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How The Light Gets In

7 Jun, 2010

How The Light Gets In

Welcome sign at the How the Light Gets in Festival

Amy Sanders, Project Manger in the Trust’s Special Projects Division, visits the other side of Hay to discover philosophy, ethics and Identity.

“There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Like some of my other colleagues, I spent my bank holiday in the beautiful Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. But unlike the others I was not at the ‘main’ literature festival with the book-clutching, celeb-chasing hordes.

Instead I attended the talks, performances and art exhibitions at the “world’s best” (possibly only?) philosophy and music festival – the imaginatively named HowTheLightGetsIn.

The theme this year was ‘Being Human’. It was a fortuitous match with the themes explored in the Trust’s Identity Project, so it made sense for us to co-programme a strand.

As this is only the festival’s second year I wasn’t sure what, or who, to expect. I arrived for Sunday’s three Identity Project debates — Reclaiming the Body, Mortality and Immortality and Genetics in the Dock — expecting a fairly middle-aged, academic (perhaps beardy) crowd but there were a surprising number of young and boho-trendy people there.

Around 100 people attended each debate, crammed into a converted chapel full of battered armchairs, old church pews and leather sofas. This made for a very informal atmosphere with audience members chipping in quite confidently. But the debates were far from cosy.

In Mortality and Immortality, theologian Phillip Blond and the ethicist Mary Warnock took on the unconventional, but always-good-value, scientist Aubrey de Grey, asking: what happens to our identity once we can replace every damaged cell and prevent ageing – indefinitely?

Genetics in the Dock saw Professor Robert Winston, the author John Dupre and philosopher Mary Midgeley debating whether genes were overrated, with biologist Lewis Wolport barking phrases like “we are nothing more than a collective of cells” at regular intervals.

Finally, Reclaiming the Body had polymath Ray Tallis, and philosophers Andy Clark and Michele le Doeuff explaining the real purpose of both the boob job (to make everyone else’s breasts look smaller) and hand gestures (without them we find it hard to think properly).

There was more throughout the rest of the week. Tuesday was memory and emotion day with the Trust-funded Interior Traces, Chameleon and Martino Unstrung all playing to fascinated audiences. Wednesday tackled mental illness with both Animated Minds and Portraits, Patients and Psychiatrists featured.

When the sun went down and the space transformed into an intimate gig venue, I began to realise why the festival is named after a quote from a musician and not a philosopher. I saw fabulous musical performances from the Heebie Jeebies, Beth Jeans Houghton and The Book Club Boutique, and comedian Robin Ince performed a storming if slightly shambolic set – that man knows how to rant!

All in all, it was a great way to get some of our Identity themes and projects out to new audiences. I thoroughly recommend it for anyone up for a combination of thinking, drinking and dancing.

Amy Sanders

Image credit: Amy Sanders
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