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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis