Interview: Hilary Lawson, Director of How the Light Gets In.

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Hilary Lawson is a philosopher, film-maker and video artist. After an early career in academia he founded the television production company TVF Media, one of the most successful and prolific independent producers of current affairs programmes of the later eighties and nineties. He was also editor of The World This Week. As director of The Institute of Ideas, Hilary founded and directs the philosophy festival based in Hay-on-Wye, How the Light Gets In, about to launch its fifth programme. Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond spoke to him as the run up to the festival gained pace.

Gary Raymond: There is an interesting trajectory to your career. You started out in philosophy and had an extremely successful period as a television producer and are now director of a festival of ideas in Hay-on-Wye. Can you tell me a little bit about how this all came about?

Hilary Lawson: At heart I’m a philosopher. I started out as one. I’ve done many other things along the way. One of the reasons why I didn’t remain in academia was because the approach I had to philosophy was, at the time, one that was somewhat different from the mainstream, and was somewhat critical of the way philosophy was at the time. That’s because it was stuck in philosophy which was rather old fashioned. Also it wasn’t what really mattered to me. I never really understood a situation where you would go along to a lecture or a seminar and have a conversation about the ideas and then you pack up and go home. It seemed to me that if the ideas were real and they really mattered you had to deal with them and come to some conclusions. After all, philosophy is trying to understand what life is about and that never occurred to me to be an academic subject, but seemed to be something that just mattered. And I found that the academic environment had a rather librarian quality which just logged people’s ideas and discussed them and was disengaged from the exercise to make sense of life and how to live it. That’s why I initially didn’t stay with academia.

What moved you into television?

I was interested in ideas. And at the time factual television was the primary means by which ideas were discussed in a public space. So I went to work in television as a documentary maker and was really a television journalist and developed the skills that went with that. I then became engaged in both the process of filmmaking – which is an extraordinary phenomenon where you create a narrative out of life – and in the editorial side of things I was involved in current affairs. The company that I founded was one of the largest suppliers of current affairs to British television for a whole chunk of time. I was driven by the ideas and the impact they have on the world, and television was the best space to look at them.

And you moved from there to found the Institute of Ideas.

What happened was that the ideas I had had as a young academic, as a postgraduate, became more fashionable. So I was asked to write some books, and I was able to maintain my philosophical interest by doing that. The Institute came about because it seemed the right time. It didn’t come about because there was any grand plan.

And how did you come to Hay?

I knew Hay because I originally went there to write. I was never able to write anything in London. I needed to be in a space that enabled me to think. So I found a place in the hills around Hay where I could cut myself off from the temptations of social life and actually think. So I initially came to Hay as a writer. And there was this opportunity to use a space which became available, so we gave it a go and held our first festival around this space. It was an unexpected development to do a philosophy festival because I thought people wouldn’t be interested in one. Then it occurred to me that might not be right, and that the reason people wouldn’t be interested is because of the way philosophy has portrayed itself.

Do you think the festival is affecting the way philosophy is viewed?

Before we began, the predominant impression of philosophy was the Monty Python football sketch. And that’s because philosophers are totally laughable. Why would you ask a philosopher anything as he can’t even manage to kick a football? And that was the perception of philosophy; that it was a pointless academic game that didn’t really have any bearing on anybody else and was not very interesting and you couldn’t follow it in the first place. But the initial idea was that we could return it to what it was meant to be.

We’re all philosophers and we’re all alive and we’re trying to work out what it is to be alive and it doesn’t matter who we are, everybody faces that problem and that question and they try and answer it in their own way and they struggle with it in their own way. Everyone is engaged in those questions and it’s a rather bizarre characteristic of British life that somehow talking about big ideas and philosophy is not done. It’s almost frowned upon. We’ll leave it to Parisian taxi drivers but it’s not something that’s done here.

It does seem to be something that happens on the edges of society here.

Exactly. It’s ridiculous. How can the things that are most important to us in life be the things that we don’t talk about? So I thought we could perhaps create an event where we do talk about things that matter, not just argue over the meanings of words. And not only do we talk about things that matter, but we’re also not engaged in trying to popularise issues – we don’t take what’s going on in the academy or a science lab and try and make it interesting to the public. That is not what we’re up to. What we’re up to is trying to have a real conversation about what is going on. What are the big ideas? What do we think about them? What might the next step be? And so if you come along to our debates you are eavesdropping on the real thing. You’re not getting a simplified version for the public consumption. And the only reason that doesn’t happen more often is that there’s this assumption that the real thing is terribly difficult to follow, which is not true. The only reason why it is often the case that things are difficult to follow is because people don’t have anything interesting to say in the first place. And they are trying to look intelligent. They’re more bothered about their status and appearance than they are about the ideas.

