How The Light Gets In 2013

The festival of philosophy and music returns to Hay.

This year, beginning on 23 May, the annual How The Light Gets In festival returns to Hay-on-Wye, once again providing audiences with the chance to engage with life's big questions: Why are we here? What is love? Do we need religion? Do we undervalue the imagination?

All these ideas and many more will be pondered and pursued over the course of the festival, interwoven with music and comedy acts. The New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire will be appearing, chairing debates on topics such as "Is Religion Dangerous?" and "Errors, Lies and Adventure", an exploration of the need to lie in politics.

Here are five highlights from this year's festival.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly

10pm Fri 24 May, International Hall

The born-and-bred Essex boy Sam Duckworth has always been outspoken about his political views. Whether he’s crooning about the everyday rigmarole of British life or humming his anti-BNP ballad Glass Houses, you can guarantee he’ll have you nodding along to his unique acoustic drawl.

More Than Equal

(featuring George Galloway MP, Minette Marrin and Peter Tatchell)

2:30pm Mon 27 May, Globe Hall

With liberal attitudes towards ethnic minorities at an all-time high, are identity politics irrelevant? Or are etnic minorities simply assimilating into society, when they should be demanding more from Britain? Bradford MP George Galloway, Sunday Times Columnist Minette Marrin and activist Peter Tatchell discuss what the future holds for the smaller social groups in our society.

The Sexualisation of Society

(featuring Diane Abbot MP)

3pm Mon 27 May, Ring

As questions loom over the legality of internet pornography and stories about women suffering eating disorders have become a mainstay of the tabloids, Diane Abbot takes aim at the hyper-sexualised world in which we live and its effects on the young.

At World’s Edge

(featuring A S Byatt, Terry Eagleton and Terry Pratchett)

4pm Sunday 2 June, International Tent

Fantasy tales are often seen as amusing pastimes, whimsical adventures to be forgotten when the pages are shut. But is there more significance to these stories? Could they be a key element in the perception of our own world? To discuss these matters, novelists Terry Pratchett and A S Byatt join literary theorist Terry Eagleton.

The End of the University?

(featuring Martin Bean, Leonidas Donskis, Maurice Fraser)

12pm Sunday 2 June, International Tent

The internet has changed everything; from shutting down video rental stores to flipping the music industry on its head, no-one can deny its reach. But with the ever-growing number of learning resources available, free of charge, how can modern universities compete and, eventually, will they be outmoded? Open University Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean, LSE political theorist Maurice Fraser and Lithuanian politician Leonidas Donskis think about what the future holds.

How The Light Gets In runs from Thursday 23 May to Sunday 2 June.

For full details of events and tickets, click here.

Second-hand books for sale in Hay-on-Wye (photograph: Getty Images)
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism