night, his first UK date on a tour to promote upcoming album Await Barbarians (out 10th June).

Taylor describes his solo music as "pensive," and that's certainly the word for it. He and his band stare into the middle distance as they build their meandering, introspective songs from a timid whisper to a soulful crescendo. Most begin with sparse chords, coaxed from a vibrato-laden guitar or stuttering feebly out of a synth. There's a definite jazz influence in the clattering, circular drums (both analogue and digital) that drive each number to its conclusion.

But, though meandering, the heart of the music is pop. Taylor's soaring voice picks out gorgeous hooks over Motown-influenced four or five chord progressions. Later in the set, things get slightly funky, with squelchy synths pulsing beneath wah-wah guitars. He covers Hot Chip's singalong ballad Made in the Dark and it doesn't sound out of place.

Taylor, who is 34, told Prospect before the show how proud he was to watch his daughter sing onstage for the first time in a recent performance at her primary school. Lyrically, he returns repeatedly to the experience of ageing. He focuses on the loneliness and the oddness of the middle of life: "The older I get, the closer I feel to the elderly" runs a typically downbeat chorus. Another faltering refrain sums up his new direction: "Now there is nothing that I want, I spend my whole time in my thoughts," he croons. The music he has found there is compelling stuff.


From left: former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, former Director of GCHQ David Omand and academic John Naughton in conversation. © HowTheLightGetsIn

Prospect struggled up for an early start on Saturday to join philosopher Robert Rowland Smith for a "philosophy breakfast."

The session involved a free-flowing discussion, loosely guided by Smith, over granola, bananas and other suitably highbrow fare. Smith regularly holds free-for-all debates over food, which he calls "philosophy slams." He says he enjoys the format because of its unpredictability: "In the past I've had all sorts of things thrown at me, from serious metaphysical questions like 'what is truth?' to... the frankly bizarre request to talk about crocodiles."

Our discussion roved between different topics but focused mostly on questions about punishment and exclusion from society; whether bankers should be heavily regulated or trusted, how and why we punish children, and whether the death penalty can ever expel a perpetrator from a victim's dreams. "All this," Rowland Smith exclaimed at one point "before 9.30 in the morning."

But not even philosophers have completely clear minds this early in the day, it seems. At one point Smith misheard an audience question about "mad people" as being about "married people." Could this be a Freudian slip from the psychoanalysis expert, asks Prospect? "Exactly," Smith jokes, "Madness and marriage: pretty much the same thing."

Find out more about Smith's philosophy slams

Novelist Joanna Kavenna took on the ideas of fellow writer (and regular Prospect contributor) Will Self in a talk, "a field guide to reality," where she argued against his belief, as outlined in a recent Guardian piece, that the novel is dead.

Kavenna's talk centred on DH Lawrence's idea of the novel as "the one bright book of life"- as she puts it, an "incredibly subjective, curious, necessarily idiosyncratic approach to reality." In an age where powerful institutions, from government to big corporations, regularly present the public with doctored information, argues Kavenna, there is enormous value in reading a novel, which presents the reader with nothing more or less than the author's honest take on reality.

More importantly, though, Prospect asks, what did Kavenna think of her sparring partner's musings, in the latest issue of Prospect, on the death of another literary institution: the shelf? "I think Will Self should now do a series," says Kavenna: "the death of the novel, the death of the shelf, the death of his walking boots: objects or concepts could be reified by the wit of Will Self and converted into an enormous existential [collection]."

George Galloway brought his “Just Say Naw to Separatism” tour to the festival on Saturday evening. Making his case clearly and passionately, Galloway explained why he will be voting “No” in the Scottish independence referendum, and why he feels the Better Together campaign has failed to engage with working class voters. Almost everything Galloway utters is eminently quotable, but among the gems was “Albert Einstein described nationalism as an illness, the measles of mankind.” My other favourite moment was when Galloway’s heavily pregnant wife heckled a truculent Scot who tried to claim that her hubby's views weren’t valid because he no longer lives in Scotland. Getting to her feet, the stylish Mrs Galloway dispatched the man in suitable fashion. It seems Gorgeous George has finally met his match.


How the rain gets in: Festivalgoers refused to allow the weekend-long downpour to quench the firey debate. © Jessica Woodward.

Kevin Sabet, a former advisor on drugs policy to US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, said in a debate on Sunday that business interests now dominate the pro-cannabis legalisation lobby.

“The values of the peace loving hippies of the 60s and 70s are being usurped by the values of Wall Street,” said Sabet, who argues that the tobacco industry would benefit from the legalisation of a product it could be well-placed to sell.

Sabet was speaking as a panelist in the debate “Hypocrisy and Health,” in which Festival Director Hilary Lawson, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart and, former advisor to Tony Blair, Mike Trace discussed whether the alcohol and tobacco industries are preventing the legalisation of illicit drugs.

Sabet also said that he thought the legalisation of marijuana in Washington and Colorado was not the start of a trend in the US. He predicted there would be a “backlash” against legalisation once voters tired of aggressive marketing campaigns for the drug.

Prospect spoke with the feminist campaigner and journalist Julie Bindel, who appeared at a number of HowTheLightGetsIn events.

One of Bindel’s talks, titled “Where Have all the Radicals Gone?” focused on “how the struggle against oppression lost its way”. Bindel questions whether the recent progress the gay rights movement has made legislatively is being matched by enough campaigning for equality in more everyday matters.

Prospect asked what a new radical gay politics would look like. “The gay liberation front was in the 1970s, it was very much then and there. Times have changed. There’s no need… for the only gay in the village mentality,” says Bindel.

“A new radical politics would be that we stop asking for handouts, that we stop saying we can’t help it, that we’re born that way, that we have a deviant gene,” she continues. “We [should] demand the rights that we’ve been fighting for for 40 or 50 years. In order to be afforded them we don’t have to say that we’re helpless creatures that need to be pitied. We need to say that this is something that we’re happy to be.”

Prospect's Serena Kutchinsky in" Women on Top"

Prospect's Digital Editor, Serena Kutchinsky, shares her experience of speaking on Sunday's sell-out panel "Women on Top":

When I was first asked to consider why there is a scarcity of female high-fliers, I found myself going round in circles. I just couldn’t decide where the root cause seemed to lie and which of the myriad solutions; quotas, education, adjustment of expectations, leaning in etc seemed the most sensible. In researching around the topic, I finally had a eureka moment when I read an article identifying an endemic lack of confidence among women at all levels as the real reason why we are holding ourselves back. The more I read, the more I recognised this behaviour among myself and so many of the brilliant women I know.

I wasn’t sure how my thesis would go down with my fellow panellists, especially the notoriously feisty social scientist Catherine Hakim, but I was hopeful that by framing my arguments in a more personal fashion I could offer a fresh perspective. Author and comedian AL Kennedy added a slightly maverick flair to proceedings, making the claim that gender differences are bred in from birth and recalling how the standard heckle for a female stand-up comedian is always “you’ve got a big mouth”, implying that women were raised to be seen and not heard.

Hakim’s view, which I felt was deliberately provocative, included the assertion that sex discrimination is no longer relevant in the 21st century, most women do not want to be on top and those who do need to either find a house husband or accept they will never have children. Frankly, I found her so-called conclusions absurd and rather troubling, as I noted at the time—she sounds like a woman with little or no empathy for her sex. Despite my frustration with Catherine’s views and the bubbling tension between my fellow panellists, which our esteemed chair Roger Bolton did his best to contain, it was a fascinating panel to be part of and I was touched by people’s comments after the event. Personally, I felt a learnt a lot from the discussion and I can only hope the audience did too.

Read Serena's opening speech on her Prospect blog


Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, used an appearance at HowTheLightGetsIn to discuss the challenges facing international aid organisations.

Maddox outlined three key changes to the global aid landscape to have happened in the past 10 or 20 years. She said that new markets in countries that western nations once thought they would have to help build had emerged independently, and that post-Iraq we have recognised how hard it is to tell a country how to run itself. She also shared her view that China is now “overshadowing” Western aid in Africa, while still acting in a somewhat mercenary fashion.

Maddox also told how she went to a World Bank press conference in the 90’s where their newly appointed Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz outlined what he saw as the organisation’s mistakes in Africa. “We forgot the role of governance,” Stiglitz apparently said. “We handed over a lot of money to governments and we didn’t realise there was such a thing as all of it being wasted.”

“The press department looked absolutely appalled,” said Maddox.

All images ©Jessica Woodward