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HowTheLightGetsIn – The Ideas and Music Festival

August 3, 2016
Janne Teller (Photo: Terry Vosbein)

Janne Teller (Photo: Terry Vosbein)

Post 11 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festivals

Can we ever really know reality?

No, said CERN physicist John Ellis, “We are increasing the number of things we know, but the number of things we don’t know will always be infinity.” Ellis originated the term “Theory of Everything”.

Ellis was speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival run in Hay-on-Wye at the same time as the main Hay Festival. A perfect combination – after binging on ideas and debates, we could rejuvenate by immersing ourselves in music.

Existential novelist Janne Teller, at the same session as Ellis, described a different way of knowing. “We can listen to our characters,” she said. “They teach us.” What would it be like to be a flying horse? She described  imagining her way into the horse, discovering what it was like to gallop, then feeling the moment as the wings stretched out and the horse lifted off the ground.

A Drug is defined as …

… something a politician once used and now regrets, said psychiatrist David Nutt. He was the chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but was sacked for telling the truth about drugs – for example, that horse riding is more dangerous for children than Ecstasy. He told the audience at Hay that the war on drugs has made the problem worse, and that all drugs should be decriminalised and addiction treated as a health issue rather than a legal issue. He points to the success of Portugal, and asks: Why believe in prohibition when we know it didn’t work for alcohol?

Edvard Munch, The Scream

Bag_ (496x640)

Gavin Turk, Bag [Painted bronze] (Photo:

Michelangelo versus Hirst

The Scream gives you something – it’s a visual attack on you, art critic Julian Spalding declared at HowTheLightGetsIn. But if you look at conceptual art, like Malevich’s Black Square, or Hirst’s shark, it gives you nothing – it’s no more than a clever idea. An unmade bed can’t be compared to the Sistine Chapel.

Spalding argued that the conceptual art of prominent British artist Gavin Turk was not art. Gavin Turk, who was on the same panel, quietly asserted that his art is art.  “No, it’s not,” cried Spalding.

The “yes it is, no it’s not” went back and forth a few times, then the chairperson told Spalding that if Turk says his art is art, then it is, and Spalding was not allowed to say it wasn’t. That really set Spalding off, and squashed any chance of an enlightened exploration of the question.

“If you doubt evil …

… look into your own mind.” Philosopher Peter Dewes quoted Kant in a session on evil at HowTheLightGetsIn. But psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen said he does not use the word – it is a leftover from religion, and is scientifically unhelpful. “Why shut down enquiry?” he asked. “If someone enjoys cruelty, ask why. Has abuse in childhood caused him to become an abuser in adulthood?

Dewes was unconvinced, arguing that “evil” is a way of expressing repugnance. Another philosopher, Rebecca Roache, said that the term is helpful for things that are extremely wrong and that we don’t understand.

For Baron-Cohen, empathy is a more helpful concept. He uses it in measuring and researching prosocial and antisocial behaviour to identify the social and biological factors that cause people to have low affective empathy, and consequently to do things that the philosophers might label as “evil”.

“There is no such thing as race,” …

… said geneticist Anne Bowcock at HowTheLightGetsIn. “There are no specific genes that can be used to determine a person’s race. There are more differences within populations that between them.”

Journalist Kurt Barling agrees. “Racism begat race. Race itself is a fiction.” He says we need to liberate our imaginations from all racialized seeing and racialized solutions.

That’s all from Hay – for this year

This is my final post on the 2016 Festivals in Hay. In this post I’ve shared just a few moments from more than 700 events at HowTheLightGetsIn, and previous posts have reported on a tiny fraction of the hundreds of events at the main Hay Festival. Next year, the Hay Festival will run from 25 May to 4 June, but HowTheLightGetsIn will skip a year and return in 2018.

Participating in these twin celebrations of books, ideas, music, art and culture was a ten-day high.

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

July 31, 2016
Salman Rushdie at the Hay Festival (Andrew Lih, cc licence)

Salman Rushdie at the Hay Festival (Andrew Lih, cc licence)

Post 10 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival, plus a review of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

“I’m sick of my novels coming true,” Salman Rushdie remarked during his session at the Hay Festival. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights features a jinn army swarming across the world, killing and destroying. He finished the book before the rise of ISIS.

