HowTheLightGetsIn Hampstead Heath

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They say never go back. I don’t know who they are precisely, but they are clearly idiots. This was my second How the Light Gets In this summer and it was a minor revelation. The early-June Hay on Wye weekend had left me a little bit in two minds about this intellectual mid-sized festival, but its September Hampstead Heath incarnation was lots of fun, hugely interesting and challenging too (in a positive way you understand).

Perhaps this means I’ve joined the liberal elite? At last! Now everyone can hate me too. Hampstead is of course not only the epicentre of intellectual liberalism but also of champagne socialism, it was therefore gratifying to find a champagne bar a stone’s throw from the festival entrance as I walked in. There were, be assured, also a good number of more racing-pigeon-and-whippet-friendly well stocked bars onsite for those from north of Watford Gap. I’d particularly recommend the chilled pale ale. Lovely.

Hampstead Heath is as beautiful a London setting for a festival as you can possibly imagine. Leafy, lake-y and grassy, with imposing Kenwood House the only building in sight, How the Light Gets In could easily pass for a lavish be-tented garden party on Aunt Agatha’s graceful rural estate. For me it was a more attractive site than the Hay one, even though the latter borders the beautiful Wye river…hmmm, I may possibly have been swayed somewhat by London being five hours closer to my home.

It was a festival of two halves. The sun drenched Saturday was ideal for idling around in the well set out site, bathing in the rays before disappearing for the occasional hour into an over-hot tent for some sort of mind expanding debate. The rain-drenched Sunday was also, as it happens, good for idling about, but under-cover, and so was even better for hanging about in the dry and warmth listening to debates that were very often almost beyond my understanding. I say ‘almost’ to salvage some pride.

For example, I found myself floundering around in a personal sea of ignorance during the Seeing How It Is debate, essentially a discussion about whether neutral scientific observation is possible. At the same time I found myself loving the spikey-ness of the participant scientists’ – Rupert Sheldrake and Peter Atkins – detrimental observations of each other’s work. This was genuinely scintillating entertainment of the highbrow kind.

Not all the debates were as unfathomable as the above for those of us with mere Arts MAs. Indeed I can proudly state that I understood pretty much all of the Satisfaction and Desire discussion. I particularly enjoyed the mention of Plato’s apparent quote that ‘never is a man more active than when he does nothing’ (I say apparent as a quick Google search suggests Cicero attributed this quote to Cato…hey, I’m getting in the swing of this academic thing!) and the enthusiastic encouragement from the stage to ‘revisit your Alexander von Humboldt’. You’ve never visited him before? Gosh! Also notable was my virgin exposure to the word ‘precariat’. Everyone else seemed to know it mind you; I’ll use it all the time now.

There weren’t many members of the precariat in attendance at the festival’s wealth of comedy acts. In fact I’d posit there weren’t any. The comedy was inevitably somewhat mixed, but it was often excellent and it offered a great lighthearted foil to the intensity of the debates and discussions. I particularly enjoyed Sophie Duker’s insightful gag: “When I was booked for this festival I thought great, an audience full of MDMA, but hmm, it turns out to be more history MA”. I think she must have meant to say physics PhD, but otherwise she was on the nail. Stuart Laws was also fun and made a very game job of it considering his rather unsuitable material for the How the Light Gets In audience. In fact there wasn’t a comedian I saw over the two days who I didn’t enjoy at least a little, and mostly a lot.

There was also the music. I guess I’ve come on to this rather belatedly as, even though it is billed as such, it didn’t feel like a core aspect of the festival to me. That’s not to say there wasn’t a fair old amount of it and that it wasn’t at times very good. There were some notable performances, although you’ll have to excuse me not knowing precisely who they all were as I was dipping in an out of the music venues between numerous comedy acts and didn’t always catch their names. They surely included Nerina Pallot, CC Smugglers, Sam and the Womp (they were definitely very good), Harpo Smith and DJ Don Letts (a great set with lots of reggae).

Let’s get back to the beating heart of this festival: the high quality talks and debates. While they sometimes felt a bit abstract to me, overall I can only applaud the organisers in putting together such a broad, entertaining and intelligent choice of discussions and panels. It’s a brave thing to do, it’s far from classic festival fare after all, and possibly its appeal is not huge to many of the precariat, but going by the irritatingly long queues before many of the debates the subjects very much hit the spot with the healthy sized weekend crowd.

The debates and talks included: Facts in the Post-Truth Era; The Malthusian Catastrophe; The Case for Classic Liberalism; Reason, Rage and Revolution; The Abolition of Suffering; The Future of Thought; and Fully Automated Luxury Communism…you get the picture. Notably, and perhaps surprisingly, these subjects encouraged a good deal of debate amongst punters who, gasp (this was London after all), didn’t know each other before the festival. I’m not sure if this level of interaction is intentionally encouraged, I suspect it is as the long table banquets are also great for mixing, but it definitely is something that happens a lot at this festival. And I’m all for it.

All said and done How the Light Gets in is a gem of a festival for the intelligent liberal minded punter. Its appeal though isn’t and shouldn’t only be limited to this demographic. It took me this second bite of the apple to fully get it, but for me it’s a great festival for anyone and everyone who is curious about our world and wants to learn more about their place in it, and indeed what they can do to change it for the better. Knowledge is power after all.  

Published on 01 October 2019 by

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