Live Review: HowTheLightGetsIn Festival – Kenwood House, Hampstead London 01.10.2022 – 02.10.2022

Don Blandford

My pace quickens and acorns crunch underfoot. I’ve got the fear. Like the return of a recurring nightmare, I’m late for my lectures, again. October will always herald a new term, a new start and the anticipation of mind-expanding adventures – so welcome to the university of Hampstead aka HowTheLightGetsIn festival. My first lesson is: plan my travel better during a rail strike.

So what’s the big idea, huh? HTLGI is a festival full of ideas presented by The Institute of Art and Ideas – with the aim of promoting a vibrant, intellectual culture through debate, discussion and other cultured shenanigans including comedy and music.

Pay attention then, you might learn something.

I’m a fresher here and somewhat intimidated by the already full marquees housing debates with titles like ‘Beyond Experiment’ and ‘The Illusion Of Scientific Truth’. Imposter syndrome inevitably kicks in – ever the working-class curse, of course. The poshies are here in abundance, many armed with classy pens and notepads. I privately ponder, do they know the price of a loaf of bread?

I seek sanctuary in one of the music tents where a steady stream of singer-songwriters wearing their hearts on their sleeves bring plectrum perfection to the heath. Gigi Williamson’s silky smooth jazz-infused grooves project a lovely, chilled-out vibe – a perfect soundtrack for the bookworms hanging out at the shop area at the back of the tent. Vanity Fairy follows with her distinctive stage persona – floaty Kate Bush theatricals, 1920s garb and vocals reminiscent of the Gibb brothers with a dance pop backing track. Think early, but ethereal Madonna. A visual delight.

Suitably smooched, it’s time to brave a lecture. Just like in my university days I’m following no timetable so I dip in and out of the talks. There’s ‘Spiritual Awakening’ and chat about perceptual awareness – damn, I didn’t bring my pen and pad so I’ll need to borrow your notes later! Louise Perry is an interesting speaker. Reading extracts from her book ‘The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, Louise discusses how sexual freedom has damaged women – taking in abortion and the pill along the way, Louise is both engaging and very provocative. Meanwhile, failed Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and Labour rising star Thangam Debbonaire are debating ‘A Better Tomorrow’ with Canadian journalist Michael Bociurkiw. Reasons to be cheerful? Is your glass half full or half empty? Make mine an IPA please, barman.

Time for more music. A dreadlocked Christie Brotherton is missing her band and admits to being nervous performing solo before playing a gorgeous set punctuated by her broad smile and references to her friend Amy sitting in the audience. Back in the lecture hall, acclaimed neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow is blowing minds discussing ‘The Key To Consciousness’ – no drugs needed here, Hannah and the panel are messing with our heads enough! Talking of heads… some studious looking men are wearing flat caps here. No doubt readying themselves for the coming class war and already choosing which side they’re on…wanting to live like common people, doing what they think common people do…

I’ve enjoyed dipping into several debates throughout the day but that’s enough particle physics and cerebral sustenance, for now, thank you. As the Hampstead evening begins, I’m off to hear more music and [KSM] smooches, class. The highlight of the first night though is Torture And The Desert Spiders – aka Ana Kunz from New Jersey. Ana is a phenomenon nobody is likely to forget. A whirlwind with a glass of wine and a guitar. Ana issued a stream of unwittingly witty consciousness playing punked up folk with a fiery heart. She’s the real deal, no young pretender…even if she did at times bring to mind the sass of Chrissie Hynde. After this Amy Antrobus had a tough task but with her cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, she brings something so utterly breathtaking and beguiling. Incredible and just as unforgettable.

The Woodburner curated tent is the cosiest space. Effectively a yurt with rugs and cushions. No yaks though but I may have been scoffing my vegan burger as they were passing through. If Lea & The Sunflowers are representative of the performers in this space then I’ve neglected this intimate stage far too much. Lea is phenomenal! Her ‘Sunflowers’ are blooming marvellous too. A melting smile and all the grooviest Afro-jazz you could ever wish to hear. Go check them out sometime.

The autumn light has long since faded but it’s even darker at the other music tent where Rosie Alena adds some glamorous gloom to proceedings. Rosie confesses to having left her swish floaty dress at home but her poise and intensity seem other-worldly. A lost soul from a gritty 1960s B-movie.

Back at the bookshop tent Tadiwa Mahlunge is making a lot of respectable couples squirm in their seats as he tells his comic tales of sex toys at French customs and speaks of his hateful hedge fund job. Awkward.

With that, I’m off to Colditz, sorry, I mean my over-priced hotel for the night. The metropolitan elite walk home warmed by their intellectual vigour, carrying signed books in tote bags promoting their local hipster bookstore. I get the bus.