The title references Scheherazade (1001 nights), and the novel feels like it has 1001 stories, on top of the pulsing drive of the central narrative. It’s exuberant, boisterous, over the top, and a lot of fun.

The slits between our world and the upper world crack open and Earth is invaded by jinn, the spirits of Islamic mythology, who create havoc. Dunia, a jinnia princess who loves humanity, tracks down the descendants of the numerous children she bore to a human philosopher 800 years ago, and enlists them to fight the dark jinni. The action is framed by the debate between two ghosts: Dunia’s philosopher lover, who advocates secularism, and a fundamentalist theologian who uses the dark jinn to create fear, so that people will return to God.

Most of the action is set in the present, but the narrator lives 1000 years in the future, looking back on this epoch-making “War of the Worlds”.

RushdieRushdie says that in recent times we have experienced a “colossal fragmentation of reality … we live in a time when we don’t understand the narrative – we don’t know how things work.” Climate change, financial crises, terrorism and enormous change at great speed leave people anchorless. In the novel the “strangenesses” that happen as the jinn invade Earth are a representation of this upheaval.

Similarly, the dark jinn symbolise the darkness in “every human heart”, and the War of the Worlds represents our own struggles. The novel is about the folly that follows the separation of reason and imagination, he said at Hay. Just in case we miss this, he spells it out several times in the novel, and includes as the frontispiece Goya’s The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, together with the caption to the etching:

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Some reviewers have criticised this “telling as well as showing”, and complained about Rushdie’s other sins against the rules of writing. While such clunky bits would usually put me off, I didn’t mind them here – Rushdie writes such magnetic prose and tells such good stories that he can get away with it.

The novel has been described as fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale and magic realism. None of these labels fits it exactly – it is all of them and more. At Hay, Rushdie said: “The problem with the term ‘magic realism’ is that people only hear the word ‘magic’, whereas the best magic realism is deeply rooted in reality. We don’t have to write something naturalistic to write about the real world. Van Gogh’s Starry Night doesn’t look like a starry night, but it’s still a great picture.”

Goya: The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

During the 1960s and 1970s I was a science fiction fanatic, so I was delighted when Rushdie admitted to a similar passion and listed the authors I had also read, such as Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp and Pohl and Kornbluth. SF is a fine genre for novels of ideas, he said, but most of the SF at that time was written by men and did not have good female characters. So he was grateful, as I was, to discover the superb books of Ursula Le Guin, inhabited by real women.

Ursula Le Guin recently reviewed Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights for the Guardian. She loved the book, but she did have a problem with Dunia – she thinks like a man: “like so many other kick-ass, weapon-wielding warrior women – she’s a man in drag.”

My own thought about Dunia is that she has strong character but little personality. I reacted emotionally to most of the humans and jinni in the book because they have distinctive personalities. Dunia seems more like a symbol, except when she’s annoyed by the equivalent of the sat nav on her magic carpet when it takes her to the wrong destination. We should have had more moments like that.

Spoiler Alert!

With the separation of reason and imagination as the theme, Rushdie said at Hay, you couldn’t have a happy ending. So when he finished the book and found he had written a “happyish” ending, he purposely messed it up. This mutilated ending, according to Le Guin, “neglects the possibility of more imaginative uses of both the light and the darkness in us.” I agree with her. The twist at the end feels forced, a cop-out to the clichéd idea that destruction is more interesting than creation.

Nevertheless Le Guin recommends the novel, and believes that many readers will “take delight in its generosity of spirit.” And so do I, with the caveat that if you’re uncomfortable with allegory, or with creatures made from fire and smoke, it may not be the book for you.

We Must Swallow the Alarm Clock!

July 25, 2016
Christiana Figueres, former United Nations Climate Change Chief (Photo: UNclimatechange, CC licence)

Christiana Figueres, former United Nations Climate Change Chief (Photo: UNclimatechange, CC licence)

Post 9 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival

“We must swallow the alarm clock,” Christiana Figueres told a vast audience at the Hay Festival.

Figueres was the UN Climate Change Chief responsible for guiding the Paris Climate Convention to agreement in December 2015. In conversation with economist Nicholas Stern at Hay, she described how this accord was achieved. One factor was the falling price of renewables. Paris marked the decoupling of greenhouse gas emission from GDP, a big leap for developing countries.

Other factors were political, expressed in three numbers:

  • The number two: two large nations that took action at home and together – China and America;
  • The number 195: the nations that agreed to the accord;
  • The countless number of parties to the convention – not just central governments but also states, provinces, industry sectors and corporations.
Nicholas Stern prepared the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (The Royal Society, CC licence)

Nicholas Stern prepared the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (The Royal Society, CC licence)

Both Figeures and Stern were optimistic that the Paris Agreement was a turning point, that there would now be progress towards the goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C.”

“Impossible is not a fact, but an attitude,” said Figueres. Her positivity was inspiring, but I was thinking of countries like my own, Australia, who signed on to the agreement with no intention of abiding by it. Then someone asked a question about such delinquent nations. We are becoming less dependent on central governments, said Figueres. Private sectors and state/provincial governments are where the main action is. Corporations understand that it is in their interest. “Who wants to do business on a dead planet?”

The insurance industry has already determined that a world that goes above two degrees is uninsurable.

And people want to work for the companies of the future. Figueres sees new technology as the answer to poverty because it will create many jobs. Its high installation requirements make it labour-intensive.

Patricia Espinosa, the new Executive Secretary of UNFCCC (Embamexsep, cc licence)

Patricia Espinosa, the new Executive Secretary of UNFCCC (Embamexsep, cc licence)

A further reason for optimism, she says, is that climate change deniers are becoming extinct because of incontrovertible evidence. (Has she met any Australian politicians?)

Figueres has now completed her two terms as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and has been replaced by another powerful woman. Patricia Espinosa is a former Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to Germany, with 30 years of experience in international relations. Espinosa’s special interests are in climate change, gender equality and human rights. She will be in charge of implementing the accord that Figueres brought to fruition.


Heads of Delegations at Paris Climate Change Conference (Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana, cc licence)

Heads of Delegations at Paris Climate Change Conference (Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana, cc licence)

How Quickly Can We Change Our Economy?

July 19, 2016

JoyofTaxPost 8 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival

“The joy of tax is simply the ability of tax to create the type of society we want,” says Richard Murphy. “It can be the mechanism to deliver a better life for most people.”

At Hay Festival, Professor Murphy described his program for reorganising the economy to respond to the challenges of climate change and inequality. His prescriptions are set out in his latest book, The Joy of Tax, and many have been adopted by Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labour Party.

Murphy recommends rebuilding the tax base by reversing past tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people and cracking down on tax avoidance by multinationals. The extra tax can then be used to reorganise the economy to meet social goals.

He advocates a national investment bank to invest in new infrastructure, decarbonise the economy and invest in new technologies such as robotics. These investments would create many new jobs.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labour Party, adopted many of Richard Murphy's proposals.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labour Party, adopted many of Richard Murphy’s proposals.

A key tool in Murphy’s program is Quantitative Easing or QE. QE is economist jargon for printing money. Murphy recommends “People’s Quantitative Easing” instead of QE to rescue banks, as happened during the global financial crisis. Governments can safely print money to create jobs as long as there are people wanting work. No more money would be printed after full employment is achieved. He sees his program as strongly pro-business, as opposed to the current dominant ideology of neoliberalism, which benefits big business but hurts small business.

During the session at the Hay Festival, Murphy focussed on his program. In a subsequent post on the New Weather Institute, he looks at how rapidly our economy can be changed to meet the challenges of climate change and inequality. He says that three things are needed for rapid change:

  1. Recovery from a crisis, eg, from the Great Depression
  2. A new technology that demands change, eg mass produced goods
  3. A major innovation in economic thinking, eg the post-war Keynesian consensus.

After the economic crises of the 1970s, another change occurred, with increasing computerisation and the Thatcher-Reagan embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

What are the prospects for change now? First, we have experienced a crisis, with the failure of neoliberalism in the GFC. Second, there is new technology. “It is green, it is sustainable, it is radically different and it is at least in part robotic. It is demanding massive innovative change now, and it will happen.”

Third, Murphy believes that now, for the first time, we really understand money and that this validates his program of using QE, tax and a national investment bank. If that program is implemented, he says, the transition needed to meet current challenges could be quite rapid.

The Hay Festival Site

The Hay Festival Site

Note: This was the second of three Hay festival sessions on how quickly we can change to meet the challenges of climate change and global inequality:

  1. How quickly can we change … culture? – see my report in previous post
  2. How quickly can we change …economics?
  3. How quickly can we change … the built environment?

I was unable to attend the third session, but there is a summary on the New Weather Institute website. The consensus was that the technology is all there to meet the challenges, but “the political class in Britain is unlikely to take the steps we need to have a built environment that doesn’t fatally consume our natural resources. It’s up to us. The more of it we do, the easier it will get and finally the politicians will get it too.”

Does this conclusion also apply to Australia?

How Quickly Can We Change Our Culture?

July 13, 2016
Precise glass objects made from sand and sun. The Solar Sinter was designed by Markus Kayser.

Precise glass objects made from sand and sun. The Solar Sinter was designed by Markus Kayser.

Post 7 in a Series on the 2016 Hay Festival

How can we respond to climate change or global inequality when we are locked into a culture of consumerism? Stop trying to solve problems and stop talking about doom, says designer Clare Brass. Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a nightmare.”

Instead of doom and gloom we should project positive future visions, she told a small audience at Hay Festival. Design is the key – designers can make innovations visible. Stop thinking about objects, start thinking about systems – systems like the Loowatt, the waterless toilets that seal waste in biodegradable film. They are now in use in Antananarivo, Madagascar. The waste is processed to produce biogas (to generate electricity) and fertiliser. Loowatts are now used at some music festivals in the UK because they are odourless and cleaner than ordinary toilets.

The Loowatt waterless toilet.

The Loowatt waterless toilet.

Clare Brass is head of SustainRCA, the sustainability programme of the Royal College of Art. Design can create magic, she says – like Markus Kayser’s Solar Sinter, a solar-powered machine that creates precise glass objects from sand. See it being tested in the Egyptian desert in this video.

Design is the key, she says. Rather than protesting against what governments are doing wrong, we need new narratives of what the future looks like. We should make possibilities visible, and designers are good at that.

Brass was one of three speakers at the session How Quickly Can We Change … Culture? Each of the speakers affirmed that we have changed our culture quickly many times before. Historian Molly Conisbee says we can learn about rapid transition from the past. She described how people responded to the unprecedented population growth and migration to the cities of the nineteenth century.

In the crowded cities, new ways of surviving developed. Tradesmen gave families credit to tide them over. There were localised credit schemes such as goose clubs and Christmas clubs arose and others that were privately run by women. Purchasing on tick, sometimes called ‘buying on trust’ became common. Assets could be temporarily turned into cash. For example the Sunday suit could be pawned on Monday and reclaimed before Church on Sunday.

Conisbee is not suggesting that we resurrect these old strategies. But, she says, this history can “challenge our relationship to stuff, and how we use and value it”. It also shows how quickly we can change. Conisbee’s talk at Hay is reproduced at this link.

David Boyle, from the New Weather Institute, spoke about another rapid historical change. At the beginning of the First World War, it was soon realised that Britain would run out of food. The government enacted a law that allowed any private unused land to be cultivated. The policy was implemented very quickly and led to a big increase in food production.

It’s a pity this excellent session did not attract a larger audience. It’s encouraging to know we have been able to change our culture quickly in the past, and exciting to see the “positive future visions” that designers and engineers can create.

The Historian of Emotions

July 11, 2016
Svetlana Alexievich (Photo: Elke Wetzig, CC licence)

Svetlana Alexievich (Photo: Elke Wetzig, CC licence)

Post 6 in a Series on the 2016 Hay Festival

“It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life is,” says Svetlana Alexievich. “There are an endless number of human truths … History’s sole concern is the facts; emotions are out of its realm of interest. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly as a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

Alexievich, from Belarus, is a journalist  and author who has suffered political persecution for her work. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her non-fiction books telling the stories of people experiencing horrendous events. She has conducted thousands of interviews with women, men and children and told their stories in several books:

  • War’s Unwomanly Face: Russian women who participated in the Second World War as nurses, doctors, soldiers and snipers.
  • Zinky Boys: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation: the men and women sent to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
  • Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster: Alexievich interviewed firefighters, members of the clean-up team, doctors, politicians and people affected by the fallout. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, but Belarus received 70% of the radionuclides and lost 485 villages and settlements.
  • Secondhand Time is about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

ChernobylSecond-hand Time was the main focus of her session at Hay. The USSR was divided between executioners and victims, she says, but they were the same people. Evil is not just Stalin and Hitler. It’s also the beautiful Auntie you’ve always loved but who, you discover, informed on another family member. Evil is dispersed.

About the Soviet collapse, she says that if you are living in a prison camp, it’s naïve to believe that the country will be different after your release. But there is a difference – once it was trial by concentrations camps, now it is trial by money.

The Guardian website has comprehensive page on Alexievich and her work, including extracts. The extract from Voices From Chernobyl reveals writing that is both gut-wrenching and hypnotic – you recoil from the horror, but must read on because she brings you so close to the people caught up in the disaster.

I felt privileged to spend an hour in the presence of this courageous woman.

History at the Hay Festival

July 9, 2016

FrankopanSilkRoads (419x640)Post 5 in a series on the Hay Festival

The only history I learnt at school was of the countries coloured red on the map of the world. The rapidly disintegrating British Empire still determined the curriculum.

Historian Peter Frankopan complains that Western education is still limited to Europe, and we learn nothing about the vast area between Europe and the Pacific. Yet this is the area where, for thousands of years, humanity’s most important developments occurred. In that story the recent rise of Western Europe was an anomaly.

Eurocentric history begins with Greece and Rome, and we forget that Rome’s empire was mainly in the East. Frankopan shifts the ‘centre of the world’ to the areas where cities and laws first developed – Iran, Afhanistan, the other ‘stans, and Mongolia. Alexander the Great turned east, not west. The Mongols and other peoples of the east built large, sophisticated empires.

We don’t teach our kids about the millennium from 1 to 1000 AD, says Frankopan. Yet the early Islamic world was affluent, confident and excited by ideas, while Western Europe was a provincial, unimportant backwater with nothing to offer.

A Eurocentric history curriculum limits our understanding of others, he says. We know nothing about most of the world’s population. Few leaders or key people can speak Arabic or Russian. The world is changing fast and we have no skin in the game.

Frankopan seeks a better balance in his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

CunliffeBookThe Birth of Eurasia

In another Hay session archaeologist Barry Cunliffe gave us a panoramic view of the networks developed over 10,000 years between the Atlantic and Pacific. His new book is By Steppe, Desert and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. He studies the changes driven by humanity’s acquisitiveness and the differing environments in which they live. It’s a grand history of movements of people and the baton of innovation passing from one group to the next – sowing seed, domesticating goats.

Around 4000 BC at Botai on the Kazak Steppe, says Cunliffe, a young man jumped on the back of a horse and rode it. (How does he know that? Couldn’t it have been a young woman?)  Domestication of horses, the wheel, chariots and cavalry all developed on the Steppe. This led to predatory nomadism and the shunting of peoples along the steppe toward Europe, India and China.

GraylingGeniusThe Birth of the Modern Mind?

Another grand narrative was presented by A C Grayling, based on his book, The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind. He sees the 1600s as the time when the hold of religious dogma and superstition began to weaken and be overtaken by science and reason. Grayling is an entertaining and persuasive speaker and totally convinced me of his thesis, but later I wondered if I was too gullible due to my own ignorance of history – is he simplifying, skipping over evidence that the seventeenth century was one step in a long staircase, rather than a decisive break with the past?

Regardless of this, he is a great performer, and will move on to the Closing of the Modern Mind at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House in September.

stalinStalin and Mao

Simon Sebag Montefiore and Jung Chang did a joint gig at Hay on Stalin and Mao. They described how both loved reading and accumulating books, but denied it to others. Both studied history – Stalin was obsessed with the Tsars. Both used terror to create fear.

Putin sees himself as in the tradition of the great Russian leaders, both Tsars and Communist, says Montefiore. Putin  is super aware of Stalin and believes that Stalin achieved more than all the Tsars. He made Russia great.

The two authors agreed that Russia never had the Chinese seagoing and entrepreneurial traditions. Hence Chinese economy has boomed while Russia’s has stagnated.


changUSMontefiore is the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and Jung Chang and her husband, historian Jon Halliday, wrote Mao: The Unknown Story.

Yet More History …

History made an appearance at many other events at Hay. For example:

  • The history of drug prohibition
  • The four mutations of capitalism
  • The development of credit clubs in the nineteenth century
  • And the “historian of emotions”, Svetlana Alexievich

Some of these will be covered in later posts.


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