BLOG Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 108

Is 'How the Light' Hay Festival's Edinburgh Fringe?

In recent years I’ve enjoyed taking a break from books and literature by heading downhill, away from the main Hay Festival towards the river (the border with England) and How the Light Gets In festival. The latter has acted as fringe to what was synonymous with ‘Hay’ for a while but this year, with a rough trebling in programming and a doubling of site, it looks as though it could become Hay’s dangerous ‘Fringe’ just as Edinburgh’s comedy strand became the sedate original festival’s rival and then overtook it altogether.

My main observation about this has nothing to do with the quality or pitch of Hay Festival’s events (as good as ever although perhaps a touch more conventional in the past two years) nor its focus on topical books, nor its unrelenting middle-class audience and tendency in programming towards English letters, culture, aspirations, demography, language and geographical reach. In any case, How the Light, with its emphasis on ideas, politics, philosophy and science, also provides an extremely educated audience with a mental workout (think Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time as opposed to Radio Four's Book Club). The difference in age profile of the two festivals, however, is striking. How the Light has extremely strong educational links, via sponsorship, programming and pedagogy provided by the New College of the Humanities as well as a wholly new accredited scheme of educational lectures run as the Institute of Art and Ideas Academy over on the England side of the river and courses pitched to sixth-formers: the IAI School (also run by NCH). This brings in the young, as does a greatly expanded music, comedy and documentary programme plus circus over at the Riverside site, creating an atmosphere for chilled and sprawling beautiful people which contrasts with Hay Festival’s motley crew of thinkers, kids and harassed mums crammed into a few tiny green spaces.

Countering the privileged bias of both festivals’ demographies and their precarious relationship to Wales' audiences was a sense, on the Bank Holiday weekend, that at least How the Light was attracting groups of young, childless campers of all backgrounds (including those from south Wales) out to enjoy fresh air, drinking, great food, comedy and music through the ‘Live Pass’ offering access to music and performance. The new festival, however, has much less appeal to children and young families, particularly since there is an insufficiently advertised (online at least) charge of £8 per person for site access including the location of Spiegel Circus (admittedly mainly adult content with a soft-porn style lesbian-lite trapeze act and some purely practical striptease), the helterskelter and a retro carousel. It looks to me as though How the Light has benefitted from some extremely sharp business advice on monetising through targetting the pockets of rich students, keeping the income in-house by using other students as their own staff right across food and stewarding roles, and hoping the the main festival will continue to cater for young families during the day through Hay’s excellent onsite children’s programme, Hay Fever until that time when the teenagers are tempted over to the other side’s evening gigs. Hay Festival's Sunday night certainly looked abandoned as we made our way out of the funny, anarchic Mary Poppins improv led by Eric Lampaert (the highlight of which was Eric’s chasing out fleeing audience members with his shirt off which he attempted to do quite often during the show).

Clearly a transition period will prove how the two festivals will filter and exchange their mutual and separate target audiences, including those for poetry. But Hay Festival could certainly learn a thing or two about creating atmosphere through fresh venues, marquees and decoration (it doesn’t have to be yurts and fairylights but it helps) that owe more to Latitude and less to the National Eisteddfod and perhaps even a return to the scattered atmospheric venues (à la Laugharne Weekend) of early days. And How the Light, meanwhile, could benefit from briefing contributors and chairs about plain English and the need to avoid academic abstraction and jargon in their debates.

The Pick of What My Family Saw:

March of the Machines (HTL), on artificial intelligence, chaired by Gabrielle Walker. Verdict: Interesting and accessible

The Really Real (HTL), on values & relativism, chaired by Hilary Lawson Verdict: Myriam Francois-Cerrah’s non-Westernism was a welcome antidote to other panelists

Forgetting to be Me (HTL), on memory. Verdict: Accessible, refreshing to have a panel in concord, avoiding the hair-splitting disagreement that characterized many HTL panels

Mick Ebeling (HF), on philanthropism and tech-based global solutions inspired by individual cases. Verdict: Irrepressible American optimism; a big hit!

Spiegel Circus (HTL), see above. Verdict: Sexy, sultry, impressive, teenager’s favourite act across the festivals

Elder Island (HTL), music. Verdict: Lovely but marred by people chatting over ‘banquet’ 3-course meal, part of the monetising strand mentioned above

Eric Lampaert (HF), see above

The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone (HF), with Geoff White & Glenn Wilkinson, on privacy & technology. Verdict: Revealing about how data used via your phone here is available and vulnerable in countries with looser laws and protocols. Eye-opener

Alun Lewis, The Syllable of Love (HF), with John Pikoulis featuring readings by Owen Sheers, on Alun Lewis’ love poetry and letters inspired by an extremely brief mutual infatuation. Verdict: Juliet Ackroyd, the daughter of Freda, the expat with whom Lewis had a brief affair, shone with humanity and compassion for her mother and the depressed WWII soldier who might have been but wasn’t her father

Anne Enright (HF), chaired by Anita Anand, on writing in a demythologized Ireland, inserting complex female characters into the Irish canon, taboos and shame, the Irish mother & humour in contemporary Irish fiction. Verdict: Packed audience of many middle-aged women; evidently an adored writer with an impeccable agenda

Shame We Missed:

Jasmine Donahaye Talks to Francesca Rhydderch, HF, in advance of her biography and memoir on Jewish subjects from presses Honno and Seren respectively. Jasmine's column in our current edition also introduces these books and the role of ideology in life-writing The Greatest Need Losing Israel

Joseph Morpurgo, HTL, hilarious and inventive character comedian spotted at Machynlleth, catch him at Edinburgh!

The Truth About Liars, HTL's Hotdocs strand, documentary examining 'the very unique relationships that politicians have with the truth,' to quote the programme

John Harrison Talks to Francesca Rhydderch, HF, about John's forthcoming novel 1519, A Journey to the End of Time

Hay Fever, Hay Festival & How the Light Gets In all run until this Sunday, 31 May

Gwen Davies is editor of New Welsh Review across print, epub, app and online formats


previous blog: To Kill a Machine
next blog: Hay Festival 2015


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