It’s Sunday and the rain that is forecast never falls. Sunny intervals with occasional brainstorms are expected. The curious queue up in line so they may learn to write their first novel courtesy of author and actor Sophie Ward. I head for the beautiful soulful sounds of and a chilled start to the day.

Back at the philosophy chat, the kindly grandfather figure by the lectern is a veteran biologist and computational physiologist Denis Noble. He’s discussing ‘Free Will Is Not An Illusion’ – my head is spaghetti now, thanks, Denis. Elsewhere the cultural impact of the Instagram generation is being indulged as the ‘Fantasy of Fame’ is debated. ‘The Wealth Paradox’ chat feels raw yet relevant in light of the class war policies being unleashed by the current batch of tired politicians – voted into position by the comfortably off gerontocracy pulling the party strings.

Mumble Tide – multi-instrumentalist duo Gina Leonard and Ryan Rogers – are the HTLGI version of Angus & Julia Stone mixed with the delicious urgency of Daughter. Just lovely. All weekend the music has been absorbing yet understated – nothing too showy, just artists loving their craft. Brother Castor epitomises this at the Woodburner stage with his Northumberland folk. The folkier vibe also permeates the other music stage where Ailsa Tully plays her dreamy songs, making it hard not to fall in love with her sound. Still, at the bookshop tent stage, Katie Mac tells tales of the Huyton life, her family humour and all the creative stuff she never got to do in lockdown because she fell pregnant. Interesting stories and she’s yet another artist with more talent than ego. Whoever curated this HTLGI stage deserves great praise.

“Net Zero” may be being ignored by Truss and her neo-liberal climate change denying masters but it still matters to people. Professor Lucelia Rodrigues continues to do amazing work helping cities move toward greater sustainability and resilience. Using her work with Nottingham as an example Lucelia gave a fascinating insight into ‘Cities of the Future’. Meanwhile, the octogenarian genius Denis Noble is back, this time with Gunes Taylor interviewing him for a celebration of his life and philosophy.

The eclectic selection at the Woodburner stage continues with Cameroon star Muntu Valdo playing songs from his latest album The One & The Many. His self-styled ‘Sawa blues’ is a fascinating and uplifting experience. Thoroughly positive throughout, Muntu brings his own life philosophy to the festival and gets smiles from everyone privileged to see him. His use of the pedal toward the end of the set creates many intertwining rhythms and harmonies and is simply awesome. A tough act to follow but Mama Sutra offer something equally formidable. Led by Sheena Ross (yes, her out of Ese & The Vooduu People) Mama Sutra are a giddy, head-spinning jazz-groove dance-fest of a band!

Dusk is moving ever closer. So too is the end of HowTheLightGetsIn. Still time for some comedy courtesy of stand-up Alexandra Haddow. Many at the festival will consider themselves to be enlightened souls. Alexandra is a very welcome iconoclast, poking fun at the highbrow. She reminds everyone that there’s life outside the ivory towers…and the yurts. She seems to be the only one bold (or aware) enough to poke fun at the elite. Some of those in flat caps seem a little uncomfortable. An interaction by Haddow with some therapists in the audience fell flat and at times it feels like I’m the only one belly laughing at her very funny set. Come the revolution, I know whom I want on my side.

Talking of breaking the cultural hegemony Gwenno is eager to start her soundcheck…if only old reactionary Peter Hitchens would stop his wittering in the neighbouring marquee. Gwenno is forbidden from sound checking until the nearby debate is over. She threatens to take her band and walk out – certainly not out of any arrogance but because she’s there to “play a gig” and with an early evening curfew beckoning any delay is likely to shorten her set. Bearing in mind there is a contingent of people only at the festival because of Gwenno it seems to be poor schedule management by the festival. Finally, Gwenno begins but sadly it is a truncated set…but what a performance! Gwenno gets everyone involved in what is literally a cheesy Cornish chorus on Eus Keus? from her 2018 Le Kov album. Her story about her mother’s recent involvement in an anti-monarchy protest was encouraging too. The Mercury Prize nominee’s sublime performance capped an enthralling weekend where women almost completely dominated the music stages. Rare at any festival.

Having experienced the delights of the Kite Festival during the summer I anticipated HTLGI would be a similar festival of ideas and cultural happenings. HowTheLightGetsIn is more compact and is altogether a more serious affair. Kite is the undergraduate summer school whilst HTLGI is more of a post-graduate bubble – an interactive think tank of a festival. The party may never have started but this is the lightbulb moment of the autumn. I get that thinking feeling…

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