Something happened which solidified this idea in me. I went to a philosophy conference, about fifteen years ago,  it was at the ICA in London and I was a speaker. It was called ‘Dismantling Truth’, I think. I was standing at the back of the conference at one stage with an American philosopher named Richard Rorty, who is certainly among the four or five most important American philosophers of the twentieth century; a major major figure. We’d got to know each other quite well and we’re listening to someone deliver a lecture and I turn to Richard and I say to him, ‘I have to say that I didn’t understand any of that.’ And he turned to me in a slightly conspiratorial way and said, ‘You know, I didn’t understand any of it either.’ Meanwhile in the hall are people asking apparently erudite questions about the talk, which was obviously nonsensical, and everyone is listening to all this as if it’s real. And so we both, I think, understood what the situation was. And then Richard turned to me again and said, ‘You know, Hilary, I’ve been coming to these conferences for thirty years and I hardly ever understand the speakers.’ At that point I thought, this is crazy, the whole thing is the emperor’s new clothes and everybody is pretending to each other that there’s something going on here when frankly there isn’t. So what we’ve tried to do is cut through all that nonsense, and let’s just talk about the ideas and face them head on and we won’t get lost in the small technical points.

And we’re also trying to be at the edge. Where are we now? For example in the political arena we were having debates a few years ago about the growth and impact of China. At the time those discussions were quite original; now they’re taken for granted. The one that we’re doing this year is called ‘The Conflict to Come’ about whether the future conflict is not between the West and China or the West and Islam but is between China and India and the West will really just be an observer. So we’re always trying to be at the edge. What is the next thing?

It must be quite difficult to build a programme for the festival when everywhere you look you see people willing to attest to the emperor’s new clothes.  

I think many festivals are celebrity-driven. They take the current social milieu and they take people who are well known and they book them and they sit back and see what happens. We don’t do anything like that. We identify a theme for our year and we break it into different days and then tackle different aspects of that theme. We have a great editorial team at the Institute and we argue over what the themes might be. We’re looking, as I said, for things at the edge. In the process of that we talk to people in those fields. But we devise the structure, the topics and debates, and then we go and try and find for each of those debates the people who we think are saying the most interesting things. We’re looking for something fresh and new. Some of those people are well known but we’re not booking them because they’re well known. We’re booking them because we think they’re pushing the boundaries. I wouldn’t say everybody is pushing the boundary – we’ll need someone in the debate who is holding the conservative position. But they all have to be contributing in the most interesting way to that debate. So the festival has an editorial vision, if you like. So in that sense it’s closer to being a newspaper than a collection of celebrities.

Festivals are multiplying year on year, and I wonder if they are providing an area for debate that television once did and no longer does.

That’s interesting. We had a debate a few years ago, with Michael Eavis, who founded Glastonbury, which was about what’s going on with festivals. The debate was called ‘The Paradise Hunters’. Festivals do provide something we don’t find in life. And that is to do with escaping from a space where we’re constantly thinking about what we have to do tomorrow and what we have to do in a week’s time and how am I going to organise my life? All of that planning stuff which we are completely embedded in. A festival is something where we are just present and just being and we are listening to the music and the status of everyday life is thrown off and we can meet people and talk to them and just be alive in the present. I don’t think there’s enough of that in our lives.

But in terms of the ideas I think there is a very significant thing going on. A key part of the future is a combination of the live events that people take part in and the webcasts. The web and the broadcasting of the event enables you to engage with other people and have some feeling of community around the continuing presence online. TED in particular have shown there is an audience for that. Only a small number of people attend their conferences but an enormous number of people go to the TED website. We, in a sense, are doing the same sort of thing. Although we have one significant difference from TED in that we don’t just give people a platform, we provide these debates.

The whole way in which ideas are being disseminated through culture is shifting, so the role of television is decreasing in that. That’s self-evident, and it’s been the case since the rise of the internet. But it’s also about the academy and the university. Once upon a time ideas were spread through a university, but increasingly online learning and people like ourselves and TED will provide that sort of frame that is traditionally the area of the academy. It is being eroded. The academy itself is partly responsible for that. Universities are not as vibrant as they should be. Clearly much of the debate that we have should be happening in universities. A common experience is for speakers to come to us and they’re professors and they say, ‘I wish we could get these debates happening at my university.’ Why that isn’t the case is a complicated story.

So, yes, I think it’s part of a much bigger shift in the way ideas are communicated. If you go to our website for example, you’ll find world leading experts talking about their area, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people as knowledgeable and eloquent at your local university. And there is a huge demand for online courses. You don’t have to go to Harvard or Oxford anymore.

It’s the beginning of a permanent shift. Your festival is still young. But you have over 450 events this year.

It’s a remarkable phenomenon. I think we have more events than the book festival this year, actually.

So where do you see it going next? Can it physically get much bigger in the space it’s in? Do you see it expanding abroad like the literary festival has?

The primary vehicle for us in terms of growth is to do with IITV. We’ve had a million visitors this year and we’re growing about ten times annually. So that’s where our growth is. We may have events internationally, but it’s really about the broadcasting on the web. That is the centre. If we were to have events elsewhere, which I’m sure we will do, it will be about building the quality and the strength of our web presence.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis